by Kingsley Amis
Lucky Jim Introduction
In A Nutshell
Before we get to why Jim was so lucky, let's talk shop.
Kingsley Amis was part of a 1950s literary movement that was known as the "Angry Young Men," a group of anti-establishment British writers who wrote biting satire about different aspects of British society. Kind of like the American Beat Generation Writers, but with cooler accents. Amis eventually became one of England's most productive and famous writers. He wrote everything: poetry, essays, novels, sci-fi, even some James Bond fan fiction.
Published in 1954, Lucky Jim was Amis's way of mocking England's "redbrick" universities, which were built in industrial towns just before World War I to help regular folks get an education. But even in these colleges with plenty of working class and middle class students, Amis saw stuffy British culture completely choking the energy out of everyday life—especially the life of a young man who might prefer glasses of beer to cups of tea.
"Prefer" being a massive understatement here.
Through Jim's observations, Amis does a satirical number on British university life of the 1950s. With its bumbling professors and silly lecturers, Amis makes us wonder why anyone would ever take the university seriously as an institution. (Shmoop disclaimer: Stay in school.) Kingsley Amis was just a young man himself—not long out of college—when he wrote this book. He taught at a college not unlike Jim Dixon's, so he was really familiar with the kinds of characters he was satirizing.
It doesn't take long to realize that Jim Dixon's an angry young man himself. He wants to play by his own rules, but to keep his job he has to play by the rules of people he detests. He's annoyed—no, make that infuriated—by 90 percent of the people he meets—no, make that 95 percent—and has to put up with a parade of boring, pretentious snobs and posers. And his sometime-girlfriend is a master manipulator. Jim's favorite coping strategy for all this? Deep breathing and meditation.
Oh wait. We mean drinking himself into a stupor.
Yep, our hero Jim Dixon's a drunkard. Jim tries to be inebriated as often as his paltry salary will allow. Going through life in an alcohol fog eventually wreaks havoc on his academic career via a disastrous, but hilarious, drunk lecture. But in the end, despite his many flaws, Jim gets the pretty girl, the job, and the last laugh.
Sorry for the spoiler.
Why Should I Care?
Let's face it—we've all felt like Holden Caulfield at times, surrounded by phonies and thinking that there's nobody authentic and decent left in the world over the age of ten. We all know what it's like to have to put up with know-it-alls, pretentious artsy types, absent-minded teachers or incompetent bosses. You might feel like locking your English teacher in the closet, but hey, you need him to write a college recommendation, so that's not an option. You might think you have 20 IQ points on your boss, but you do what you're told because she's the one with the power to can you.
So you go along, doing the best you can to hang on to your self-respect while learning to compromise and trying not to feel totally helpless.
It's not always easy to stuff the frustration down, and Amis knows it. Much of our time with this book is spent inside Jim's head, which is filled with hilarious fantasies of what he would do to so-and-so if only…
In public, Jim kowtows to the powers-that-be. In private, he mimics their way of talking, makes crazy faces, and rants at the universe. We can relate. Especially in high school and college, most of us have serious constraints on our behavior by the folks in authority. Isn't that what most YA fiction is about? Of course, far be it from Shmoop to advocate an "anything goes" lifestyle or feral existence. But it's important nonetheless to try to remain honest and self-respecting even when surrounded by idiots—even if we do fantasize about taking a few of them down.
Amis seems to suggest that the only possible way to cope with these insufferable people and ridiculous situations is to remain as drunk as possible for as long as possible. At least, that's what Jim Dixon does, because he feels completely out of control of his future. But in the end, that doesn't help at all. (He's lucky to be alive at all after passing out in bed while smoking a cigarette.) What does eventually rescue Jim, and maybe us, is a little bold action and risk-taking. Jim starts his own small personal revolution after he decides he's just not gonna take it anymore.
…And nobody really gets hurt.
And hey, while we're all busy learning these valuable life lessons, we're going to get more than a few laughs out of Amis. His writing can sometimes get a little wordy and stilted to our young American ears. But if you stick with it, you're bound to laugh out loud a half-dozen times. His awareness of human foibles (that's right, we said foibles) is as good as you're going to find in any writer.