Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 761

David Storey, a poet, playwright, and novelist, was born in Wakefield, England. A rugby player for Leeds, he bought himself out of his contract before beginning his career as a writer. He has become a noted writer. In 1960, he won the Macmillan prize for This Sporting Life, and he won the 1976 Booker Prize for his novel Saville. He has published many plays, collections of poetry, and dramas. He has also won recognition for his screenplay adaptation of This Sporting Life.

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In his novels, Storey places quiet, tough men in opposition to their environments. He comes from the tradition of Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, and others of the Angry Young Man movement in British literature; these writers challenged the class structure of society in their writing.

This Sporting Life is the first of three successive novels that explore the relationship between body and soul with an eventual synthesis of the two. This Sporting Life deals with the body; Flight into Camden (1961) deals with the soul; Radcliffe (1963) synthesizes the duality. The protagonist of This Sporting Life can express himself physically on the rugby pitch, breaking opposition and returning to the fray even after serious injury. He is, however, incapable of expressing his gentler feelings, especially his love for Mrs. Hammond. Instead, he cajoles, screams, and bullies. Machin cannot express his soul. As loud as he is, when expressing affection and care he is a mute.

This Sporting Life gives an unflinching view of life on a rugby team in a small mill city in Northern England. The play on the rugby pitch is vicious, full of blood, broken bones, and broken men. The setting is bleak, with mills and their emitted smoke making up most of the landscape. Men eat lunch overlooking mill works, and people populate dirty, small housing. In a world of such physicality, communication between people is difficult, and attempts to make one’s feelings heard can lead to tragedy.

The main theme of This Sporting Life is the individual trying to break out of the rut of the common men in his environment. Forced to live a life of unrelenting toil in the mills and the mines, the men of the town can only find escape by sacrificing their bodies as rugby players. Even with the fame and money that comes with success on the pitch, most are still stuck in their class. The hero of the novel, Machin, battles with his parents, who spout philosophical idealism about keeping one’s place in society and is provoked by his lover Mrs. Hammond, a woman who constantly undermines his attempts to make their life more physically comfortable. For all his success on the rugby pitch, Machin remains mired in his class, and the upper-crust owners of the team and town patriarchs such as Slomer and Weaver remain distant and mysterious, signing a new rugby player or cutting an old or unwanted one on a whim, as if he were a piece of meat or a commodity.

The novel is divided into two parts, with the first part using flashbacks to establish the background of the protagonist, Machin. Part 1 ends with Machin finally seeming to have achieved a relationship with Mrs. Hammond, giving Christmas presents to the kids, and at last having her spend the night in his bed. Part 2, though, shows the end of their relationship and the decline of Mrs. Hammond. Mrs. Hammond’s time in the hospital, especially her time spent with Machin after brain surgery, shows the hopelessness of her position in society. Meant for drudgery in life, she can find happiness only when she is near death. The tragedy of this situation is particularly poignant given the love Machin has for her.

The novel achieves depth through the characters Machin meets throughout the novel. These include Johnson, the man who Machin befriends to help him get a spot on the rugby team but then ditches; Maurice, the fun-loving teammate of Machin who shows affection for others only when he needs something; the mysterious town patriarch, Slomer, crippled but all-powerful; Weaver and Mrs. Weaver, the true status of their marriage never really revealed to leave open the possibility that Weaver is gay; the captain of the rugby squad, who is holding on to his job year by year in hope of sinking back into the pits, which, for a rugby star, would mean oblivion; and the jaded newspaperman, Philip, who understands rugby as nothing more than a game played on the pitch by players and off the pitch by the group of men who own the players.

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Critical Context