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Comparison and Contrast: Amis' Lucky Jim and Murdoch's Under the Net

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A Contrast and Comparison of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim and Iris Murdoch's Under the Net


            Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim and Iris Murdoch's Under the Net share a variety of thematic, stylistic, and characterization parallels that lend themselves well to comparison.  First published in 1954, both novels reflect the changes undergoing literature in the middle twentieth century known as  Post Modernism and involve characters who no longer hold to the rigid value system established during the earlier Victorian era.  This is evident, too, in both the theme and style of the novels that depart from a traditional third-person omniscient viewpoint to those favoring a more focused view into the inner thoughts of a primary character.  Throughout the comparison, Lucky Jim contains strengths and weaknesses that relate to theme, style, and characterization.

            To begin, both works feature protagonists who share many of these post modernist character traits such as working without a readily definable purpose and involving themselves in jobs and activities with seemingly little direction and much apathy.  For example, when referring to his scholarly article, Jim Dixon tells his friend Atkinson, “You don't think I take that sort of thing seriously, do you?” (Amis 33).  Moreover, during his scholarly lecture, a drunken Jim satirizes and eventually rejects, in effect, the subject of his studies and the world of academia at large.  By rejecting “. . . this conjectural, nugatory, deluded, tedious rubbish,” Jim has sundered his ties to the university and its accompanying personalities much as Jake Donaghue has done by refusing to translate other people's works any longer (Amis 226).  Certainly, Amis's novel does a wonderful job of communicating its thematic message as young Dixon struggles find his place in post-war England.  In addition, many of Jim's actions are the result of more than just fate or uncontrollable social dynamics keeping him down.  Amis compels readers to examine the role of the protagonist's own decisions as he struggles against the personalities and social structures of the new university setting after opening education to the young, middle-class.  Amis's characterization is particularly strong as he crafts a protagonist who is believable.  Some of the other characters, however, may appear contradicting such as when Christine seeks Jim in the end of the novel even though she has previously pointed out strong obstacles to their relationship apart from her commitment to Bertrand.  One of these obstacles is Jim's attachment to Margaret while another is her belief that Jim will “never be happy” (202).  Moreover, Professor Welch's character is almost iconical, a stereotype of the stodgy, ponderous, sometimes conceited academic-type, as in chapter one when the professor unknowingly bores Jim with broken talk of music and his “fawn fishing hat” (12).  Of course, since the novel is written with emphasis on Jim's perception, the latter is far from an objective observer, and there is the sense that the reader receives a biased view against characters like the professor, Bertrand, and Johns, just to name a few.  More than once throughout the story, Jim imagines committing acts of violence to the professor and others that may be an over-reaction on his part:

            “He pretended to himself that he'd pick up his professor around the waist, squeeze the furry grey-blue waistcoat against him to expel the breath . . . and plunge the too-small feet in their capless shoes into a lavatory basin, pulling the plug once, twice, and again, stuffing the mouth with toilet paper” (9-10).

Arguably, Amis's portrayal of the supporting characters is skewed when the reader views them through Jim's eyes.

            Additionally, Murdoch's protagonist, unlike Dixon, does not have regular employment through most of the novel, and Donaghue is similarly rudderless in much of the story.  When he discovers that a previously second-rate writer for whom he has previously translated, Jean Pierre, has won the French literary “Prix Goncourt” award, he becomes incensed, thinking, “Why should I waste time transcribing his writings instead of producing my own?” (Murdoch 170-71).  Similar to Jim, who seems to be ever trying to get out of duties such as preparing for his classes, Jake is uninvolved in serious career goals until late in the novel, when the “horror” of Jean Pierre's success, in light of his own procrastination at writing original work, overwhelms Jake (171).  Upon meeting Lefty, Jake learns that others consider him “. . . a talented man who is too lazy to work . . .” (96).  This, too, is a summary which the reader can easily surmise by a close reading of the text.

            Because of this, Lucky Jim and Under the Net share a common theme, where through the process of successive mishaps, chance encounters, and often impulsive or misinformed choices, both Dixon and Donaghue leave behind lives and relationships that do little to inspire them in a bid to make something of themselves.  “I wasn't at all sure what it was that I had done,” Jake ponders after rejecting Madge's offer for lucrative sinecure, “but I knew that it was something important” (180).  He is able, after a period of brief depression, to put the fixated thoughts of Anna behind him and strike a balance between actually working and pursuing a new life of writing original work.  In a similar fashion, Jim Dixon realizes that “with his home so near [Margaret's], leaving this place wouldn't seem like a move on, but a drift to one side.  That was really the worst of it” (232). Thus, Jim, until he can finally sever ties with Margaret, is also unable to fully strike out on a new path for his future.  Jim also progresses through a period of disillusionment with the circumstances of his life and is finally able to pursue Christine and a new life in London.  Obviously, this compulsion for change is profound even though the protagonists of both novels cannot know with any certainty where their new paths will take them.  Still, the need of these two young men to change their lives, whether personally, professionally, or both, is certainly a strong indication of thematic similarity between the two novels.  It is in this venue that Amis novel is also strong, communicating its theme handily throughout the novel by the characters' actions,  particularly Jim's.  The latter's “. . . disinclination to approach any possible arena of academic work” and his facial expressions of anywhere from “helpless fatigue” to “anarchic fury” are indicative of the protagonist's flagging sense of purpose (13, 172)

            Interestingly, Amis crafts his novel in the third-person limited omniscient point-of-view, where the inner thoughts and logic of Dixon's mind are revealed to the reader.  Murdoch, allowing us a similar view into the consciousness of the protagonist, chooses first-person narrative as the avenue to show the reader what Donaghue is thinking and feeling throughout the novel.  This closer examination into the life and thoughts of a single character--rather than a slew of characters often more common in earlier 18th and 19th century literature--lends the works a similar focus on one character, allowing the reader to fully delve into the rationale and psyche of the protagonists.

            Both novels are strikingly similar in style in several more ways.  For instance, Donaghue discovers in a series of letters that he is unknowingly esteemed by several people, including political activist Lefty and French literary rival Jean Pierre.  Most of the circle of friends and acquaintances are young and idealistic.  Sadie, for instance, is a famous British actress; Anna seeks higher artistic expression; Dave gathers scores of collegiate admirers and part-time philosophers.   As in Under the Net, Amis's novel also devotes its subject matter to life of the younger, contemporary generation.  Generally, psychological angst (as it relates to the problems the characters face and their internal reaction to these issues) arises in both stories as a reflection of the social and economic challenges England—and, indeed, much of the world—was experiencing when these novels were written.  The years following World War II compelled authors such as Amis and Murdoch to delve into the questions that their generation was asking concerning the place of the individual, such as the value of traditional class and gender roles and hierarchical social structure.  Both works, too, utilize humor in the delivery of their message to very effective ends, as seen in the often hilarious antics both protagonists engage in, such as Jim's sudden revelation that he would have to sing solo at the Welch party (“Nothing short of an epileptic fit could get him out of this.”) and Jake's silent embarrassment when the taxi driver sprang open Mar's cage (“Finn and I studied the face of the taxi-driver.  He looked back at us guilelessly.”) (Amis 38; Murdoch 134).

            Although Donaghue is not part of the academic community like Dixon, the former does delve into intellectual writing with his publication of “The Silencer” (64).  Both characters are involved in the process of learning, yet Donaghue seems more genuine in his attempt at wishing to publish a successful, well-composed work, while Dixon takes a decidedly more flippant attitude, considering himself a “hypocrite and fool” for not burning the manuscript (15).  Jake is led by impulses, too, as when he suddenly acts upon ideas such as the kidnapping of Sammy's dog Mars and his trip to Paris to “dissuade” Anna from going to Hollywood (126, 137).  Much of Donaghue's personality and actions are characterized by such moments of impulse.  Even his need to find his old friend Hugo is executed, in Jake's own words, “Without an idea in my head . . .” (140).  Soon after witnessing Jean Pierre's recent fame, Donaghue is disillusioned by his self-employed task of translating the works of others, and  in a critical moment of the novel, Jake rejects Madge's offer of easy sinecure (175).  “'The fact is that I must live my own life,'” he tells her, adding, “'And it simply doesn't lie in this direction'” (179).

            Dixon's scholarly work “The Economic Influence of the Development in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485” is similarly intellectual in nature, yet unlike Jake who has put his heart into its creation (“when I read the thing through it began to occur to me that it was rather good”), Jim feels his article's “worth could be expressed in one short hyphenated indecency” (Murdoch 62; Amis 15).  Certainly, this admission is clear evidence that Jim has not found his place professionally either within the academic community or within British society at large.  As in Under the Net, characters in Lucky Jim also act often upon impulse or sheer mishap.  Dixon's ongoing saga with the burnt bedclothes, for example, weaves it's way throughout the novel, mentioned even in the letter of dismissal from Professor Welch by novel's end (228).  Also, the stealing of the Barclay's taxi was generally unplanned, the opportunity simply presenting itself and Jim taking taking advantage of that opportunity (129).  Finally, Dixon embarks upon a new career path after his disillusionment with academia, yet unlike Jake, Jim is not necessarily working from any plan or desired path, rather allowing chance--or luck--to dictate the current direction of his life.  Certainly, though, Jim's circumstances may turn out more fortuitous than those he previously possessed.  “'It's not that you've got the qualifications, for this or any other work,'” his new employer and Christina's uncle Gore-Urquhart points out, but he adds, “You haven't got the disqualifications, though, and that's much rarer'” (234). 

            This, in particular, is an area in which Amis's novel is a bit weaker than Murdoch's Under the Net.  Gore-Urquhart's offer of employment and Christine's return to Dixon upon leaving Bertrand feel a little contrived.  Telling Dixon that he's “. . . the sort of man who'd never be happy whatever [he] did” then subsequently running to him may not be wholly within her character (202).  Added to that is the fact that Christine, who in the same cafe scene with Jim emphasizes his commitment and responsibility to Margaret, now sees Jim as readily available when he meets her at the train station by novel's end.  Her sudden willingness to forget her own words and advice—without ever being privy to Jim's revelation concerning the alleged motives of Margaret's suicide attempt--seems a bit disingenuous.  The text is believable, though, as when Jim finally confronts Bertrand Welch.  Rather than simply placating people as he often does--at least to their faces--Jim speaks his mind at last: “The bloody old towser-faced boot-faced totem-pole on a crap reservation, Dixon thought.  'You bloody old towser-faced boot-faced totem-pole on a crap reservation,' he said” (209).  The vocalization of what otherwise would have remained an internal thought is a substantial turning point in the novel, for this choice to speak his mind indicates a certain, if subtle, change in assertiveness.  Although Jim still exhibits immature behavior as by continuing to make his characteristic faces at the novel's end, he is nonetheless on the road to change, even if the evidence for such change isn't as strong as the changes Jake makes in Under the Net.  All-in-all, Murdoch's novel is, in comparison, more believable throughout the story.  Although Donaghue does not miraculously get the girl in the same sense that Jim gets Christine, careful readers, nonetheless, have the sense that of the two protagonists, Jake is better positioned than Jim to obtain happiness.  Instead of attempting to apply a grid of assumption and analysis to practically everything he encounters, as was his way throughout the novel, Donaghue, in the final lines of the book, breaks this pattern and simply accepts life as the mystery it is: “'Don't know why it is,' I said.  'It's just one of the wonders of the world'” (253).  On the other hand, Jim continues engaging in behavior that suggests he has not changed as perceptibly as Murdoch's protagonist, as at the novel's end when Jim engages the Welch entourage with a “fruity comic-butler voice” and a “howl of laughter” (251).

            In all, Lucky Jim and Under the Net share thematic and stylistic elements, as well as similarities of characterization, that make reading and comparing these novels an enjoyable experience for the reader.  Both works feature the very complicated lives of two disenfranchised young men who come to find, if not the perfect path for their lives, at least a new profound sense of self and a departure from what they had been doing.  Through differing circumstance, they change their careers, alter their relationships with the women in their lives, and find new habitations that are the result, arguably, of the changes they have made—or have begun to make-- within themselves.  In the end, both protagonists are closer to finding their place in the post-modern world.

Works Cited

Amis, Kingsley. Lucky Jim. New York: Penguin, 1976.

Murdoch, Iris. Under the Net. New York: Penguin, 1977.

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