Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

As in most of Alan Sillitoe’s novels, there is little surface discourse in The Widower’s Son. The underlying themes must be prized out of the characters and their behavior, though the book’s three-part structure and epilogue do help bring them into focus.

The two short parts, outlining Charlie’s history, and William’s training, early sexual encounters, and baptism of fire, establish the falsity of the foundations on which William’s marriage, the central core of the book, is built and on which it founders. The final two pages not only provide a resolution of William’s problems but also invite the reader to look back on what has gone before with fresh insight. People, Sillitoe implies, can only live full and rewarding lives if they are true to themselves and in charge of their own destinies.

Within this broad generalization, he explores the class structure of British society, and by making interesting crossovers between civilian social class and military rank and between peacetime and wartime attitudes, he shows how these factors determine the way people live and the quality of the relationships they can forge.

The symbolism of the army is complex. On the one hand, it represents an extreme example of the process of dehumanization, a process vital to the task of winning wars but disastrous to the more delicate business of building up personal relationships. On the other hand, it serves as a protective shield, a refuge from the cares and emotional tensions of private life.

Sillitoe, however, is not attacking the army itself. His descriptions of military training, attitudes and life-styles, carefully researched and authentic in detail, are presented with an affectionate admiration which complicates the internal flow of ideas.