In 1954, “Lucky Jim” was a new planet: When Kingsley Amis wrote it, English satirical fiction had been for a third of a century a decidedly mandarin and highbrow business. Unlike his predecessors, Amis depicts representatives of the lower orders and the previously inaccessible university world that is not so much a garden of philosophy as a graveyard of stuffed shirts.

Most people will agree that higher education, examined from within or without, is in a bad state generally and has been for a considerable time. Certainly, no other article of such high cost without corresponding value could exist for long, were so many students of average means not irrationally forced into the system in the name of employment prospects. A remedy for this situation is not yet obvious and will likely be applied when all other means of relief are exhausted or unavailable. Institutional dead weight, whether in politics, the Church, or the schools, is of its nature difficult to shift, especially when the livelihoods of so many functionaries stand on the basis of its not being shifted. The life of the postwar university, as it draws to its probable end, has not yet found its historian. Yet while still fairly young, it found its satirist in Kingsley Amis, who in 1954 gave the English-speaking world the definitive comedy of collegiate manners in Lucky Jim, which remains, at nearly seventy, his most popular fiction.

The book, on its first appearance, made additions of real value to the practice and style of literary vituperation. Jim was a new planet: When Amis wrote it, English satirical fiction had been for a third of a century a decidedly mandarin and highbrow business. Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, Rose Macaulay, and a few smaller names divided the territory between them, and all of these were old enough to remember the closing years of the Edwardian world before the apocalypse of 1914 and the train of disruptions which followed. Each of these writers had a developed and individual style of his own, but none of them is remotely “populist” or “democratic.” The New Man, a product of mass education and no real culture, is always a suspect character in Waugh’s books, and if neither Mitford nor Macaulay were, like Waugh, authors of the political right, their best-known works take place in worlds into which the lower orders rarely enter. In Lucky Jim representatives of these same orders have walked through the gates and have found that the previously inaccessible university world is not so much a garden of philosophy as a graveyard of stuffed shirts.

The novel’s protagonist, Jim Dixon, is a character who has risen just far enough to discover that there are invisible ceilings designed to prevent his rising further. He is a man of no conspicuous advantages: He is lower-middle class, short, plain, clumsy, incompletely educated, and speaks with a discernible North country accent—a combination of attributes not designed to help a man lay hold of any of life’s other prizes. At the story’s beginning, he holds an insecure position at an unnamed provincial college, working to acquire postgraduate credentials in the field of history. The exact nature of his studies is the seed of a central motif in the book, namely, the sheer uselessness of much of what passes for learning in the modern academy; Dixon’s thesis bears the dismal title The Economic Influence of the Development of Medieval Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485. Jim’s imperfect self steals into our sympathies in part because of his ability to articulate the absurdity of his professional status while at the same time being unable to do anything about it; at one point in the novel, when he is unburdening himself of his frustrations to a friend, he observes, “Haven’t you noticed how we all specialize in what we hate most?” This rhetorical question must make every graduate student living feel a slight twinge of unease. Mentally bludgeoned by a sixteen-stone sense of futility, neither has Jim any reason to be thankful for his academic overseers.

No greater example of the sedulous bore was ever created than Jim’s mentor Professor Welch, with his musical teas, trivial and tedious conversation, and jealous guardianship of his own titles (“No other professor in Great Britain, he thought, set such store on being called Professor”). The Casaubonesque Welch is a playful variation on the absent-minded professor: He is less quaintly senescent than simply uninterested in the thoughts or pastimes of anyone besides himself. He is a fossil who happens still to be technically alive; the type of character in whose company time is mostly spent in contemplating possible means of escape:

Welch was talking yet again about his concert. How had he become Professor of History, even at a place like this? By published work? No. By extra good teaching? No in italics. Then how? As usual, Dixon shelved this question, telling himself that what mattered was that this man had decisive power over his future, at any rate for the next four or five weeks were up… But did Welch notice who else was there when he talked, and if he noticed did he remember, and if he remembered, would it affect such thoughts as he had already?

More than a few complications impair Jim’s private as well as his professional life. He is in a not-steady-but-almost relationship with a depressive woman named Margaret Peel, for whom the best that can be said is that she has about as many fine qualities as a woman as Jim has as a man. Jim, for his part, takes the several blows of mischance with anything but stoic calm. Much of the novel’s comedy resides in his reactions, articulate and otherwise, to the repeated humiliations that befall him in his pathetic attempts to remain in good standing with his superiors. He has all the hatred of a thin-skinned slave; and where he cannot resist or retort, he falls back on the slave’s only revenge, mocking the master behind the master’s back. In his case, this mockery mainly takes the form of making crude and grotesque faces at whoever has just left the room after cutting Jim down to size. Amis treats us to an uproarious catalogue of these expressions, which include the Mad Peasant Face, the Shot-in-the-Back Face, the Edith Sitwell and the Sex Life in Ancient Rome.

As our acquaintance with Jim and his situation grows more familiar, we realize that victory for him does not entail advancement in the uninspiring profession he has somehow fallen into; what he needs instead is a place to stand where he will no more be belittled, one from which he can look down on his adversaries and hold them in derision. Ultimately, Lucky Jim is a revenge tale. If, in many ways, Jim Dixon and his maker are quite different men, the novel does much to make us think that Orwell had a point when he wrote that one of the mainsprings of creative writing is a desire to get back at those who slighted us earlier in life. (Case in point: the unbearable Professor Welch, described above, was inspired by Amis’s father-in-law.)

Sexual jealousy pulls more than a few strings here, as it does in most of Amis’s stories. Jim, dissatisfied with the present state of his romantic life, is instantly bowled over on meeting the beautiful and well-connected Christine. In her he sees a desirable replacement for the charmless Margaret, who, when Amis first presents her as she appears in Jim’s imagination, is described as the kind of woman who wears dour paisley dresses matched with “quasi-velvet shoes.” Here may be as useful a place as any to acknowledge once more Amis’s frequently ungallant treatment of women. This being granted, Amis could hardly have handled the matter of Margaret vs. Christine differently, as they, and everything in the book, appear to us essentially not as they are but as they are in the eyes of Jim, and Jim is exactly the sort of character to appraise a woman by the simultaneously exacting and shallow standard of glamour or the lack of it. A fictional paramour must lose certain dimensions when strained through the mind of a man whose god is his belly. Jim’s tastes and appetites are basic—cigarettes, ale, and (a distant third) sex—of these he will take as much can be had without undue cost or complication. Yet Jim would not be Jim if he had a well-developed sense of moderation. He is the victim of the most famous hangover in the history of the novel, which piety demands should be here quoted in full:

Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of the morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.

Somehow it is that last sentence that brings the paragraph over the border of perfection. This is not Jim’s only unhappy engagement with the bottle, either; the story climaxes with his inebriated delivery of a long-dreaded public lecture on the open-ended subject of “Merrie England” after he has over-fortified himself in preparation for the performance, which, needless to say, he does not bring to an elegant conclusion. Having horrified his university colleagues and superiors, Jim is sacked. But however much his own fumbling and boorishness seem like more than enough weight to carry the hapless Dixon down and out, Chance emerges from behind the scenes to pull him out of the whirlpool. The Random Wealthy Patron, that mainstay of the Dickens canon, appears in the form of Christine’s deep-pocketed uncle to offer Jim a job as his private secretary, and Jim accepts. Christine, too, throws herself into his lap after breaking things off with Bertrand, Professor Welch’s loathsome prig of a son, and the book closes with an encounter where the now-triumphant Jim is finally (and literally) given the last laugh. The lowbrow is exalted and the highbrow is brought low, and so closes this Oaf’s Magnificat.

Like too many good comedies, Jim has occasionally been handled by the wrong kind of critic as being, at heart, a “weighty” book in clownish costume. In a joint interview with Amis recorded in 1962, C.S. Lewis offered a brief consolation to the younger author who, he said, “wrote a farce and everyone assumed it was a damning indictment of Redbrick [universities]. I’ve always had great sympathy for you. They will not understand that a joke is a joke.” We may imagine which of his many faces Jim would pull on his humorless interpreters. Certainly, we will always have with us those who need reminding that sometimes humor and ridicule need not be legitimized through any forced marriage to some graver purpose. It is enough that life’s Malvolios are laughed off the stage, windy pretensions are punctured, and that even the unhandsome dog should now and then receive a bone for his troubles.

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The featured image is a self-portrait (1907) by Anders Zorn (1860–1920) and is in the public domain. It has been brightened slightly for clarity and appears here, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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