Sillitoe has long been considered a “proletarian novelist,” one primarily concerned with figures from the lower classes of society or those living on its fringes. The Lost Flying Boat fits that mold only partially. The major characters are out of the mainstream, and the action of the novel takes place far from the center of civilization. Nevertheless, the extraordinary setting does not disguise the universality of the plight in which these characters find themselves. Metaphysical questions enter into the discussions of even these hardboiled men of action; the novel is as much a part of the tradition of the novel of ideas as it is of the adventure-story genre to which its fast-paced plot connects it.
The novel also has distinct echoes of works within the great tradition of Western literature. One can find striking parallels between this story of men in pursuit of treasure and Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale”; in fact, the plot lines are remarkably similar. The journey to the Antarctic by a crew that had once won glory and that is reassembled for one last voyage recalls the story of Ulysses as told by Dante in The Divine Comedy (c. 1320): It is a voyage toward death. Finally, the two major characters, Adcock and Bennett, share many similarities with Herman Melville’s Ishmael and Captain Ahab from Moby Dick (1851). The final scene of the novel, when Adcock, the sole survivor of the expedition, is picked up by a passing ship, is only the most obvious of several points at which this novel and Melville’s classic seem akin. These references give Sillitoe’s work additional impact for the reader familiar with the literary tradition.