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Jim Dixon's Transformation: A Comparison and Contrast of Margaret and Christine

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Jim Dixon's Transformation: A Comparison and Contrast of Margaret Peel and Christine Callaghan in Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim

 

            According to Philip Gardner in his review entitled Kingsley Amis, Amis's first published novel Lucky Jim deals ostensibly with such existential questions as “'What am I doing here?', 'Do I want to be here?', and 'Is there anything I can do about it?'” (Gardner 27).  Gardner goes on to assert that “knowing what you are and being honest about what you want” is “the deepest theme of the novel” (32).  Indeed, the protagonist Jim Dixon struggles with questions like these as he seemingly dislikes his job at the university and the world of academia as he experiences it, for the text tells us that Jim's “policy . . . was to read as little as possible of any given book” and that he spent his days “pretending to work” (16-17, 85).  It is not that Dixon is as much a bad student as he is more interested, as Merritt Moseley observes in his book Understanding Kingsley Amis, in “companionship with unaffected, interesting male friends, in enjoying drinking and smoking, in preserving a decent life on a small salary, and in women” (Moseley 21).  At the same time, Jim is fearful that he may lose his position as seen when he attempts to press Professor Welch for an indication of the young assistant's likely - or unlikely - job security, explaining to Welch that “I've been worrying rather about my position here, in the last few months” (83).  Carl Bode in his essay “The Redbrick Cinderellas,” notes how Dixon is “subject to the comic tyranny of  Welch,” and since the professor has “decisive power over [Jim's] future,” the latter's anxiety is understandable (Bode 333, Lucky Jim 8).   In an interview with Dale Salwak, Amis himself admits “a lot of [Jim’s] difficulties come directly from his job” (Salwak 3).  Even if this is true, though, Jim’s difficulties in academia are a symptom of the real problem – the lack of necessary motivation to change his life - and not the problem itself, as we shall soon see.

            Nevertheless, lacking any secure knowledge concerning his future, it is understandable for the protagonist to question this and other aspects of his life, particularly where romance is concerned.  The alternating hot and cold love affair with his senior, manipulative colleague, Margaret Peel, arguably forces the young man to continually reevaluate what it is he seeks from a relationship.  Although, inwardly, Jim thinks “how nice it would be if he could give up his dual role of conciliator and go right away from here,”  he finds himself compelled by both “economic necessity and the call of pity” to maintain both his tenuous, uncertain university position and his volatile relationship with Margaret (26).  Even Walter Allen in his review of Lucky Jim notes how Margaret “battens neurotically on Jim’s pity,” a cyclical manipulation that Jim finds difficult to resist (62). 

            What is it, then, that compels the protagonist to break out of this cycle of emotional and material paralysis and emerge, as Kenneth Womack says in his critical review of the novel, “as a self-fulfilled member of the larger human community as opposed to the alienated figure of deceit” (Womack, 29)?  Arguably, many factors compel him to maintain the status quo while wishing for something more, not the least of which is Jim's need for job security and his somewhat self-deprecating acknowledgement that “the huge class that contained Margaret was destined to provide his own womenfolk” (39).  Certainly, Jim's own sense of injustice and growing disenfranchisement with both his career and his relationship leads to the novel's lucky, “deus ex machina conclusion” (Womack, 40).  Critic Angela Hague summarizes characters like Jim as “‘outsiders’ who had chosen their alienation from a certain sector of society,” in this case, academia (Hague 212).  Yet it appears that the driving force behind the ensuing changes which Jim gradually makes both internally and externally are precipitated by his sudden involvement with Bertrand Welch's girlfriend, Christine Callaghan.  Jim's evolving insight into Christine's personality and availability, combined with Carol Goldsmith's encouragement and, to a lesser extent, the Catchpole-induced revelation of the details of Marge's false suicide attempt, act as catalysts to these changes in the protagonist's life.  It would be fitting, therefore, to contrast and compare the two women, Christine and Margaret, to gain further insight into Jim Dixon's transformation from a man willing to settle for less than he wants both personally and professionally to one who aspires – whether by fortune or otherwise – for more than he ever thought possible.

            In the first reference in the novel to Margaret, the protagonist feels “apprehension lunging in his stomach” at the thought of seeing her (10).  Although Jim considers his initial relationship with Marge to be rather innocuous, partially motivated by, among other things, a “desire for unequivocal friendship,” it was not long before others considered Jim her boyfriend, “the man who was 'going round' with Margaret” (10).  As readers, we find Jim’s apprehension arising from his certainty that his colleague (now girlfriend) would be either “gay . . .  before she dipped to the attack” or “silent and listless” (10).  Jim Dixon's lack of interpersonal boundaries with others, particularly in this instance with Margaret, turns his “good-natured willingness to be imposed upon” into guilt and second-guessing (10).  Even when Jim broke up with Margaret the first time, he can’t help but feel a “feeble rage,” trying to convince himself that he was “glad at having told Margaret what he’d been wanting to tell her for so long” (163, 163-164).  His growing sense of doubt precipitates into his inner certainty that “Christine was blocked” and that “it was all going to go wrong in some way he couldn’t foresee” (164).  Thus, Jim’s relationship with Margaret waxes and wanes throughout the novel.

            Similarly, Dixon's first impression of Christine is also not favorable.  Although he notices the young woman's attractive “combination of fair hair . . . large breasts and narrow waist,” he soon relegates her to the category of the unattainable, “something designed to put him in his place for good” (39).  Within seconds, he “noticed all he needed to notice about this girl” (39).  Yet Jim's sudden “fright” upon meeting Christine's eyes speaks volumes, and his distress at not wanting to meet the girl is indicative of his attraction to her (39).  The fact that Jim, purposely mislead by Johns, misunderstood Christine's identity as a ballet dancer and made an inadvertent sexually-related remark about her in front of Bertrand did little to set him on good terms with the professor's arty son.  Instead, Jim is “attacked simultaneously by a pang of fear and speculation that 'ballet' might be a private Welch synonym for 'sexual intercourse'” (42).  Christine's subsequent handling of the social faux pas with

great magnanimity did little to charm the young man, who begrudgingly agreed inwardly with Margaret's off-handed assessment of Bertrand's girl as “a prig” (44).  It is not a first impression, all-in-all, that telegraphs what is soon to come in the novel.

            When compared physically, the two women – Margaret and Christine – are notably different.  The former, we are told, is one of those whose “intention of being attractive could sometimes be made to get itself confused with performance,” whose “large feet” can be scaled down by a “new sweater” or whose “brittle hair” can be offset by “generosity” (39).  The narrator tells us, too, of the “tufts of brown hair that overhung the ear-pieces of her glasses” and the “faint but . . . unmistakable downward curve of the mouth” which changes to a “little smile” that Jim recognizes “with self-dislike, as consciously brave” (20).  These descriptive terms, if not somewhat distasteful or at least mundane, are certainly not meant to be flattering or particularly attractive.  Jim's image of her in the “green Paisley frock in combination with the low-heeled, quasi-velvet shoes” garners no praise in his eyes, and we find shortly after his first evening date with Margaret that she indeed is wearing this same unattractive outfit (11, 19).  In Jim's eyes, “she always made up just a little too heavily” (43).

            Christine, on the other hand, is described as perhaps more appealing in Jim's mind than her soon-to-be-rival, with (as mentioned previously) fair, straight, short-cut hair, ample bosom and slim waist.  The “premeditated simplicity” of her “wine-colored corduroy skirt and the unornamented white linen blouse” contrasts starkly with Margaret's “green Paisley frock” (39, 19).  It is a case, at least in Jim's perception of fashion, of “less is more.”  “It was a pity,” Dixon ponders about Margaret, “she wasn't a bit better-looking” (37). 

            In as far as personality goes, Jim finds Christine to be much more approachable and much less exclusive than he first imagines.  At the Welch's home during breakfast after the arty get together, Jim first notes with “mild surprise how much and how quickly she was eating” (67).  When he uses his “bluff, speak-my-mind” approach to cover “rudeness, past or to come,” Christine comes off as a very down-to-earth person and apologizes for her part in the misunderstanding (67).  Still, Jim has yet to make a real connection with her, the narrator telling us that, prior to the burnt bed sheets and table incident, “he disliked this girl and her boy-friend so much that he couldn't understand why they didn't dislike each other” (69).  When Callaghan comes upstairs to Jim's room to see the damage from the inadvertent burn and what she can do to help him, we begin to see a turning point that Dixon himself is beginning to notice:

            “'You know, I don't know that I ought to be a party to this.'  She grinned, which made her look almost ludicrously healthy, and revealed at the same time that her front teeth were slightly irregular.  For some reason this was more disturbing to his equanimity that regularity could possibly have been.  He began to think he'd noticed quite enough things about her now, thank       you” (71).

             Soon after this, Dixon finds himself in an emotional quagmire, observing Christine “despite his determination to notice nothing more about her” (72).  Jim senses the “mess of feelings she aroused in him” and holds her “doubly guilty, first of looking like that, secondly of appearing in front of him looking like that” (72).  He is obviously moved in her presence, although he himself is not certain if it is love or just physical attraction.  “Was it love, then, that he felt for girls like this one?  No emotion he'd experienced or could imagine came anything like so close, to his way of thinking” (72).   Jim then presumes, “Well, what was it if it wasn't love?  It didn't seem like desire” (72).  Laughing at their shared ingenuity for temporarily hiding the burned items, Jim finds himself “grateful to her for her laughter” (73).

            By contrast, Margaret's personality appears melodramatic and at times volatile.  Although Jim learns in a relatively short time how to predict her behavior, it often seems to leave him feeling increasingly apprehensive and uneasy.  The narrator reveals that their conversations “would go on in the same way: with one of those questions which could be neither answered nor dodged, with some horrifying confession, some statement about herself which, whether 'said for effect' or not, got its effect just the same” (10).  Thus, “his destiny as the only current recipient of these unmanning questions and

confessions could hardly be eluded” (11).  These are terms, admittedly, not highly flattering of either Margaret as a conversationalist or of Jim's perception of Margaret.  Yet for all that, Jim seems genuinely “grateful for nicotine and support” when Margaret takes sides with Dixon over Bertrand, calling the latter a “swine” (43).  However, such camaraderie – likely motivated as much by Jim's “politeness” and “friendly concern” in general than by any real, deeper feelings for the woman – often appears short-lasting.  Margaret's reaction to the hiding-the-burn escapade is as much jealousy as it is her feeling that such antics are “rather silly and childish” (75).  Dixon soon finds himself comparing the two women as he stands in the hallway after removing the table, “shutting his eyes for a moment before slopping back into the world of reality” (74).  His experience with Christine stands in polar opposition to any potential role Margaret has, as she asks him why he simply could not have told Mrs. Welch of the mishap.  Jim's response is contemplative and revealing of the associations he begins to make with the two women: “He produced and lit cigarettes for the two of them [he and Marge], trying to remember whether Bertrand's girl had said anything about owning up to Mrs. Welch.  He didn't think she had, which was odd in a way” (75).  Even in this side-by-side comparison which he consciously makes, though, Jim still sees Christine as “Bertrand's girl” (75).

            Nonetheless, the perception that Callaghan is out of Jim's league does not deter from the fact that the latter still comes to want her.  The protagonist admits as much to Carol by the fact that he has even considered the matter: “She's a bit out of my class, don't you think?” (124)  Once Jim perceives that Christine is not at all what he first thinks of her - as evinced during the burnt bedclothes scene – the ensuing tenuous relationship between the two grows steadily.  Carol, at this point, makes a very simple, though important, observation which the careful reader has already discovered:

                        “'You sound as if you're in love with her.'

                        'Do you think so?' he said almost eagerly; he couldn't help regarding her remark a compliment – one that he'd been needing for a long time, too.

                        'Yes.  Your attitude measures up to the two requirements of love.  You want to go to bed with her and can't, and you don't know her very well.  Ignorance of the other person topped up with deprivation, Jim.  You fit the formula all right, and what's more you want to go on fitting it.  The old hopeless passion, isn't it?'” (124)

It is as if Christine's inherent untouchability – as exhibited in her appearance, her social class, and her attachment to Bertrand – combined with her eager, friendly accessibility to Jim has propelled the young man into a conflict of interests: his guilt for wanting to leave Margaret with whom he has developed an oddly co-dependent relationship contrasted with his new-found, almost liberating desire for Christine.  The two potential lovers are almost nothing alike.

            As noted before, by chapter seven Jim begins to actively compare the two women, noting after Margaret had washed her hair that “it lay in dry lustreless wisps on the back of her neck.  In that condition it struck him as quintessentially feminine, much more feminine than the Callaghan girl's shining fair crop” (76).  Yet in what could have amounted to a moment of tenderness for the couple, Margaret thwarts Jim's “solicitous” gesture by causing a “scene,” until Jim finally realizes “that the whole arty get-up seemed oddly at variance with the way she was acting” (76, 77).  Then, “putting [Margaret] from his mind almost at once,” Jim proceeds to dwell on Christine and her behavior.   “Everything about her looked severe, and yet she didn't mind sheets and charred tabletops, and Margaret did” (78, 79).  To Jim, “it was a puzzle” that he would invariably solve. 

            Moreover, as far as intimacy is concerned, Jim receives more mixed messages from Margaret.  During their stay at the Welch's during the arty weekend, Jim and Marge kiss, we are told, “with zeal, with more zeal, in fact, than she'd shown in any of their previous, rather half-hearted and altogether inconclusive, sexual encounters” (57).  As the young man debates inwardly the decision to go further with her (“she certainly seemed to want it”), he moves his hand beneath her nightgown, and the two “lay on the bed” (58).  Yet when he advances further, she suddenly rejects his overtures, “trembling with anger,” and kicks him out of her room (58).  While in a similar situation alone with Callaghan after the cab ride home from the party, however, Dixon finds no mixed messages:

            “Her body, half against his, was tense; one breast lay heavily against his chest; he raised his hand and laid it upon her other breast.  Immediately, her tenseness disappeared, and though her mouth stayed on his she became passive.  He understood and moved his hand to her bare shoulder, then let her go.  She smiled at him in a way that made his head swim more than the         kiss had done” (151).

            Clearly, the indecision, the thinking, second-guessing, and weighing heavily his reasons for wanting to touch Margaret and the consequences of such behavior, are nowhere to be seen in the text during this encounter with Christine.  In fact, even the cup of coffee they shared prior to their kiss was an “intimacy” which Jim thought “symbolized and crowned the whole evening” (149).  Unlike Margaret, to whom Jim sometimes lies and conceals his true thoughts (for example, lying about enjoying the “dancing part” at the dance, which he hated),  Christine is someone with whom Jim finds it very easy to talk honestly, “a mystery, but one he felt too contented to bother about solving” (145).  Additionally, Dixon notices during the cab ride that Christine readily confides in him as when she reveals some very personal vulnerabilities, such as her insecurity with men.  And, while Christine is asking Jim for things such as “advice” on her relationship with Bertrand, Margaret, by comparison, asks Jim leading questions designed as much for entrapment as anything else, such as “'Do you like coming to see me?'” and “'Am I the only girl you know in this place?'”  (11).  Jim likens this type of repeating dialogue in his relationship with his female colleague to a “game of poker, of non-strip poker, that he and Margaret were playing” (158).

            Although Jim felt for a time that “this kind of honesty and straightforwardness” between Marge and himself streamlined the dating process, he nevertheless has “qualms” and feels self-conscious and uncomfortable during these exchanges, often making faces when Margaret is not looking or meeting her queries with awkward silence (11).  Then, true to form throughout the novel, Margaret will at times turn warm again, admitting her guilt as she does after getting upset about Jim's involvement with Christine over the cigarette burn incident.  It is worthy to note that once again, such admissions of responsibility often follow times when Jim is supposed to call upon the young woman but inadvertently forgets.  Similar to the scene when Jim first arrives at the Welch's after having promised to call upon Margaret the day before, Marge is notably amiable and malleable during these times, leading one to perhaps question both the sincerity and the purpose of her apologies.  Regardless of her sincerity or reasons, Marge obtains the intended effect: Jim is relieved to find she is not angry with him forgetting her and makes plans to see her again.  Only near the end of the novel – when the two are breaking up -are Jim and Margaret wholly honest with one another: “ . . . Dixon reflected that their conversation, whatever its other peculiarities, had reflected an honesty on both sides that their relationship had never shown before” (187).  If anything, such honest intimacy is too little, too late and is quite different from the honesty and the intimacy that Jim shares with Christine early on.

            Still, that level of intimacy brings with it its own volatility, and in this manner, there are striking similarities between Margaret and Christine when each experiences a potential break-up confrontation with the protagonist.  For example, when Christine finally meets Jim at the bar, she realizes that they cannot continue to see one another as they have been as both already have someone whom they are seeing.    Christine mirrors Margaret in as far as her perception of Jim's ties to the other woman, and like her unintended rival, Christine decides to sever ties with Jim. Marge, too, recognizes Jim's involvement with the other woman and chooses summarily to end the relationship just prior to his taking the stage for his lecture.  Both women seem determined to avoid becoming romantic toys at Jim's ready disposal.  Thus, Jim soon finds himself “jobless, Christineless, and now grand-slammed in the Margaret game” (220). 

            Ironically, unlike the honesty which he appears to share with the young Callaghan, Jim never told her about what he witnessed between Carol and Bertrand, a distinct example of dishonesty that exists not just between Jim and Margaret alone.  Still, Christine's reaction to the deception is to appear “as if she were going to laugh” when Jim reveals he knew about the Carol-Bertrand affair (248).    Indeed, it is ironic because this is the very news which Christine discovers from Carol herself and which eventually culminates in Jim's apparent good fortune when he meets Christine at the train at novel's end.

            As we can see, the factors that drive the dynamics behind Jim's relationship with both Margaret and Christine are varied and quite complex, with both women different in many ways yet similar in others.  Jim's continued feelings of guilt and “politeness” drive both his passive acceptance of a woman whom he feels he cannot do much better than and, by association, of a job he does not like (10).  Yet more than this, Jim's whole relationship with Marge seems driven by “something outside himself and yet not directly present in her” (186).  He is seemingly guided by an unplanned sense of responsibility which directs his actions “not out of any willing on his part . . . but out of a kind of sense of situation” (186).  In fact, Jim tells Margaret that “it isn't a matter of scruples; it's a matter of seeing what you've got to do” (186).  Clearly, this is duty, not love. 

            Gradually, his meetings and successive encounters with Christine, a girl whom Jim at first feels is out of his league, act as a catalyst for change in both the young man's personal life and, subsequently, his professional life.  Nonetheless, even Catchpole's revelation about the circumstances behind their break-up and Margaret's apparently faked suicide do not provide enough impetus for Dixon to fully break away from Margaret, who “had fixed herself too firmly in his life and his emotions to be pushed out of them by a mere recital of facts (238).  Instead, the narrator tells us that “some other purgative agent” was necessary before Jim could finally break away from Margaret once and for all.  It is here in an act Womack likens to a “deus ex machina conclusion” where “Dixon's fortunes shift and he secures a new job, solidifies his incipient relationship with Christine, and prepares for a new life beyond the academy” that this fortuitous agent arrives, namely his reconciliation with Callaghan (40).

            In fact, because of the talk which Carol has with Christine concerning the former's affair with Bertrand, Callaghan changes her mind and fortuitously – thanks to the “obliging cooperation of luck” -  meets Jim in the last chapter on the train station platform (Quintana, 82).  In a way, then, Carol functions as a catalyst behind the catalyst Christine, for she, too, has played a role in bringing the two lovers together although neither overtly recognize her role in the young lover's happy reunion; as Christine's love for Jim provides the latter with the impetus for changing his life, so has Carol provided Christine with the impetus for changing her life by ending her admittedly unhappy relationship with the younger Welch.  It is interesting to note that what critic Richard Fallis calls Carol’s “revenge on Bertrand” in actuality equates to perhaps a major turning point in the story, for without Mrs. Goldsmith’s revelation to Christine – regardless of its ultimate motivation – the latter would not have  chosen to leave Bertrand and send the message to Jim.  Although for critics like James Gindin the ending of the novel is “a gesture of pure fantasy,” it is nonetheless Callaghan’s message to Jim and her decision to leave Bertrand that signifies a severing of Jim’s final tie with his old life, the cessation of his relationship with Margaret and the academic world she represents (2).   For all the rationalizations that Jim makes previously to be content with his involvement with Margaret, he is more than ready to cast her memory aside – and the memory of his life at the provincial university - and embrace a future with someone new.  In this way, he is transformed into a new person both internally as marked by his new-found ability to stand up for himself and materially as he embarks on a new career. 

Whether such a transformation is lasting, however, is extratextual and remains to be seen, for although both Christine and Jim may be happy for a time together, there is some evidence suggesting that Christine is aware that any happiness is impermanent at best: “You’re the sort of man who’d never be happy whatever you did” (202).  For now, though, the two young lovers focus on the present, the sounds and problems of the past “growing fainter and fainter as they walked on until it was altogether overlaid by the other noises of the town and by their own voices” (251).

 

Works Cited

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