Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748

According to French philosopher Henri Bergson, the basis of laughter is the mechanization of gesture, movement, or language; it results from a substitution of the artificial for the natural so that the actions, attitudes, or speech of humans take on some aspect of the mechanical. The moral function of comedy is to scorn by laughter the mechanical, which impedes freedom and evolution, and thus to laud the natural and flexible, which allow human beings to survive and improve. Laughter is itself an expression of the naturalness and freedom that comedy lauds.

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Despite its oversimplification, Bergson’s theory provides a perspective from which to view Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. In this novel, the characters are laughable and immoral to the extent that they resemble machines in their behavior and moral to the extent that they are or become natural. Laughter itself in the novel is the expression of naturalness, of feelings unfettered by social convention or individual pretension.

Welch and his son are major cases in point. Their speech, to which Amis devotes much care, and their gestures are mechanized by cliché and affectation. This point is developed through a controlling metaphor. The jerky movements of Welch’s car are compared implicitly and explicitly to Welch’s conversational habits. His passengers are in constant jeopardy because he confuses his driving with his talking and often lets the course of his conversation dictate the direction of his car. Amis exploits the analogy by describing Welch’s speech in terms stemming from automation and by making Welch’s driving and his car important to the plot. Bertrand’s speech is similarly automatic; it is a jibe at one of Bertrand’s speech mannerisms and not Jim’s refusal to stop seeing Christine that leads Bertrand to hit Jim. The same sclerosis of speech and manner is seen in varying degrees in Margaret, Johns (who continually informs on Jim), and Mrs. Welch; in each case, mannerism becomes automatic, to that extent risible, and, to Jim, dangerous.

Central to the novel is the irony that these automaton characters are all devoted in a mechanical way to theories that extol the natural and oppose what is modern, urban, and industrial. These worshipers of “integrated village-type community life,” homemade music, handicrafts, and other ostensibly “natural” ways are, in fact, inflexible, nonadaptive, and hence neither free nor natural. In this portrayal, Amis comments on a major trend of modern thought and art, the preference for the simplicities of a preindustrial past over the present. He makes Welch and his circle precise examples of what they supposedly detest above all else, mechanization, and locates what they value, freedom and naturalness, in the enemy camp. The strategy is effective, and it suggests that morality is a matter not of time and place but of humans, not of theory but of practice, and not of doctrine but of instinct.

Naturalness and freedom are problematic for Jim and Christine, but in a different way. Both of them—Jim in particular—expend considerable energy trying to live up to the Welches and what they represent. Their failure to do so, and the fact that they are naturally resistant to mechanization, is the source of both a different, unsatirical humor and their salvation. Jim wants to get away from Margaret and go to London. Instead, he tries to regulate his smoking, put on the face his superiors expect of him, talk as if he were a Cambridge don, and get along with Margaret; he tries but cannot, and his failures are magnificently funny. They lead to trouble, which leads him to discover what he really wants and therefore leads him away from the automatization. Special emphasis is placed on his speech, his face, and his laughter. In his Merrie Old England lecture, Jim begins by trying to assume the ideas and gestures that he thinks, correctly, Welch expects of him; these, however, detach themselves from him, and he ends the lecture speaking for himself.

A spectrum of characters inhabit the novel, arranged according to the degree to which they have become mechanized in speech, gesture, and attitude—and, perhaps more important, the degree to which the mechanization is separable from their existences as human beings. Welch has become a thing; his mechanized gestures have totally usurped his being. Jim Dixon is also mechanical at times and is trying hard to be more so, but his automatic gestures are merely encrustations, clearly separable from and finally the victims of his human self.

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