Kingsley Amis’ seventeenth novel, Stanley and the Women, has already become a cause célèbre. Its wicked satirical thrust and misogynistic sentiments allegedly provoked feminist editors of various publishing houses to try unsuccessfully to stop its publication in the United States. Whatever the truth of these allegations, the emergence of the novel was delayed, and the American edition appeared a year later than its British counterpart. There is substance to this furor, for the antifeminine slant of Stanley and the Women will continue to generate controversy, grievously offending those readers who harbor strong ideological convictions—feminist, leftist, or liberal. Like most satirical works which incline toward corrosive and subversive irony, Stanley and the Women is often unfair, uncharitable, and intolerant; it is also outrageously funny.
Stanley and the Women begins where Jake’s Thing (1978) ends. In Amis’ earlier novel, Jake Richardson, whose sexual drive has diminished almost to the point of nonexistence, submits religiously to the manifold “cures” of psychotherapists and sexologists. At the end of his travail, and after nearly three hundred pages of unrelenting exposure of the incompetence and stupidity of professional therapists and the institutions that sustain them, Jake discovers that the cause of his impotency may have been physical and reflects upon the desirability of reviving his malfunctioning “thing” and thereby regaining his libido:Jake did a quick run-through of women in his mind their concern with the surface of things with seeming to be better and to be right while getting everything wrong, their automatic assumption of the role of injured party in any clash of wills, their certainty that a view is the more credible and useful for the fact that they hold it, their use of misunderstanding and misrepresentation as weapons of debate, their selective sensitivity to tones of voice, their unawareness of the difference in themselves between sincerity and insincerity their fondness for general conversation and directionless discussion, their pre-emption of the major share of feeling, their exaggerated estimate of their own plausibility, their never listening .
His decision as to whether he should undergo more tests is quite easy. “No thanks,” he says, and on that note the novel ends.
These antifeminine sentiments, which through extremity Jake is driven to at the end of the story, pervade Stanley and the Women from the very beginning. The temptation is to equate the attitudes, ideas, and values of the first-person narrator with those of the implied author. Because one is privy to the innermost thoughts and feelings of Stanley Duke and is given an inside view only of him, one is imprisoned within his consciousness. Therefore it is difficult to determine the implied tone of the text, the author’s own attitude or evaluative stance toward the material of his novel, and the amount of ironic distance between the norms of the narrator and those of the author. The problem is compounded when the novel in question is satirical and demands on the part of the reader skills in ironic discounting and interpretive reconstruction.
If only on a superficial level, Kingsley Amis is not Stanley Duke. Stanley has no interest in literature or culture, works in advertising, is mildly anti-Semitic, and drinks cheap Scotch. In fact, he is l’homme moyen sensuel with a vengeance, an upwardly mobile Everyman figure who married a class or two above his own. His sexism is a defense mechanism: in the beginning, a momentary stay against the chaotic confusion of an irrational world; in the end, an explanatory principle of reality, a coherent worldview that gives significance to his experience. Equipped with only his comic resistance to “offences against common sense, good manners, fair play, truth,” Stanley is a sane antihero struggling to cope with an insane world.
At the beginning of the novel, Stanley Duke, the middle-aged advertising manager of a London daily newspaper, is faring well. His second wife, Susan, seems to be an ideal companion, despite her tendency to show off her genius and draw attention to herself. She is eminently preferable to his first wife, Nowell, who abandoned him for a director. As for Nowell, “all that scared her,” Stanley muses, “was the prospect of everybody not looking at her for five seconds . She makes up the past as she goes along. You know, like communists.” Although he is still bothered by her desertion, he happily has no contact with her at present. In fact, Stanley seems the quintessence of the liberated husband, playing a subservient role to his wife at her literary parties and deferring politely to her social and cultural superiority.
The equilibrium of Stanley’s comfortable existence...
(The entire section is 1994 words.)