With his first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), Alan Sillitoe established himself as one of the key figures in the movement for socially critical realism which transformed British literature in the late 1950’s and 1960’s by breaking away from middle-class metropolitanism and dealing sympathetically with working-class life in the industrial regions. Unlike most of the other authors, Sillitoe wrote from his own experience, having been born and brought up in a working-class family in Nottingham.
His personal experience in the armed services in Malaya informed his third novel, Key to the Door (1961), about a young Nottingham worker who is conscripted into the army and is sent on a mission in the Malayan jungle. In many of his subsequent novels, Sillitoe widened his range, and to his early concerns with the social forces that shape people’s behavior he added psychological motivation.
In The Widower’s Son he returned, at an altogether different level of perception, to some of the elements of Key to the Door. The two novels are similar in structure. Both begin with a careful and detailed description of the protagonist’s family and upbringing as a basis for understanding his subsequent choices of action. In Key to the Door, however, as in Sillitoe’s celebrated story “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” the climax of the narrative is an affirmation of the protagonist’s personal stand against established moral values. In The Widower’s Son the climax is tragic and destructive. Self-affirmation comes afterward, almost as a postscript, and is achieved despite the protagonist’s upbringing rather than because of it.