Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2177
Human beings live in a world of their own perceptions, a world which they can explain or share only partially, even if they wish to do so, with those whom they come in contact. One of the virtues of fiction is that it may immerse readers in realms of thought and emotion other than their own and thus expand the limited horizons of their own consciousness. Through such imaginative constructions readers become more keenly aware of the infinite shapes of psychological reality. The concentrated effects and limited focus of short fiction lend themselves particularly to the exploration of thought processes. This is certainly true of the best stories in Alan Sillitoe’s The Second Chance, and Other Stories.
The collection of eleven pieces of short fiction presents a variety of subjects from lower-, middle-, and upper-middle-class English life, ranging in time from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. Sillitoe’s style is terse, fast-moving, and hard-edged. Though it is interesting to compare the themes and effects of some of his stories with those of other authors, there is nothing derivative about his style or vision. The narrative development of the most effective and characteristic stories in this collection is based primarily on the movement of the protagonist’s mind.
“The Second Chance,” which is given pride of place and title in the collection, may be described as an Edward Albee-like psychodrama in the form of short fiction. A retired major who has lost his fighter-pilot son in World War II encounters in a pub an ex-convict who not only is the physical duplicate of his son but also has the same first name. The major’s wife has never gotten over the loss of her son and the two have never been able to acknowledge their loss outwardly, much less to console each other in their grief. In the hope of revitalizing his wife, who has withdrawn deep into herself since the death of her son, the major makes an implicit deal with the well-born ex-convict which calls for him to pretend to be the man he resembles.
The story, which is something of a tour de force, has many fine qualities. It keeps the reader’s attention through the development of a gradually increasing psychological momentum brought about by a series of revelations concerning the past experiences and relationships of the central characters. The juxtaposition of various angles of vision, predominantly those of the major and the ex-convict, whose relationship with his father turns out to be as unsuccessful as that which the major had had with his son, intensifies the impact of the final revelation. The crushing conclusion of the story says, in effect, that second chances are ultimately futile because the most appalling failures are the results of forces and feelings over which one ultimately has no control. The story is marred, however, by a weakness which the fascination of its style and theme cannot entirely obscure. Though its psychological momentum may be strong enough to create in most readers the willing suspension of disbelief necessary to accept the incredible biological and circumstantial chance that sets the story in motion, it is probably not strong enough to overcome the extent to which the gradually revealed character of the fighter-pilot son is shaped to fit into the ingenious psychological configuration of the plot.
Thematically and technically, “No Name in the Street” is a much simpler and stronger story, which might well, without the irony operative in the title story of the collection, have been called “The Second Chance.” The protagonist is Albert, a former collier—a down-and-outer who has led a lonely isolated life. His only companion is a mongrel dog which he has trained to retrieve stray golf balls on the town golf course at night as a means of supplementing his welfare check. Into this slough of a life comes an opportunity for a richer, more meaningful existence in the form of a marriage to an attractive, good-natured widow. As Albert prepares to move his meager possessions from his dingy quarters to a better section of town, his dog, frightened by the prospect of change, takes refuge behind the stove. The conflict that ensues mirrors a conflict that is taking place within the protagonist. Albert is frightened by a move that is designed to shake him out of the grubby lethargy of his past, perhaps demanding more of his potential as a human being than has ever been required of him. Without sentimentality, the quality of his character is emphasized through his loyalty to the mongrel which has been the only object of communication and affection in his life since the death of his mother, and the pain which attends growth or expansion of spirit is strikingly and poignantly reflected in his inner struggle.
“The Meeting” comments on the sometimes sad perversity of human nature. A male commercial traveler picks up a female commercial traveler in a bar and, over drinks, the two begin to speak of their former mates. It gradually becomes clear that they are discussing their own marriage and that it is only through the game they are playing that they are able to maintain a relationship which, though officially ended, is sustained by an attraction they cannot define or escape. Through a ritual of pretense which they carry on once a year, they find themselves able to communicate their feelings for each other far more effectively and honestly than when they were man and wife; and each year their one night of love brings them closer to each other than they had ever been. One is, however, left with the feeling there is nothing destined for their relationship other than to meet and part as highly successful commercial travelers.
“A Scream of Toys” follows the fortunes of Edie, a sensitive, imaginative working-class girl who, during World War II in England, yearns for a release from the coarseness and the humdrum dreariness of the environment into which she has been born. She develops a friendship with a gentle, kind Italian prisoner of war who has become a collaborator and who is as much a prisoner of the circumstances of his birth as she is of hers. At the conclusion of the story they move toward a consummation of their feeling for each other that is destined in its consequences to be as cruelly illusory and ultimately as empty as a childhood experience of Edie’s which is described at the outset of the story and from which the title is derived. This is a subtly constructed, strongly felt story—one of the best in the collection.
“Confrontation” is, psychologically speaking, a Chinese box of a story. A young man at a cocktail party tells an apparently gratuitous lie which results in the dissolution of his marriage. He later begins a relationship with the woman to whom he told the lie, who apparently acted as an unwitting catalyst in the breakup of the marriage. The story suggests that casual social actions and reactions may conceal far more than they reveal, but the subtle twist of ironic retribution that neatly ties up the psychological action of the story seems more clever than convincing.
“Ear to the Ground,” though less subtly and artfully done, may be compared both in technique and theme to Ring Lardner’s masterpiece, “Haircut.” The first-person speaker in this story—a former teddy boy who has married, reared a family, and now, in middle age, is on the dole—bitterly complains about his son, whom he has driven to theft; his wife, whom he may drive to prostitution; and the welfare state, which he blames for all his country’s problems. He is not aware of the extent to which his whining rationalizations expose his own monumental lack of character and morality.
“The Devil’s Almanack,” like Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover,” is a chilling depiction of the thought processes of a deranged mind. A mid-nineteenth century English postmaster has murdered his daughter upon discovering that she is pregnant with the child of a young aristocrat. A stolid matter-of-fact man who spends all of his spare time taking daily measurements of the weather for his almanac, he finds himself caught up in a tangled web of emotions that include jealousy and an unnatural attraction to his daughter. He is hanged for the murders of his daughter and the lover who intended to marry her, and he encounters death with the same dispassionate, scientific cast of mind that had characterized his measurements of the surface of the earth.
“The Fiddle” traces the career of Jeff Bignal, a coal miner who entertained the lower-middle-class inhabitants of the neighborhood in which he grew up by playing the fiddle on long summer evenings. The music enriched the life of the neighborhood until Jeff, tiring of the long hours in the mines, sold his fiddle and put himself into business as a butcher. The story is not so much about Jeff as it is about the small neighborhood in which he lived, a group of run-down houses first put up during the Industrial Revolution, now resting on the edge of the city across the river from fields which represent a life of the past. The music of the fiddle becomes a symbol of the enduring human desire for beauty.
“The Gate of a Great Mansion” takes the reader into the fever-stricken mind of an Englishman on the brink of middle age who years before had set out for China to make his fortune, propelled by the hopes of his family. The success which he sought has eluded him, and as he lurches through the city to a lodging drearier than the past which he had set out to redeem, he sees it for what it is. Amoy is an illusory gateway to the riches of China. In his imagination, the inner fire of his body is projected onto the city which becomes a gate of paper, a gate destined to be consumed by the fires of ill-conceived ambition. Like “The Devil’s Almanack,” “The Gate of a Great Mansion” is interesting because of its inside view of the way in which a mind that has been traumatized by illness works; the illness in this story, however, is physically rather than psychologically induced. This story suggests a larger theme—the set of social circumstances brought on by the Industrial Revolution that generated the desire for escape and often led to frustration and despair. What is projected through the mind of the protagonist of “The Gate of a Great Mansion” is a darker side of the social vision reflected in “The Fiddle.”
In “A Time to Keep,” a fifteen-year-old-boy, one year away from entering the world of work, is fascinated by the feel and look of books—particularly exotic, out-of-the-ordinary books. As a reader he is something of a dilettante, reading here and there desultorily, more concerned with the pleasure of the books in themselves rather than in what they might do for him. He has no ambition other than to acquire the status of manhood, which will come with his entrance into the working world. By chance he witnesses an incident which in itself and in the influence which it has on an older cousin he admires provides him with an insight into the significance of what the life of a blue-collar worker adds up to, and he returns to his books with a different vision of their relationship to his life. Like “No Name in the Street,” this story leaves one with the impression that one has experienced an important turning point in an individual’s life.
“The Sniper” is perhaps the most extraordinary story in the collection. In one sense, it may be seen as a variation, in another social and intellectual key, on the combined themes of Fyodor Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment (1866) and Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle.” It is at the same time an entirely original story which makes a provocative comment about the nature of the human mind and the nature of life. In the early days of World War I, a young English tenant farmer ambushes and murders a man with whom his wife has been having an affair. He enlists in the army intending to leave his wife for good and believing that his crime will soon be discovered. This belief that God will “pay him out” haunts the remainder of his life. It turns him into an outstanding soldier and eventually leads him back to his wife after the war. He confesses his crime twice—once to a comrade on the battlefield and again as an old man when he climbs onto the counter of a pub and sings out his story. He dies of old age, taking the truth of the crime which has given shape and quality to his life to the grave. The soldier to whom he confessed was killed in action and the witnesses in the bar assume that his song and dance was an act of senility.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 46
America. CXLVI, September 12, 1981, p. 126.
Business Week. May 11, 1981, p. 15.
Library Journal. CVI, April 1, 1981, p. 817.
Listener. CV, January 22, 1981, p. 120.
New Statesman. CI, January 16, 1981, p. 20.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, April 19, 1981, p. 6.
Quill & Quire. XLVII, May, 1981, p. 34.
Spectator. CCXLVI, February 14, 1981, p. 23.
Times Literary Supplement. January 23, 1981, p. 76.
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