Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 863
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 are undermined by a lack of effort. The workers not only squabble among themselves (to the extent of endangering one another’s lives when, for example, a crane operator “accidentally” drops a spanner nearly onto the head of an enemy) but also engage in conflicts many of them petty with each level of management above them. Thus, the factory workers contest with the foremen, the foremen with the shop managers, and the shop managers with the architects and draftsmen. None of these conflicts is resolved in the novel: The old die, the young go on as before or move on to other factories, and in what seems to be a fatalistic vision, nothing changes. Yet Green’s fatalism is matched by the irony and humor he perceives in situations such as when upper management has decreed that a guard be placed before the door of the factory lavatory so that workers will not loiter. The furor and gossip caused by this small event reflect Green’s satiric commentary upon ritual and order within both the microcosm of the factory and a larger world which would fail to see that the insignificance of the lavatory episode parallels that of events usually assumed to have a more cosmic importance.
Without overt commentary or heavy plotting, Green creates in Living intricate parallels between the working world of the factory and the domestic lives of the workers and the owners. In the Craigan household, there is a power struggle over the future of Lily Gates, Craigan’s granddaughter. Craigan rules the roost and acts as Lily’s father, even though her real father lives in the same house: Joe Gates’s sporadic attempts to assert authority over Lily rarely succeed. As the novel opens, Craigan seems pleased that Lily is attracted to his boarder, Jim Dale, since a marriage between them would ensure, in Craigan’s mind, Lily’s continued maintenance of the house and Dale’s continued financial contribution to Craigan’s imminent retirement. Yet Lily soon tires of Dale’s passive advances and forms an intimate relationship with Bert Jones. The low-key rivalry between Dale and Jones, and the topic of “what to do with Lily,” become the chief concerns of the Craigan household. Lily’s aborted elopement with Jones to Canada precipitates a crisis which threatens to undermine thoroughly the domestic institution as Joe Gates is thrown in jail for swearing and Dale leaves in a fit of jealousy; Craigan, who has lain sick in bed for a long period, is forced to care for himself and for Lily, who returns emotionally distraught after Jones’s cowardly departure from her in Liverpool. As men struggle for power and position in the factory in order to survive fluctuations in the economy and personal aggressions, so they struggle for possession of Lily, who becomes the sign or guarantee of continued order and existence. These attempts to acquire her strength and energy are parodied by Richard Dupret’s halfhearted courtship of the shallow-minded Miss Glossop: In both cases, the biological fight for survival is disguised by a succession of social and domestic rituals whose disruption, like a threatened strike at the factory, could portend extinction.
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