Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1401
In the opening lines of The Right to an Answer, the expatriate narrator and protagonist, J. W. Denham, reveals his purpose: “I want to clarify in my own mind the nature of the mess that so many people seem to be in nowadays.” The mess to which he refers is both “social and moral.” For Denham, life in postwar England revolves around the television and the pub, with the most common activities being drinking and adultery. The irony is that he sees this mess only once every two years (for approximately six weeks), when he returns from his post in a Tokyo-based trading company and his Japanese mistress. Confronted with the very issues he criticizes, he is unable to act.
This particular homecoming introduces Denham to his widowed father’s friends at the local pub, the Black Swan, whose philosopher-owner, Ted Arden, is a descendent of William Shakespeare’s wife. There Denham meets Walter Winter, whom he silently renames Winterbottom, and watches with him as Winter’s wife, Alice, comes in with two men and another woman. Denham, who deduces that this foursome is an adulterous one, sees this situation as one of the primary problems of postwar England and both pities and despises Winter for being a part of it. Later that same evening, as he sits and drinks with Ted and the pub’s employees (Selwyn, a prophetic imbecile, and Cedric, the barboy), Winter enters and they all get drunk and argue about religion, politics, and sex. Denham speaks loudly and righteously about morality, or the lack of it, and claims that no one takes commitments or responsibilities seriously anymore. At this point, he reluctantly befriends Winter and insists on catching his wife “in the act” in order to “cast the first stone.” He drags Winter out into the street, stands below what he thinks is Winter’s bedroom window, and drunkenly shouts: “Adulteress. Adulterer.” Winter tells him that he is at the wrong house and disappears into the night, leaving Denham stumbling down the dark street.
The next day, with a hangover and a faulty memory, Denham meets Everett, a poet who needs a financial sponsor for his literary magazine, Hermes. In addition to the money, Everett wants to write an article about Denham: “the returned exile and how he sees philistine England.” A few days later, they meet at a private club, the Hippogriff, and there Denham meets Imogen, Everett’s brash daughter, who has just left her husband. She wastes no time in insulting Denham for his money, his life-style, and his boredom. At this point, before he can pursue any relationship with Imogen, Winter, or Everett, Denham is unexpectedly called away on business and sent to Ceylon to train a new salesman.
While waiting to leave for Ceylon, Denham spends a few days in London. One night, he picks up a girl on the street. They go to a hotel; she asks for five pounds, and then excuses herself and goes into the bathroom. Denham undresses and waits, but she never returns. Realizing that she has left through an adjoining room, he gets dressed and leaves. A few days later, in Ceylon, he meets a stranger, “a sort of racketeer, lonely, sentimental, highly moral.” Denham tells him about his experience with the prostitute in London, and the man, Len, claims that he and his cohorts believe that in order to stop that sort of thing, one should punish the girl with a “good beating up.” Denham accuses the man of playing God, and they part company.
Denham next meets Mr. Raj, a Ceylonese of “some education” who is on his way to England (to the very suburb, in fact, where Denham’s father lives) to work on his postgraduate thesis, entitled “Popular Conceptions of Racial Differentiation.” It soon becomes clear that Raj has arranged the “coincidental” meeting and is determined to make Denham his sponsor in order to gain access to English society. As in all of Denham’s encounters thus far, he is unwilling to take a stand and, therefore, ironically becomes involved. Raj not only accompanies Denham back to London but also literally winds up on his father’s doorstep and becomes a regular at both the Black Swan and the Hippogriff, using Denham as a reference.
On Denham’s return to England, he again spends a few days in London and receives a letter from Winter, who has quit his job, left his wife, and is living in a rather shabby flat in London with Imogen Everett. He meets with them and learns that they need money so that Winter can go into business. Imogen offers to be Denham’s mistress in return for the loan. He refuses her offer, lectures her on her lack of “moral position,” lends them the money, and leaves.
Returning to his father’s house, he learns that Raj has made himself quite well-known among the drinkers and adulterers, including Alice Winter, who tells Denham to mind his own business when she detects the criticism in his comments regarding her and Winter’s situation. In the meantime, Raj, failing to rent an empty room from Alice but eventually hoping to “learn precisely of the general attitudes of white women to men of different colour,” begins living with Denham and his father. A series of humorous incidents and conversations take place in which Raj tries to understand the attitudes of English society toward matters religious, social, sexual, and racial, with little luck. Thus, by the time Denham is ready to return to Tokyo, Raj has, in effect, replaced him in his father’s house. He lives in Denham’s room and cooks incredibly sumptuous Indian feasts for Denham’s father and promises to care for him as a son would.
On the voyage back to Tokyo, Denham receives a number of letters from Raj asking for his advice regarding his behavior toward and desire for white women, in particular Alice Winter. He wants to know if “love” (lust) can transcend the demands of “physical self.” Not only does Denham fail to reply to the queries, but also he attempts to have an affair with a newlywed, Mrs. Thorpe, whose husband is seasick. Failing in his attempt, the bored and frustrated Denham finally responds to Raj with an acrostic cablegram, which, when deciphered, reads—“copulation now.” He then forgets about Raj when he once again meets Len the racketeer and learns of an incident regarding a prostitute in London. It seems that Len and his cronies set out to punish prostitutes who were “bilking” their clients for money. As he hears the story about how they entrapped one such girl and beat her, Denham suspects that the girl is Imogen, who had taken to “evening work” in order to feed herself and Winter. Denham is again shocked by Len’s sense of “justice.” The shock is short-lived, however, for he soon receives news from Ted Arden that his father is dead, that he must return to England.
Denham returns for the funeral, confronts Raj, and blames him for neglecting his father and feeding him the rich meals which helped to kill him. They have a heated argument, in which Denham calls Raj a “bloody stupid black bastard,” and Raj leaves the house. With his father’s coffined body in the next room, Denham falls asleep in a chair only to be wakened by Alice Winter banging on his front door. Denham hears that Imogen has left Winter, who has returned to Alice for reconciliation. At a critical and rather comic moment, Raj bursts into the bedroom and shoots Winter. Alice, unable to get her neighbors’ attention away from their television sets, runs to Denham for help. He returns with her to Winter’s house and finds Raj standing over the dead, undressed body of Winter. Denham and Raj speak briefly; then Raj raises the gun, and with a wink, he shoots himself.
There is a police inquiry, followed by the funeral for Denham’s father. Denham then returns once again to Tokyo, only to find his mistress, having been raped by a gang of hoodlums, gone. A few months pass and Denham, alone, big-bellied, and nearly bald, thinks of returning to England to marry Imogen. He picks up the one possession of Raj that he has kept, the unfinished thesis on love and hatred, and begins to read it.
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