Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404

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Like many of the antiheroes of Alan Sillitoe’s early stories and novels, Tony is a young, working-class man who is alienated by the harsh conditions of his neighborhood and the false values of the world outside.

Social class is a key element in the story, as its title emphasizes. Had Doris been, for example, a banker’s daughter, she would have been beyond Tony’s reach and would not, in any case, have visited the fish-and-chip shop, a central feature of the British working-class lifestyle. Her father’s trade is also a working-class symbol; Tony can identify with and even envy a person who started out as a humble rag-and-bone man and grew prosperous on other people’s throwaways.

Although Tony has developed his own moral code in direct conflict with orthodox morality, he is not an outsider. References to a shared class attitude to private property run throughout the narrative, from the man at the beginning who had hoped to keep the borrowed suitcase, to the woman toward the end who, finding the stolen bank notes pushed through her mailbox, spends the money on pleasure (as Tony rejoices to discover later) and tells everyone that it came from a loving relative. Tony carries this attitude to its extended conclusion by destroying or giving away the consumer goods he steals.

At the time of his narrative, he has learned enough to be sharply critical of contemporary society—the inequalities, dishonesties, and obsession with possessions that he has observed. Unlike Sillitoe, however, he does not think in political terms. When he describes his vision of an ideal society and adds that he does not know what it would be called, Sillitoe is in effect inviting the reader to make a political judgment by recognizing a naïve version of socialism.

The story is both a criticism of contemporary society and a moving personal tragedy. The feeling that life could and should be different runs all through Tony’s account of himself and shapes his private dream of a wandering country life with Doris, with her crisp, cool looks, her yellow hair, and her liberated spirit. After her death, he recalls the moment when he switched out the lights in the shoe shop. “We both went into the dark,” he says, “and never came out.” The ultimate tragedy, in Sillitoe’s terms, is not that Doris died, but that Tony’s aspirations died with her.