Room at the Top Summary
by John Braine

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Room at the Top Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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The story of Joe Lampton’s rise to prosperity begins in a railway compartment. Joe, slightly hung over and wearing cheap clothes, is leaving his home in Dufton for a job in the municipal government of Warley. Ambitious to escape his working-class background, Joe used his stint in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II to study accounting. The move to Warley gives him the chance to rise into the middle class and even to aspire to wealth.

Joe joined the Warley Thespians, a little theater group, as a way of becoming refined and of mixing with important people. There he meets the thirty-four-year-old Alice Aisgill, frustrated that she gave up an acting career for an unhappy marriage to a local industrialist. Joe and Alice fall in love and have an affair. At the same time, however, Joe is attracted to Susan Brown, the nineteen-year-old daughter of Warley’s most important businessman. Joe understands that his future success lies in winning and marrying Susan, yet he cannot give up Alice. He tries to have both by continuing his affair with Alice while developing a calculated strategy to woo Susan.

The great obstacle to Joe’s future is the presence of Jack Wales. Jack is almost everything that Joe is not: rich, self-assured, a student at a prestigious university, a war hero, and destined for a place in the family firm. Jack is at home in the Leddersford Conservative Club (the haunt of Warley’s elite), drives a nice car, and dresses well. However, despite his shortcomings, Joe wins Susan. Joe knows how to use his sexual attractiveness to get his way. Jack is solid but unexciting and, to Susan’s dismay, comes with her mother’s approval.

At this juncture, Susan’s parents decide to act. Mr. Brown has a word with the Warley Treasurer, Joe’s superior, and the Treasurer in turn speaks to Joe. Speaking purely hypothetically, the Treasurer tells Joe that a good future is in store for him in Warley, that he might expect promotion in local government, but that all this might be lost if he persists in seeing Susan. The Treasurer advises him to find a suitable girl—that is, a girl of a lower class than Susan—and to get married. Joe is furious as he realizes that Warley’s establishment conspires against him, that he might lose his expectations of a good future, and that he has no hope of marrying Susan. He continues to date her, however, even as his affair with Alice grows more intense. Its intensity enables Joe to accept Susan’s breaking off of their relationship when she finds out about his relationship with Alice.

Joe then thinks he wants to marry Alice. The couple go away together on a long weekend and feel like husband and wife. However, knowing that marriage with Alice will prevent his rise in society, Joe reconciles with Susan. Alice develops a serious medical condition that requires surgery; while she is in the hospital, Joe and Susan consummate their love. Two months later, the day Alice is discharged from the hospital, Mr. Brown...

(The entire section is 816 words.)