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Lucky Jim | Themes

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Class Hypocrisy

The hypocrisy of social class is Lucky Jim's major theme. Amis was obsessed with the ridiculousness of social propriety, especially in 1950s England. The British class tradition dictated behavior almost from birth: a shopkeeper's son kept a shop and married a shopkeeper's daughter. Amis began by transcending his own lower-middle-class origins. From there he could see the ridiculous notions holding people trapped in their own specified worlds.

As James Dixon struggles with his own destiny, he repeatedly realizes his lack of family money affects his ability to move out of his boring and boorish occupation at the college. He finds the Welches' obsession with "art" and "music" hypocritical. Their ideas of such things are squarely provincial; they like only what they can understand: madrigals, realistic painting, and tradition.

Dixon responds to his own frustrations by making hideous faces behind the backs of those he hates, playing ridiculous pranks, and becoming wildly and inappropriately drunk at social gatherings. When he finally breaks free of the college, he dreams of a London where he can stretch and figure out his own desires: for sex, love, and engagement with the world.

The Sentimentality of Tradition

"Merrie England" is the title of Dixon's lecture—a lecture that leads to his doom at the college. Dixon ends his presentation by declaring the Middle Ages the most "un-Merrie period" in British history. He asks himself whether people have ever been as "nasty, as self-indulgent, as dull, as miserable, as cocksure, as bad at art" or as downright "wrong" as in that period. Why sentimentalize the moment when England was decimated in the Black Death while everyone frisked around playing recorders? Yet Dixon feels constantly bombarded by the misconception that there once was an England of simple pleasures and rustic charm. The Welches embody this absurd belief. Their overt sentimentality leads Dixon to drink. Their standard cruelty and intolerance only confirms Dixon's idea: sentimentality for the past masks a deep displeasure in the world as it is.

Relations between the Sexes

Lucky Jim is a novel about sex containing no sex. Everyone talks about "sexual intercourse" or "sexual attraction," but they rarely progress past a chaste kiss. When Dixon attempts to bed Margaret, she is infuriated and kicks him out of her room. Supposedly her previous boyfriend, Catchpole, pulled a "love 'em and leave 'em" on her, triggering her suicide attempt. However, Catchpole later tells Dixon he and Margaret never slept together.

The only character who seems to be having sex is Bertrand Welch, in his love affair with Carol Goldsmith. However, he treats Carol as a mere sex object—infuriating her in the process—while claiming he will marry the pure Christine.

England in the 1950s was—like the United States—gripped by the idea of sexual purity, although this idea made little sense following the brutality and freedoms of World War II. During the war women finally were allowed to pursue careers outside hearth and home. Naturally they also enjoyed a measure of sexual freedom. Men in the armed services also had affairs and sexual entanglements. Still, homosexuality remained illegal in England during this period, and premarital sex was not for "nice" people.

Amis is frank in his portrayal of Dixon's sexual desires as well as Margaret and Christine's need to maintain their chastity. Amis, a man of his time, does not give readers any hint of Margaret's or Christine's own sexual desires and preferences, nor does he link Margaret's supposed neurosis and hysteria to the pressure of maintaining her "virtue."

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