Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4133
Like most novelists, Amis was interested above all in human nature, and for most of his life he trained both eye and ear upon the exploration of that subject in all of its fascinating dimensions. From that exploration a primary theme emerged, one to which Amis himself referred when writing about G. K. Chesterton, whom he greatly admired, and Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday (1908). In that book, Amis sensed “a feeling that the world we see and hear and touch is a flimsy veil that only just manages to cover up a deeper and far more awful reality.” It is a feeling that the reader encounters in Amis’s work as well, for the assumption underlying his novels is that people live in a broken world. The ever-increasing erosion of traditional values, the breakdown of communication everywhere, the seeming absence of any spiritual reality, the impossibility of the existence of any heroic figures—these are some of the painful conclusions following an imaginative investigation into the world as seen by Amis.
These bleak realities are not, of course, new to the evolution of the novel. What distinguishes Amis is that he communicates what could be an otherwise overwhelmingly black vision in such an engaging, entertaining, and readable way. His wit, his sense of style, his devotion to language and its revelation of character, the range of emotions that he elicits from his reader, and the richness of his invention all compel respect and critical attention.
Although at times his vision is bleak, his novels rarely make for bleak reading. For always, beneath the entertainment and eighteenth and nineteenth century fictional techniques for which he is known, there runs a consistent moral judgment that advocates the virtues of hard work, responsibility, decency, faith, and love—an enduring, if beleaguered, value system that defends the English language, traditions, customs, and freedoms against all of their assorted enemies.
The first public manifestation of his moral vision appears in Lucky Jim (1954). From that point, its development is clear and consistent. In his early novels—Lucky Jim, That Uncertain Feeling (1955), and I Like It Here (1958)—his fictional world is filled with verbal jokes, amusing or disturbing role playing, and outrageous incidents. Detached from political causes and the progress of their own lives, the protagonists of these stories are part rebels, part victims, part clowns who seek to compromise with or to escape from such facts of life as boredom, hypocrisy, and ignorance. Although each novel carries a serious moral interest, the mishaps encountered and sometimes caused by its unlikely heroes generate laughter instead of tears, because the reader is led to believe that through all of this chaos there is an ordering of events that will ultimately bring security and happiness.
Beginning with Take a Girl Like You (1960), however, Amis’s view of life grows increasingly pessimistic. Now the world is an opportunistic, self-centered one in which the heroine must fend for herself; life for this character is more serious, more precarious, and less jovial. In One Fat Englishman (1963), The Anti-Death League (1966), and I Want It Now (1968), life is often an absurd game in which the characters are suffering, often lonely individuals, with little chance for leading the good life, a life free from anxieties, guilts, and doubts.
In his next four novels, Amis’s characters live on a darkling plain in a nightmare world in which both young and old are victims of a predominating malevolent presence. The Green Man (1969), Girl, 20 (1971), The Riverside Villas Murder (1973), and Ending Up (1974) are exemplars of Amis’s increasing concern with the question of human depravity, the ambiguity of perfidy, and the existence of evil forces in a world that is driven supposedly by the forces of good.
The potency of evil, the destructiveness of guilt, the often uncertain quest for identity and peace of mind, the perils of old age—these are some of Amis’s central philosophical concerns in The Alteration (1976), Jake’s Thing (1978), and Russian Hide-and-Seek (1980). Amis once again finds a great many ways to convey the message that human beings suffer, life is difficult, and comic masks conceal great anguish. Only occasionally is this grim picture relieved by some sort of idealism, some unexpected attitude of unselfishness and tenderness. In these novels, the social fabric has given way completely, so that the old mores no longer apply and, indeed, have either been replaced by depraved ones or not replaced at all, leaving a moral vacuum.
Finally, in Stanley and the Women (1984), The Old Devils (1986), Difficulties with Girls (1988), and The Folks That Live on the Hill (1990), Amis moves away from the broad scope of a society plagued by trouble to examine instead the troubles plaguing one of that society’s most fundamental institutions: marriage. His characters are not going to regain the old sense of security that their lives once held, and Amis does not pretend that they will. What success they manage to attain is always partial. What, in the absence of an informing faith or an all-consuming family life, could provide purpose for living? More simply, how is one to be useful? This is the problem that haunts Amis’s characters, and it is a question, underlying all of his novels, that now comes to the forefront.
First published: 1954
Type of work: Novel
In this satire on life in an English provincial university, a young lecturer lives a highly comic secret life of protest against the hypocrisy and pseudointellectualism of certain members of the British establishment.
Lucky Jim belongs to the genre of fiction known as the picaresque novel—with its episodic lurchings, its opportunistic hero, and its emphasis on satirizing various English character types. Although resourceful, the picaro is by tradition simple, a naïf who reveals, by his simplicity, the tattered moral fabric of a society based on pretension. It is Amis’s great achievement in Lucky Jim that he has taken the ramshackle form of the traditional picaresque novel, centralized his moral theme (the firm value of being one’s own person), and added the conventional plot element of lovers separated by evil forces.
To develop his moral stance in Lucky Jim, Amis divides his characters into two easily recognizable groups: generally praiseworthy figures, the ones who gain the greatest share of the reader’s sympathy, and evil or at best worldly and corrupt characters who obstruct the fortunes of the good ones. Jim (the awkward outsider), Julius Gore-Urquhart (his benefactor or savior), and Christine Callaghan (the decent girl who accepts Jim despite his faults) are distinguished by moral honesty, personal sincerity, and a lack of pretense. Among the antagonists are Professor Welch (Jim’s principal tormentor), Bertrand Welch (the defeated boaster), and the neurotic Margaret Peel (the thwarted “witch”), all of whom disguise their motives and present a false appearance. Gore-Urquhart functions as a mediator between common sense (Jim) and excess (the Welches), providing the norm by which to judge other frequently unstable personalities.
As the protagonist, Jim Dixon’s character is established immediately with the description of his dual predicaments: He has a job that he does not want but for financial reasons is trying hard to keep, and he has become involved, without quite knowing why, with Margaret, a younger but better-established colleague. It becomes immediately apparent that academic life for Jim is little more than a running duel with his superior, a never-ending speculation as to whether he will be dropped at the term’s end or continued on probation for another year.
The picaresque novel is commonly a novel of quest, and Jim’s standby and salvation through his own journey is a strong sense of humor that enables him to make light of much very real distress and disaster. Although he hates the Welch family, he knows that deference to them is essential if he is to retain his job. In order to maintain self-respect, however, he resorts to a comic fantasy world in which he can express rage or loathing toward certain imbecilities of the social group that the Welch set represents. His rude faces and clever pranks serve a therapeutic function—a means by which Jim can express token resistance that will not seriously endanger his always-tenuous position.
Late in the novel, Jim is to deliver an important public lecture at the college honoring Welch. Once again, Jim is underwhelmed by the absurdity of the situation. He gets drunk, perfectly parodies Welch’s mannerisms to the glee of some onlookers and the dismay of others, and passes out in front of the whole assemblage. The lecture could have been Jim’s ticket to a secure future. Instead, it is somewhat less than Jim’s shining hour.
Yet just when it seems that Jim’s career is at its nadir, his horizons expand. He is offered a job as secretary to Christine’s uncle, Julius Gore-Urquhart, a wealthy patron of the arts. When Christine breaks off with Bertrand, she and Jim are free to begin a new romance with the magical attractions of London before them. In the end, the novel affirms the importance of common decency over pretension, of honesty over duplicity, of good intentions over bad. Jim makes his own luck, it seems, through kindness, decency, and good humor in the face of great distress.
The imaginative core of the novel, then, is not the fact that Jim rebels or that he wins, but in the way that he rebels and wins. The ending is a satisfying conclusion to all the comic injustices that have occurred earlier. This happy ending is not contrived; it comes about naturally and can be explained in part as a convention of the novel, in part as the protagonist’s wish-fulfillment, in part as his final nose-thumbing at the spiteful and malicious people whom Amis brings to life. The ending is based on the affirmation of a moral order, and as such it is both acceptable and laudable.
The Green Man
First published: 1969
Type of work: Novel
A seduction, an orgy, a homosexual parson, two exorcisms, and a monster are features of this powerful and moving parable of the limitations and dismay inherent in the human condition.
The Green Man is a medieval coaching inn at Fareham, Hertfordshire, and fifty-three-year-old Maurice Allington is its landlord. Plagued by anxiety, fears, depression, discontent, and an inner emptiness, Maurice seeks peace of mind under conditions that militate against it. His principal reaction to this unhappiness is to immerse himself in the mundane activities of life. There, the reader meets Maurice as a man on the run—from himself. Drink, women, and the tedious minutiae of the innkeeping business offer more satisfying—if only temporary—escapes. Add to this disquiet and revulsion the ever-growing urge toward self-destruction, and there begins to be felt in this novel a truly contemporary pulsebeat. Like the typical protagonist in the works of Albert Camus, Maurice emerges most convincingly as a complicated, self-divided, haunted man in a world that does not make sense.
Unlike Jim Dixon, Allington is given the unique opportunity to make sense of the world through supernatural intervention. The Green Man has its own special ghost, the wicked Dr. Thomas Underhill, who used his knowledge of the black arts for various evil deeds, including the conjuring of a powerful monster, the novel’s other “green man,” a creature of branches and twigs and leaves capable of rending an ordinary man. Underhill’s final triumph is to reveal his power beyond the grave in pursuit of Maurice and his daughter.
While other characters cannot believe in the ghost, the intensity of Maurice’s belief invites the reader to suspend that disbelief. Amis eases his readers into an acceptance of the supernatural by means of a variety of elements: the common sense and worldly character of the narrator, the characterization of the guests, the skillful use of incidental details to create the air of reality. People eat, drink, argue, reconcile, read, share, and make love with little or no expectation that anything out of the ordinary will (or can) happen.
As the tension grows, so does Maurice; he passes through various stages of awakening to the truth of himself and another world. Underhill, as a doppelgänger, is evidence that evil is a real and active presence in the world and not just a concoction of the mind. His ghost is also a means by which Amis can credibly account for the forces that seek Maurice’s destruction—all that afflicts, mystifies, and weighs on him.
The discovery of Underhill’s power brings Maurice to a deeper consideration of the question of survival after death and prepares him for a conversation with still another supernatural agent, of quite a different kind from Underhill. Amis personifies God as a character in his own right, in the guise of a young man who expresses puzzlement and a certain degree of helplessness over the events unfolding in the world of his creation. Maurice’s transformation from an alienated man to an unwitting hero who chooses to take on the responsibilities of an absentee God forms the dramatic core of the novel.
In his pursuit and eventual destruction of Underhill and the monster, Maurice gains self-knowledge. He begins to realize that his “affinity” to Underhill has taken many guises. Maurice has reduced people to mere objects, beings manipulated and controlled by a more powerful master, just as Underhill controlled his monster. For Underhill, further, sex and aggression and striving for immortality are all bound up together; it becomes clear, as Maurice struggles with the evil spirit, that the same holds true for him.
When the terrifying battle is finally over and the selfish Maurice has been softened by the closeness of disaster, he recognizes and responds for the first time to the love of his daughter, who agrees to look after him. Thus, the book is about moral education. Although the haunting was a terrifying experience, for Maurice it was also a rewarding one, for he has changed; he wants hereafter to be kind, not because social mores (in the shape of family and friends) tell him to do so, but because he has learned from facing his own potential for wickedness how destructive evil can be in any form. In exorcising Underhill and the monster, he has also exorcised the evil potential in his own character. The experience has ennobled him. He accepts the limitations of life and, most important, comes to an appreciation of what death has to offer—a permanent escape from himself.
First published: 1978
Type of work: Novel
Jake Richardson holds a grudge against the world, a world of change and instability that is reflected on a personal level in his impotence.
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.
The Old Devils
First published: 1986
Type of work: Novel
Through a microcosm of failed human relationships, Amis depicts the culmination of the decay of contemporary life.
The Old Devils tells of Alun Weaver, who has chosen to retire from his successful television career in London as a kind of “professional Welshman” and third-rate poet and return after thirty years with his beautiful wife, Rhiannon, to South Wales. The novel explores over a span of a few months the effect of this return on their circle of old friends from university days.
The old devils—a group of Welsh married couples all in their sixties and seventies—are retired. They do little else than reminisce about lost opportunities and a grander Wales and grumble about slipping dentures, dietary restrictions, and dwindling physical energies while drinking steadily, ignoring the large role alcohol has played in the mental, physical, and spiritual decay about which they complain. The men, however, are not alone in their reverence for the bottle. At the same time, their spouses gather elsewhere, ostensibly to drink coffee but more often to consume bottle after bottle of wine, to chain-smoke, and to pursue conversations about their marriages, sex, and assorted other topics in an atmosphere reeking of alcohol fumes and stale cigarettes.
The physical ill health these cronies worry about extends to the spiritual health of their marriages. With one major exception, the women in this novel are not only plain, hard, sharp, critical, or cross but also lack any reasonable relationships with their husbands that would make significant communication possible. Only Alun and Rhiannon, married for thirty-four years, seem still to have an appetite for life and love as well as drink, and most of their misunderstandings lead only to teasing, not to disaster. Yet their arrival arouses conflict among their old friends.
The conflict comes in part because their return revives memories of various youthful liaisons and indiscretions, and also because the egotistical Alun immediately sets out to re-woo the three women with whom he had affairs in the old days. Alun plays at adultery as if it were an idle pastime: His casual tone, however, is a poor disguise for the emptiness and pain felt by his objects of attention, or by his wife, Rhiannon, who tolerates his philandering, or by the husbands, who either suspect it or know of it yet are resigned to doing nothing about it. Near the end of the story, Alun chokes on his whiskey and water and falls forward, dead of a stroke. Given his reputation, it is not surprising to find that there is no sadness over his death—only surprise, and a thought or two that are quickly brushed aside by the others as a minor inconvenience.
The Old Devils is about more than an aging present; it is also very much about the past and its impingements upon everyone. Many of the characters in The Old Devils are carrying scars from bitterness and regret because of something that happened in their lives long ago, something they hide carefully from the world but on which their conscious attention is fixed. Past choices weigh heavily on all of them. These old devils are bedeviled by worries and fears of all kinds that deepen their uncertainty about life and increase their preoccupation with the past. Indeed, Amis points out that one of the reasons old people make so many journeys into the past is to satisfy themselves that it is still there. Yet when that, too, is gone, what is left? In this novel, what remains is only the sense of lost happiness not to be regained, only the awareness of the failure of love, only the present and its temporary consolations of drink, companionship, music, and any other diversions that might arise, only a blind groping toward some insubstantial future. Neither human nor spiritual comfort bolsters the sagging lives and flagging souls of the characters.
As in earlier novels, Amis finds in the everyday concerns of his ordinary folk a larger symbolic meaning, which carries beyond the characters to indict a whole country. In this story, unemployment is high, people lead purposeless lives, and the culture is dying. Buses are always late. Businesses suffer from staff shortages. There is an obvious absence of trade and enterprise, mines are closed, docks are dead. A local chapel has been deconsecrated and turned into an arts center; another has been converted into a two-screen pornographic theater, two extremes that underline the uselessness of the spiritual and its transformation from the divine into the mundane. Thus, the novel examines an often debilitating process of moral and spiritual decay, a lessening of these people as human beings as life goes on and how their hopes have dimmed along with their physical and mental powers.