Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1659
First published: 1955
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Comic narrative
Time of work: The mid-1950’s
Locale: Aberdarcy, a small Welsh city
John Aneurin Lewis, a young, underpaid assistant librarian
Jean Lewis, his wife
Vernon Gruffydd-Williams, a wealthy power in the town
Elizabeth Gruffydd-Williams, his wife
Ieuan Jenkins, John’s co-worker, afflicted by timidity and a neurotic wife
Bill Evans, Elizabeth’s former lover
Gareth Probert, a local poet and office worker
Mrs. Edna Davies, Lewis’ downstairs neighbor
Ken Davies, her loutish son
Paul Whetstone, an effeminate friend of the Gruffydd-Williamses
Jim Dixon is the hero of LUCKY JIM, Kingsley Amis’ first and more widely praised novel. Lewis is in danger of being trapped by the wrong woman, the wrong town, and the wrong job; since he is not committed to any of them, there are no moral obstacles to his discarding them when vastly superior substitutes appear; his only problem is to convince himself that their superiority is sufficient reason for him not only to prefer them but also to follow up his preferences.
For John Lewis, the hero of THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING, matters are more difficult. Lewis has an ill-paying job, a wife, two children, a depressing apartment, and the desire, although not the means, to change matters. When the means present themselves, they merely make for more trouble because, as he recognizes at the end of the novel, he will always be torn between wanting to be moral and wanting to do things that are immoral; this is the only thing of which he can be certain. It is as natural for him to want to be faithful to his wife as it is for him to prefer a woman whom nature and circumstances have treated with more kindness. These problems admit to no easy resolution; unlike Jim Dixon’s predicament, in LUCKY JIM, no new job or new woman can solve the basic problem, although both are available.
This, therefore is both a serious and a funny book; it is also an honest book, because it slights neither the humor of the situation into which Lewis pilots himself nor the toughness of his moral dilemma. It has been argued that there is too much of a clash between the almost slapstick comedy that Amis creates so brilliantly and the decidedly not funny dilemma faced by his hero. This view, however, is to forget that the classic function of comedy is to enlighten. Amis uses his comic techniques to unmask, to discover what the truth is; that some of the truths discovered are less than pleasant neither obviates nor invalidates the comedy by which they are uncovered.
Lewis works in the library of a small Welsh city, Aberdarcy; he earns just enough money to keep his wife, Jean, and their two small children in an uncomfortable attic apartment. The sublibrarianship—a job that pays fairly well—is open, and he, along with Ieuan Jenkins of the library and two outsiders, is in the running for the job. His chances are greatly improved when he meets Elizabeth Gruffydd-Williams, whose husband is very rich and very influential, a member of the Town Council and of the Libraries Committee. Most of the novel is concerned with Lewis’ entry, aided by Elizabeth’s help, into the world of the quasi-aristocracy of Aberdarcy and with the effect this has on his life.
He first meets Elizabeth when she comes to the library looking for a book on ancient Welsh costumes; she is in charge of costume design for the local theater group’s presentation of Gareth Probert’s nonsensical verse drama, THE MARTYR. Mrs. Gruffydd-Williams’ social status, her interest in costumes, Probert’s ostentatiously Dylanesque play, and the use of the Welsh mother tongue are all of a piece. Disguises—literal costumes as well as the figurative disguises of speech, manner, and affectation, and the more devious and deeply seated disguises of personality—crop up continually in the novel. The Welsh revival, exemplified and defined as acting by Probert and his play, and the Anglicized Welsh aristocracy, Elizabeth and her crowd, are both treated in terms of disguise, as masking of true intention. Lewis himself is often acting—trying, for example, to imitate film stars—and he is a very bad actor. Other actors include Ken Davies, son of Lewis’ unpleasant downstairs neighbor and his Americanized friends, and Mrs. Jenkins, whose migraine headaches are a psychological act.
Indeed, everyone in the novel is in disguise. Amis suggests, by adumbrating countless instances and varieties of disguise, that this is, first, a universal trait and, second, potentially dangerous, depending not on how good the acting is or even on what particular disguise is chosen but rather on what motivates a given disguise. Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins are pathetic characters, because they fail to recognize their own playacting; Probert is foolish, because he dissembles so badly; Vernon Gruffydd-Williams is frightening, because he acts so well and sees so clearly through the disguises of others; Ken Davies’ disguise is irrelevant, because his good-heartedness easily transcends it.
The production of the play is at the center of the novel. Lewis goes with Elizabeth; up to this point, they have been slowly flirting their way into an affair, but very slowly; halfway through this bad performance they leave and go to Elizabeth’s house. Here a much livelier and funnier play begins; even their abortive attempt to go to bed is filled with bad acting. When Elizabeth’s husband comes home unexpectedly, Lewis prepares to pretend that he is picking up the contents of a cigarette box (unnecessarily, for Vernon does not bother to look in on them); then, trying to get out of the house, he pretends to a stray guest that he is a plumber; finally, he dons a spare Welshwoman’s costume, which establishes an ironic connection between Lewis and the play he has been scorning.
Lewis and Elizabeth finally do make love but under very different circumstances. Elizabeth’s crowd, consisting of a local dentist and his mistress, a local composer and his wife, two homosexuals, and a still devoted but apparently rejected former lover, Bill Evans, have a party on the beach the night after Lewis’ interview for the sublibrarianship. The party turns into a very small-scale orgy, in the course of which Lewis makes two discoveries: that he would as soon be sleeping with the dentist’s mistress as with Elizabeth and that he is to get his promotion, but only because Vernon wants to spite the head librarian by choosing someone antagonistic to him. He finds out that sex per se is largely a neutral matter and that advancement in the world of small-town politics is, as he puts it, “a fiddle”; everything is rigged according to influence. After Elizabeth smashes up her car, he sees Vernon in total control of her, and he recognizes—without quite understanding—the depth of Vernon’s involvement with her and the shallowness of his own.
When he gets home, Probert is there with Jean. Acting like Vernon in the previous scene, he chases Probert out. Jean announces that she does not care if he sleeps with Elizabeth but that he has no right to give up his promotion on a moral scruple; in fact, she says that she and Probert are having an affair, that their marriage will from this point on be only “a domestic arrangement,” and that he should patch things up with Elizabeth to make sure he gets the job.
There follows a crucial incident, rather mysterious to both Lewis and the reader. Lewis feels some great but nameless fear and a need to do something even more frightening to counter it: he runs through the darkened streets of the town, apparently with the idea of suicide in mind—not to get out of a difficult situation but to do something “that doesn’t just happen,” that would be done all by himself. Running through the streets, he finds Ken Davies drunk and beaten (Davies’ mother had earlier asked Lewis to go look for him). He helps Davies home and also makes up his mind about the future. He will keep on trying not to be immoral; perhaps, in the end, only trying will turn into a habit.
The novel’s last scene shows the result of this decision. Although offered the sublibrarianship, he moves back to his father’s home and takes a sales job at a small colliery; everything is patched up with Jean; and, finally, the reader sees him resisting, successfully but with some difficulty, a new flirtation.
The somewhat unexpected turns toward the end of the novel, especially Lewis’ evidently half-unconscious flirtation with suicide, bring to the surface a dimension of the story only implicit in the early stages: the question of the responsibilities of involvement with another person. Lewis is almost as guilty for not becoming completely involved with Elizabeth as for becoming involved at all. One of the things that oppresses him is that coming into contact with other people is not a simple act, that so doing puts him into their lives. The abortive suicide episode illustrates that to live at all means to become involved in the affairs of other people, and therefore, at least for a person of Lewis’ temperament, to take some responsibility for them. At first, the affair with Elizabeth seems like an escape from a tedious job and a squalid home, but as the disguises, his own and everyone else’s, fall away, Lewis finds it to be at least as complicated and demanding as that which he is trying to escape. Once again, the congruence of the rather stern and difficult moral strain with the comic format of the novel is apparent: comedy unmasks, and the more it does so, the more it shows the complexity of the dilemmas faced by the hero and the more he learns that every act is consequential.