Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1561
Alan Sillitoe made his mark on the literary establishment with the publication of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959). In these early works, the author’s style is taut and lean; the stories amply display what Henry James calls solidity of specification, for...
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Alan Sillitoe made his mark on the literary establishment with the publication of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959). In these early works, the author’s style is taut and lean; the stories amply display what Henry James calls solidity of specification, for Sillitoe’s representations of life in a working-class district of Nottingham are concretely realized and densely textured. His ear for speech is unerring, and he adroitly captures the quotidian rhythms of his native idiom. These works have a raw anger that is barely kept under aesthetic control, and Sillitoe gives his robustly anarchistic view of society memorable spokesmen: Arthur Seaton, the working-class hero of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning whose rebellious temperament, sensuous vitality, and intellectual cunning allow him to define himself uniquely against the ubiquity of the “they” who have power and to beat the system to the degree that it is beatable; and the delinquent Smith, a long-distance runner in the eponymous short story, a rebel who refuses to play the game, to win the race for the governor of the prison. The verbal energy and brute realism of these early works are, paradoxically, the vintage Sillitoe. The writings of the so-called angry young men seem pallid in comparison. Thus, if one has only intermittently kept track of what Sillitoe has been doing for the last twenty years, Her Victory will come as a surprise.
It is hard to imagine a slower-moving novel. The reader is subjected to nearly six hundred pages of laborious, stilted, and repetitive prose. At points, Sillitoe is overly solemn, puritanical, and pontifical. The two most important characters in Her Victory, Pam and Tom, attitudinize philosophically and speculate endlessly, especially Tom. Moreover, the ideological posturing of the narrative as a whole is predictable. The causes of feminism, lesbianism, and Zionism are blandly espoused without any attempt to consider the complexities of the issues involved; hence, the implied liberalism seems facile. Sillitoe’s early work expresses a healthy skepticism toward all ideological posturing. This is not the case in Her Victory. What weakens the book is not the inclusion of ideological sentiments and philosophical observations but the spurious rhetoric and self-indulgence which attend them. As D. H. Lawrence points out in his “Study of Thomas Hardy” found in Phoenix: Posthumous Papers (1936), “it is the novelists and dramatists who have the hardest task in reconciling their metaphysic, their theory of being and knowing, with their living sense of being.” Her Victory has much discussion about being and knowing but rarely evokes any living sense of being. As Lawrence notes in the same study, “every work of art adheres to some system of morality. But if it really be a work of art, it must contain the essential criticism on the morality to which it adheres.” Her Victory is devoid of this essential criticism; it takes itself very seriously.
If the ideological posturing of the narrative is predictable, the plot development is even more so. The “significant” and “unexpected” climax of the book, as advertised by the dust jacket, is neither significant nor unexpected. Once the reader discovers halfway through the novel that Tom is Jewish, his eventual voyage to Israel is inevitable. The idea of redemption through Israel is hardly “unexpected.” Sillitoe establishes early in the novel that Tom is a rootless wanderer in search of an identity. He has clumsily planted incongruous references to Judaism—in part 1, a long quotation from the book of Isaiah (part of a sermon which Pam just happens to hear) and, in part 3, the unusual beliefs of a wireless operator on Tom’s ship, who subscribes to the view that the British people are one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. These and other references cannot help but strike the reader as “significant” since they are otherwise unmotivated.
The thematic content of the novel falls somewhere between Ayn Rand’s “virtue of selfishness” and D. H. Lawrence’s “star-equilibrium.” The narrative unfolds a dialectic of self and other, identity and communion, loneliness and dependence, free will and determinism. In order to achieve victory over the present, the characters must absorb and transcend the past, conquering the forces of environment and heredity that have determined and shaped their present state of inanition. They must become victors of consciousness rather than the victims of circumstance. The first step is to become self-determining rather than other-determined. This is the virtue of selfishness. Only with a solid sense of one’s own identity can one develop a significant relationship with another, a relationship that depends on neither dominance nor dependence and that does not consume the individuality of either participant. This is Lawrence’s “star-equilibrium,” “an equilibrium, a pure balance of two single beings, as the stars balance each other,” “a mutual unison in separateness.” The essential movement of the novel, as typified by the development of Pam (whose victory is designated by the title), is from dependence to loneliness to love, though it is a love that preserves the integrity and independence of each consciousness. Pam and Tom progress toward this desideratum; they do not entirely achieve it. The novel is in some measure open-ended. Though it is almost a certainty that she and their child will join him in Israel—it is even suggested that Judy (their mutual lover) and her two children will later emigrate—the idea of redemption through Israel is strategically ambiguous. As in Lawrence’s works, the nuclear family does not suffice; what does suffice is not altogether clear. The important point is that the characters have seized control of their destinies and thus possess the existential potential to move toward a better life. This is their victory.
In the first part of the novel, Pam’s quest for liberation begins when she breaks away from a loveless and stultifying marriage, fleeing from Nottingham to London in order to discover her own clean, well-lighted place and to cultivate a sense of her own identity. The naturalistic premises are laid out explicitly. The narrative moves back and forth through time present and time past, the retrospective technique giving the reader a detailed account of her marriage to a brutal and insensitive husband. In accordance with the conventions of naturalism—the idea that human motivation and behavior are determined by heredity and environment—the fact that neither is to blame for the unhappy marriage is constantly reiterated. Nevertheless, Her Victory is not a naturalistic novel. Pam must understand the determining factors in order to transcend them. Her taking a room in London is the first step. In the building, she meets Judy, a single parent with two children, feminist attitudes, and Lesbian predilections. Moreover, it turns out that Tom also has a room in the building, though he is presently away.
The second part of the novel chronicles the history of Tom, a merchant navy officer who had been reared in a Christian orphanage and whose only remaining familial connection is his dead mother’s spinster sister, Clara. Despite his dedication to work, duty, responsibility, and survival, Tom is essentially purposeless, a rootless, middle-aged wanderer without a cause. The death of Aunt Clara propels the narrative back into time present. She bequeaths to him her Brighton home, rendering him financially secure for life. In these quasi-Laurentian novels of self-discovery and intimate contact, chararacters cannot be saddled with the responsibilities of having to work for a living. When Tom returns to London to pack his belongings, he rescues Pam from her attempted suicide. Eventually, she goes to Brighton with him.
The fourth part devotes itself to the exhumation of Tom’s family history, heretofore unknown to him. Sifting through Aunt Clara’s papers, Pam and Tom discover that his mother was Jewish. Lack of identity is transformed into a sense of roots, and he proudly wears the Star of David heirloom they uncover and decides to learn Hebrew. That a fifty-year-old man should instantly become a Zionist may strike some readers as improbable.
The ménage-à-trois becomes stabilized in the fifth part. Pam and Tom have become intimately involved, and Judy and her two children are now living with them. Pam and Judy become lovers, and Tom and Judy also encounter each other occasionally. The relationship between Pam and Tom, however, is far from being perfect: she must constantly reaffirm her separate identity; he still feels a lack of purpose in his life.
In the sixth part, Pam and Tom cut themselves adrift from domesticity and journey to the Continent, planning to wander until they find the place that announces itself as home. Pam’s pregnancy and a car crash terminate their wanderings, necessitating a return to Brighton, where Judy and her children are still ensconced. A healthy baby is born, Tom finds his purpose by going to Israel, and Pam and the child are to join him in the near future.
Her Victory is the kind of novel that a brief discussion necessarily trivializes, for the gradual evolution of the characters and the changing texture of their relationships are the salient concern of the book; this the reader must himself experience. The process is thus more important than the product, and Sillitoe’s solemn sense of moral purpose compels, at great length, grudging assent. The assent is grudging because the process is laborious and parts of the novel are almost unreadable.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 43
Library Journal. CVII, October 15, 1982, p. 2005.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 21, 1982, p. 6.
New Statesman. CIV, October 1, 1982, p. 27.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, December 12, 1982, p. 15.
Observer. September 26, 1982, p. 34.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, August 27, 1982, p. 346.
Spectator. CCXLIX, November 6, 1982, p. 29.
Times Literary Supplement. October 15, 1982, p. 1122.