Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 880
In Jake’s Thing , much more is going on with Jake Richardson than his loss of sexual control; the society in which he lives, the London and the Oxford of 1978, has also moved, subtly but surely, out of his range of understanding and/or desire, and Jake has responded by...
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- Critical Essays
In Jake’s Thing, much more is going on with Jake Richardson than his loss of sexual control; the society in which he lives, the London and the Oxford of 1978, has also moved, subtly but surely, out of his range of understanding and/or desire, and Jake has responded by becoming bitter and cynical. A fifty-nine-year-old Oxford don, neither his career nor his other activities stimulate much interest in him, so that his desires—social, professional, emotional—have become as stultified as his sexual ones. Perhaps it is not coincidental that Jake’s impotence comes at a time when Comyas College is debating the question of admitting women to its hallowed, previously all-male-inhabited halls. Jake, who is fighting for his psychic life on several fronts, inadvertently exposes his deep hostility to the project during a college meeting, where his colleagues had expected him to “speak for the ladies.” At the end of his travail, and after nearly three hundred pages of unrelenting exposure to the incompetence and stupidity of professional therapists and the institutions that sustain them, Jake’s desire for sex is gone, his dislike for women has intensified, and he decides that he would just as soon remain impotent.
Like Jim Dixon, Jake Richardson is an academic misfit who likes to drink, has a keen eye for hypocrites and phoneys, writes articles that bore even himself, copes with ferocious inner monologues on his own prejudices and irrational likes and dislikes, has a rollicking sense of fun, plays practical jokes, enjoys puns and wordplay, and talks to himself in voices that parody types whom he has encountered in books, television, films, the army, and the academy. Like Jim, he suffers from the undesired attentions of a neurotic woman who stages a fake suicide attempt. Both characters manage to reconcile inner thoughts and outer statements in a public denunciation of a cause, delivered while they are drunk.
Many of the comic set pieces in Jake’s Thing are reminiscent of some of the classic scenes in Lucky Jim, in that they serve to set the protagonist’s role as an outsider to the contemporary world. That alienation often serves to parody the protagonist himself. Like Jim Dixon, Jake is caught in a snare of his own devising; his readiness to do battle with his foes and his gift for running into squabbles, fights, and embarrassments increases the chaos in a life that is already frustratingly out of control. Those frustrations are many, as they were for Jim, and signify the social and cultural impotence that Jake feels. The world around him is no longer to his liking, and everyday incidents painfully amplify that effect. Jake is no longer at home on his own turf, and that sense of foreignness compels him to withdraw further and further from the contemporary world. Jim’s problems with his department chairman, with some of his students, and with a potential publisher for his essay on shipbuilding techniques are, of course, similar sources of frustration and outward signs that he is a man out of sync, immersed in the wrong culture for his personality.
In spite of the resemblances between the two novels, however, there is in fact a great conceptual jump from one to the other. Suffering from a general weariness, of which his loss of libido is but one indication, Jake has definite feelings about the modern world: He does not like it. There is no equivocation, no attempt to be “fair,” to look at things from other angles as Jim was inclined to do. The world is going from bad to worse, changes that infuriate and baffle Jake. Included on his list of personal dislikes are airplanes, American tourists, psychologists, the working class, the young, strangers, sloppy language, wealthy Arabs, cocky youngsters, advertisements, telephones, architecture, cuisine—in other words, all facets of present-day England. Above all, he discovers that he despises women. His only real pleasure is in finding his expectations of dirt, decay, inefficiency, and boring and stupid behavior fulfilled. Amis’s use of Jake’s seething narration, his scathing internal commentary, and his sometimes vicious dialogue are instrumental in creating the universe of misogyny, prejudice, and dissatisfaction.
While Lucky Jim ends with a triumphant revelation to Jim of a new life, a new world, Jake’s Thing ends with a closing down, a spurning of the world for which Jake feels at best indifferent—a retreat into TV dinners and TV films. By the end of the novel, Jake has arrived at a stage of rejecting everything. Evidence points to a deepening misanthropy in Jake as he agonizes over his spiritual isolation, vainly attempts to recover his interest in sex, and learns to come to terms with impotence and acedia, the deathlike condition of not caring. In the end, readers see in Jake a gesture of impotence, puzzlement, anger, and eventual retreat from the contemporary world. All of this gives the novel an overall mood of defeat and confusion far removed from the light comedy so much in evidence in Lucky Jim. Amis has come from the notion that one can choose to be happy (as in Lucky Jim) to the statement that there is no happiness possible in this world and one must accept powerlessness as a natural state.