there is more to be said of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Arthur’s life in the factory is not the centre of his revolt. The book presents, in essence, Arthur Seaton in a state of being oppressed. It is not the traditional sort of oppression. He is not starved, or beaten, or shot. He is not even underpaid. He is bamboozled and used, and he lives under threat.
The point to take is not merely that Arthur is violent and irresponsible (he is, and he sometimes takes pleasure in it), but that he lives in that kind of world. His prosperity and that of his family, he sees as due to the ’39 war. Before that was unemployment and misery. “War was a marvellous thing when you thought how happy it had made some people in England”. Nevertheless, war was liable to wipe you out at any moment. It is the most powerful god of the age.
Arthur’s gods are not merely powerful, they are out of reach; he can place a few of their priests and agents—Robboe, the rent-collector, the police, politicians—but these are only representatives, only comparatively powerful. At the centre are “they”, the remote, and the abstract. The H-bomb is an affair of the Yanks and Moscow. Even his factory, boosting
The most important perception is of this predicament, this “new man”, and of the circumstances in which, for him, all law and order is “based on the raw edge of fang and claw”. The presentation is in sufficient depth for the reader to be able to go beyond Alan Sillitoe’s uncritical admiration for Arthur. We take from a book what is realised, and the reader must see Arthur as embodying more of the victim than Alan Sillitoe posits. Arthur’s attitude is, after all, ambivalent. Before the fight he reflects on the satisfaction it would give him to destroy “houses or human beings”, and afterwards he makes no attempt to see Brenda and Winnie again, not through fear of another beating, but in acknowledgement of the reigning power. Arthur is against authority because he is not there himself, and this is a sign of the magnitude of the oppression he suffers. Power is what he values. He reflects over Doreen, “his own catch had been made and he would have to wrestle with it for the rest of his life”.
There is, then, no effective working out of the forces within Arthur; it is not that kind of book; his view of the world remains the same and he continues to reflect it in his life and thoughts. Certainly the necessary work of the novelist has nothing to do with manipulating an unlikely change in the chief character, and the formal close (as one must see it) seems the best bet. It is not a weakness that the whole business of the duplicity, hypocrisy and violence that Arthur sees coming to him from above, and that he passes on to others, is given its value contrast outside Arthur’s situation, in the direct relationships between the people of the town, less self-centred than Arthur’s own, and especially at the party, which I do not find independent of the rest, as Rod Prince suggests (NLR 6). The unity of the book is not in its narrative line, but in its placing of values.
Rod Prince further writes that the book’s qualities are “non-literary”, and that, “the language is for the most part unliterary”. However “chief among its qualities are its creation of a very real central character in Arthur Seaton, and its direct evocation of Arthur’s world”. There is certainly some carelessness, mainly in the few places where Alan Sillitoe is speaking in his own voice, and there is an occasional inflation— matters that could and should be corrected. Apart from this the language is as powerful as the scenes and modes it evokes. A “brilliant novel” in “unliterary language” reflects more hardly on literary language than on the novel.
It is perhaps worth noting that the kind of book this is depends on whether the structures of our society are in fact oppressive. If they are, then this book reveals Arthur as a man who, though constructive in thought, is, as a victim, highly sensitive to social and political pressures and deceits. If they are not, then Arthur is suffering the pangs of adolescence with delusions, and the book on this level is not especially perceptive.