Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

The title of this story indicates that it belongs to a recognizable group of narratives, ones that deal broadly with the “state of England” rather than narrowly with the lives of a few individuals, such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-1872) and Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way (1987). To call a short story “State of England” is a bold move by Amis, one that asks readers to understand not just the degradation, pathos, and dark comedy of Big Mal’s story but also what the story says about England in the 1990’s.

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Big Mal recognizes that things have changed since he was a boy. Unlike Fat Lol, who is slovenly, gluttonous, and on the dole, and his wife, Yvonne, who looks like a bank robber, Big Mal has moved on. He has worked as a bouncer in high-class clubs. He has worked in California for a big-time mobster. He has moved out of the East End neighborhood where he and Fat Lol were born. He eats with more restraint than Fat Lol (especially since he became very sick on an airplane after gorging himself on hamburgers). Big Mal dresses well enough and uses a mobile phone.

He knows that the changes are part of a larger pattern. In the England of the 1990’s, class, age, race, gender, and even accent and education are not supposed to matter. Everyone is supposed to be equal. At the school Jet attends, there appears to be racial equality: For example, the other families are Japanese and Pakistani.

Everyone is equal—or is supposed to be. However, Big Mal knows, and this is Amis’s central theme, that people in England are not treated equally. Big Mal feels inferior because he can hardly read and because his English is bad (his mistress Linzi speaks even worse English than he does, almost as bad as Fat Lol’s). He feels like a pariah at the sports day. The ultimate demonstration that the class system still survives is when he and Fat Lol are beaten in the parking lot. Their attackers are upper-class evening-clothes-clad men and women returning from the opera. Big Mal is stunned: It seems that the revolution is being started by the upper classes.

The class system in England still exists. Big Mal’s problem is how to adjust to that fact now that he has left the class into which he was born. This story suggests that it is difficult, but people like Big Mal will keep on trying.

Amis once remarked in an interview that Big Mal’s story was like his own (Amis left London for New York), and this suggests another way to read this story: Big Mal is an Everyman who tries to adjust to the profusion of ethnic and racial groups in the global village. The perhaps unrealistic lineup of nationalities at Jet’s school may point to this more allegorical reading.

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