Changing Places

by David Lodge

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In his satire about academic life, David Lodge makes a simple premise—two faculty members exchanging positions for a semester—the basis for his exploration of the basic differences between US and English academic culture and, more broadly, the societies at large. Because the living situations of the two men are temporary, Lodge offers a related, underlying theme: What constitutes home?

The novel is set in a tumultuous year, 1969, and the American half is set in San Francisco, then the epicenter of West Coast student anti-war activism. An additional theme, therefore, is the relationship between academic life and political commitments.

In addition, the professors get involved with each other’s spouses and partners, past or current, so another theme is the nature of 1960s romantic and sexual attachments.

The impact of one term's events have a greater impact than either man had foreseen: they do not merely change places, but the places change them. The American professor, Morris Zapp, is teaching at Rummidge University, located in a small English town. His experience with the student protests back home, where his campus was often an armed camp, make him valuable in helping to keep a peaceful dialogue going. Nevertheless, Zapp has not looked for political involvement while abroad and surprises even himself when he is called upon to act generously toward Mary. Part of the humor derives from Zapp's expertise in Jane Austen, as he is not a subtle or insightful person. Building a successful career for his scholarship on Austen's work, Zapp still aims to become truly famous in his own right. Having left his wife back home, he ends up having an affair with his counterpart's wife.

Philip Swallow arrives in California unprepared for the constant demonstrations and explosive atmosphere both on campus and in the city. His immersion in his new life occurs more quickly than Zapp's, as he is less obsessive about climbing the academic ladder. More of an innocent abroad, Swallow seems both eager to embrace the opportunity and accepting of the idea that his home will remain unchanged for his return. His first fling with Morris's daughter is not deliberate, as he does not know her identity in advance. But because of his modest expectations, he is more permanently altered than his counterpart as he becomes more deeply involved with Zapp's wife.

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