MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.1 (2001) 92-117
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Cities of Affluence: Masculinity, Class, and The Angry Young Men
In Key to the Door (1961), Alan Sillitoe's autobiographical novel set in Nottingham during the 1930s, Harold Seaton takes his young son, Brian, to watch the demolition of their erstwhile home. Succumbing to the escalating slum clearances of the 1930s, "the Albion Yard area [. . .] was to be the target of bombs from buzzing two-winged aeroplanes" (17), a review of the approaching martial confrontation. 1 Seaton had moved his family to another building, also condemned, during the previous night to avoid the rent collectors. "You'd think the Jerries was after us," one of the family's friends jokes as they shift their meager possessions under the cover of darkness. "The rent man is, and that's worse," replies a hapless Seaton (14).
The fortunes of the Seaton family have improved considerably in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), Sillitoe's commercially successful novel about working-class life in the 1950s. Arthur, the younger brother of Brian and the protagonist of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, has only vague memories of the family's prewar indigence. He thinks himself lucky "to see the TV standing in the corner of the living-room" (22) of their modest, "four-roomed" (39) terrace home. "The old man was happy at last," Arthur mumbles to himself as he watches his father [End Page 92] propped in front of the television for hours at a time: "a sit-down job at the factory, all the Woodbines he could smoke, money for a pint if he wanted one, though he didn't as a rule drink" (22). For the thousands of employees at the local bicycle factory where Arthur and his father work, there was "no more short-time like before the war," everyone "took home good wages," and no one feared "getting the sack if you stood ten minutes in the lavatory reading your Football Post" (23). The times of supplementing one's mid-day meal with "a penny bag of chips to eat with your bread" were over because "you got fair wages if you worked your backbone to a string of conkers"; with this newfound prosperity "you could save up for a motor-bike or even an old car, or you could go on a ten-day binge and get rid of all you'd saved" (23). With steady employment and readily available commodities, the postwar years represented, by comparison, a life of novel and remarkable affluence.
For the Angry Young Men, 2 however, this new affluence did not translate into feelings of serenity or satisfaction. Instead, as the name of the group suggests, many of the male protagonists represented in this body of literature fulminate against the society in which they find themselves, criticizing its politics, morality, jobs, women, and the widespread complacency they perceive. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a typical "Angry" text in this respect. Arthur Seaton both articulates his class position and consolidates a masculine identity by displaying anger and deploying a rhetoric of displeasure. Traditional readings of this body of literature have emphasized the working-class politics these texts seem to announce, though this is a matter of some debate. 3 It is tempting to read Seaton's violent outbursts as prima facie evidence of a working-class political consciousness. At the heart of his political dissatisfaction, however, lies a deep ambivalence; his political stance is contingent and unstable. At times, he seems to side with an anonymous legion of the discontented working class, denouncing the government, commodity culture, and the life of regular employment. Elsewhere, he discards his oppositional stance and eagerly participates in the new culture of affluence and the economic stability of the welfare state.
The language of anger both encodes and disguises the protagonist's political ambivalence, and it is this ambivalence that structures Seaton's experience of class. I argue that the novel's conflicted political discourse grows out of the social circumstances created during the rise of the...