(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Jill is a novel of education, the familiar tale of a young man’s entrance into the world. The main character, John Kemp, is young, inexperienced, and working-class, the exact opposite of the stereotypical Oxford student. The novel begins with John setting out for the uncertain world of Oxford in the war year of 1940. He immediately displays his immaturity when he throws away his sandwiches because he does not wish the others on the train to see him eating; soon afterward, he sees the others break out their lunches, so he is forced to suffer hunger as well as embarrassment.

When John arrives at Oxford, he finds that he is sharing a room with someone who is as unlike him as possible: Christopher Warner is middleclass, public-school, and supremely confident and sophisticated. Christopher is hosting a tea party using John’s china when John arrives. Christopher is not interested in obeying the rules or conventions; he seems, instead, confident of his place in the world. He is not, however, the guide for whom John is searching to initiate him into the world; rather, Christopher ignores John, and John is tormented by the difference between his world and Christopher’s. John cannot be like Christopher, but he cannot deny his attraction to his world.

John’s early weeks at Oxford are spent reading and outlining books in the way his teacher at Huddlesford had taught him. He is lonely and isolated; his only acquaintance is a young man who is from the same class and background: Whitbread, a Yorkshireman. Whitbread is interested in doing the right thing, in getting on in the world rather than fitting in with a sophisticated set such as that of Christopher Warner. Whitbread is an amusing character; he speaks in cliches and is fiercely dedicated to his own self-interest. John is not willing to enter Whitbread’s world, and he cannot penetrate Christopher’s.

One day, John overhears Christopher describing him as a “scared stuffed little rabbit,” and all of his hopes of becoming a part of Christopher’s world are dashed. In the midst of his anger and shame, John devises a way to counter Christopher’s attitude of superiority by inventing a sister at a public school, Jill. John leaves the letters he has written in Jill’s name around the room for Christopher, and he now has a topic for conversation with him. John’s stratagem does produce a change in...

(The entire section is 977 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Martin, Bruce K. Philip Larkin, 1978.

Motion, Andrew. Philip Larkin, 1982.

Petch, Simon. The Art of Philip Larkin, 1982.

Timms, David. Philip Larkin, 1973.