Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 739
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.
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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.