(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Like many of Henry Green’s novels, Living portrays British domestic life in terms of a class struggle: The “upstairs/downstairs” conflicts of Loving (1945) are broadened in Living and in Party Going (1939) to encompass a clash between workers and the aristocratic owners of a Birmingham machine works and iron foundry. Yet class conflict in Green’s novels is rarely presented in terms of actual battles, strikes, or violence; rather, he probes the psychological dimensions of this conflict through the subtle irony existing in a situation in which vast economic differences are countered by identical desires for love and survival. Green refuses either to romanticize the working class of Living or to condemn thoroughly Richard Dupret, the rich young man who takes on the management of the works after his father’s death. Instead, Green attacks false romanticism itself in Lily Gates’s failed elopement with the lackluster Bert Jones, in the dull Dupret’s facile attachment to an equally dull socialite, and in the hubris of owners and workers alike who trample over the lives of others in order to enhance their own positions. Above all, Living scrutinizes forms of ritual and imitation which condemn all to hollow, mundane lives redeemed sporadically, and never finally by occasional visions of flight and escape into nature (represented in the novel’s bird imagery). Like the island-bound inhabitants of James Joyce’s Dubliners (1914), the workers and owners of Living are trapped within “life,” which they struggle to endure and transcend.

In the conversations between bosses and workers which constitute much of the novel, the reader quickly learns that the world of the foundry is dichotomized between the very young and the very old, between those who have power over others and those who seek to gain such power. Mr. Bridges, the shop foreman, continually fears that, because of his age and slowness, he will be replaced; Joe Gates and Craigan are always on the defensive against younger men, such as Bert Jones, whose vague ambitions...

(The entire section is 863 words.)