Room at the Top

by John Braine

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Characters Discussed

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Joe Lampton

Joe Lampton, an ambitious twenty-five-year-old accountant who takes a job in the municipal treasury of the City of Warley, in the northern English county of Yorkshire. The physical move from his hometown to Warley allows Joe to make a social move away from his working-class background. He tries to dress in a middle-class manner, and through the Warley Thespians, a theater group that he joins when he gets there, he learns more middle-class ways. He also faces a moral dilemma. Determined to get the best for himself, Joe is cold-blooded and calculating in his will to rise. For example, he used his time in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II to study accounting instead of planning heroic or patriotic deeds. The will to rise collides with his personal relationships. He meets two women at the Warley Thespians, Alice Aisgill and Susan Brown. He is attracted to Alice, and they have a passionate affair, but marriage with Susan, the daughter of Warley’s most powerful industrialist, would further his career. Joe chooses Susan, and Alice commits suicide. Joe knows that he is responsible for Alice’s death, but no one else blames him and he accepts marriage with Susan.

Alice Aisgill

Alice Aisgill, the thirty-four-year-old wife of a local businessman. She is unhappy and frustrated. She had given up an acting career in provincial repertory theater for marriage to a man who proved to be interested only in business. As an outlet for her frustration, she gets involved in the Warley Thespians. She also has affairs with younger men. Alice loves Joe but recognizes that he is self-centered and ambitious. She almost believes him when he talks about marriage, but her more realistic view of their relationship ultimately prevails. Still, when he abruptly dumps her for Susan, she is devastated. After going on a drinking binge, she misses a curve while driving too fast and is killed. Her friends think it was an accident, but it really was suicide.

Susan Brown

Susan Brown, an attractive nineteen-year-old woman, active with the Warley Thespians as a way of filling time until marriage. Daughter of the town’s most powerful economic and political figure, she has little education, few skills, and few interests. She is empty-headed and superficial. She is attracted to Joe because of his good looks and aura of sexuality, and because her parents (especially her mother) disapprove. Although she breaks off the relationship when she learns of Joe and Alice’s affair, she really wants him back and allows him to persuade her to meet. They make love, and she becomes pregnant. The two eventually marry.

Jack Wales

Jack Wales, Joe’s rival for Susan’s affections. He is a war hero from a rich business family. While Joe was studying accounting, Jack plotted a heroic breakout from the prisoner-of-war camp. While Joe drudges in his office, Jack drives a sporty car and attends an elite university. Joe sees Jack as the symbol of how the English class system weighs him down, blocking his rise. Jack turns out to be a lightweight, unable to maintain Susan’s interest.

Mr. Brown

Mr. Brown, Susan’s father. He is Warley’s leading industrialist and an important member of the town council. He, like Joe, came from a working-class background. His main concern is to keep fortune hunters away from Susan. He tests Joe’s resolve by offering to set Joe up in business if the latter promises to leave Warley and Susan. When Joe refuses to be bought, Mr. Brown agrees to the marriage and reveals that his daughter is pregnant. Mr. Brown sees in Joe the same determination and lack of scruples that he himself had shown in his rise, so he welcomes Joe into the family.

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