Monday, March 12, 2018

Literary Analysis: Alan Sillitoe’s “Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”

Alan Sillitoe’s “Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” reflects the siege mentality of the working classes. “Government wars aren't my wars; they've got nowt to do with me, because my own war's all that I'll ever be bothered about.” Sillitoe’s works exemplified a revolt against the Establishment that echoed conformity as opposed to instinctive individuality. This constitutes the ‘honesty’ of the protagonist in Alan Sillitoe’s “Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”. The novelist internalizes injustice and externalizes the same through his works that verge on Kitchen Sink Realism. The novel reflects privations of the novelist’s upbringing, domestic violence, collective discrimination, the ‘siege mentality’ of the working classes and the resultant triviality and transitory nature of their lives. Influenced by Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists(1914), Sillitoe treats the working classes as full-fledged characters, not as stereotypes or caricatures. He underlines the frustrations that springs from the inanity of their employment. On the contrary, people from the establishment refer to themselves as ‘we’ and function as a collective noun throughout the novel, devoid of distinctiveness. 
For the protagonist of Sillitoe’s novel being lonely has more positive connotations than being a conformist in a compliant society. Jodi Picoult in My Sister's Keeper says, “Let me tell you this: if you meet a loner, no matter what they tell you, it's not because they enjoy solitude. It's because they have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint them.” Smith, the protagonist in the novel cannot see eye to eye with other people as he asserts that his honesty and that of the Governors were two different kinds of honesty. Smith’s honesty is not a conventional definition of honesty, as we witness in various instances: he lies on many instances. His definition of honesty lies in being original and individual regardless of the fact whether it is right or not. He avoids the company of the Established signified by the State, Law and even the Parent(his mother). Nietzsche had stated:"What the State has,is theft;what the State says,is lies." In this sense, the story resembles The Confessions of Nat Turner where a group of slaves break free and instead of escaping to their freedom find more pleasure in wreaking vengeance on their wrong-doers. Colin Smith keeps away also from his own class as he perceives them to be dead well before their time as they lived in a dormant existence of acquiescence. When he says that he felt like the first Man and last Man on earth, he refers to his definition of man as a rational animal capable of critical thinking and not kowtowing to existing rules and regulations. Smith is a reflection of his father, who fought against throat cancer, and chose to live a life of dignity on his own meager earnings at his home, fighting the excruciating pain of caner rather than dying in borrowed care at a hospital.
The story of Smith is the story of a juvenile delinquent who is imprisoned in Borstal on charges of robbery. They tempt him with the idea of escaping his term if he wins a cross-country race for the Blue Ribbon Prize that would in turn bring fame to the institution. Smith pretends to work very hard towards the prize when he plans at the very outset that this is one race he is going to work hard only to lose. He would train himself rigorously so that the Governor would be positive that he would win the race hands down. He wants the blow to sink in real hard which is why he makes the chances of winning quite bright. The governor treats him as his prize race-horse, as a creature devoid of rationale. His act of turning down the TV volume when the cops come on the screen so that they appear like goldfish who move their mouths, appears to be an inversion of the former metaphor of the race-horse. Through the image of the gold fish, the protagonist manages to trivialize the establishment as though it were a creature of domestication that once removed from the water that was its refuge would immediately drop dead. Moreover, the idea of regulating the volume also presents a subversion of roles where the remote-control lies in the hands of the lesser half. This sedition in the early stage is just a prelude to what follows in the climax. He is reminded that he will lead an ‘honest’ life if he wins the race; but his honesty signifies being original as opposed to the conventional definition of being honest. It is more in line with David Gregory Roberts definition in Shantaram: ”Truth is a bully we all pretend to like”. “Sillitoe offends our moral sense by having his thief stubbornly refuse repentance, but he maintains our interest by showing how the man keeps his integrity while under the physical and legal authority of those whom he despises,” says John R. Clark. Smith’s originality is based on instinctive individuality that is undeterred and unadulterated. At the end of the story, he is content with the fact that he was the owner of his own decision.

The title of the story “The Loneliness of the Lon Distance Runner” echoes the theme of the story. The positive connotations of loneliness reverberate in the title as in privacy, individuality and having no one to tell you what to do. If he is lonely, he is lonely out of choice .His state of loneliness is the only state that enables him to critically think in peace, as he mentions that jogging in loneliness helped him sort out things. Joseph Conrad had said in the Heart of Darkness ;” “We live as we dream--alone....” .The action of running signifies escapism from the doctrines of the state and the dictates of society. It also stands for a race to avoid the rat race. According to Smith, the physical oppression or being confined to the Borstal prison was better than the mental oppression the working classes experienced and the defensive bunk mentality they harboured. There are constant references to climbing over walls and fences expressing his inclination to cross boundaries ;it also dismantles boundaries with reference to identities that are predefined or stereotypes. This inversion of identity points to his honesty in spite of being conventionally dishonest, or being the protagonist despite being conservatively a villain. The gang disrupting the picnic of a sophisticated group of boys and girls pulls the carpet away, or foundation, from where they were standing. He anticipates a big boot that may smash his own picnic anytime. The boot is reminiscent of the boot in Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” a symbol of dictatorship. His pal Mike is shown to be physically strong leading an animal- life devoid of reason, but Smith appears to be mentally more strong in his undeterred resolve. There is the recurrent image of woods in the story reminiscent of Robert Frost’s archetype that stood for ‘indecision’. The runner that gives up in the cross-country race disappears into the woods. On the other hand, Smith spends his whole life destabilizing foundations when he alludes to his ”natural long life of stone breaking.”
“If you play ball with us, we’ll play ball with you”,says the Governor. This forms the crux of the logic-based theory of the in-laws. The cause/effect dichotomy is another predictable pattern that the writer wants to deconstruct. The cops want to make him into a reformed man, but they end up making him into a chronic burglar. He asserts at the outset that it is “not that “them ” and “us” don't “see eye to eye”, but that “that's how it stands and how it will always stand”. He anticipates from the outset, that things are not meant to change, and therefore adopts such a stand. So, Smith’s pessimism in his outlook leads to optimism in his Life. He is more happy than jealous that his accomplice Mike escapes his punishment. Tragedy (death of the father) leads to comedy. His disease pleurisy is supposed to stunt his freedom, but it proves to be a blessing in disguise as it disqualifies Colin Smith from entering into the National Service( army).So his handicap becomes his greatest strength. One runs a race to essentially win; but the anti-hero here desperately strives to lose .He loses the race, but HE wins. As Allen R. Penner states,” Sillitoe had produced a remarkable and sympathetic portrait of a recalcitrant, revolutionary young man whose extreme views were not necessarily those of the author.”
©Rukhaya MK 2012
Published in the print journal Glimpses– An International Journal of Multi Disciplinary Research ISSN 2250-0561(2014)).
References:
Allen R. Penner ,"Human Dignity and Social Anarchy: Sillitoe's The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1969 (© 1969 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 253-65.
John R. Clark, in Saturday Review, October 16, 1971, p. 69.

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