Anger and dissent in SNSM
The poetics of dissent in SNSM
The sweeping assertion “ONCE A rebel, always a rebel,” soliloquised by Alan Sillitoe’s character Arthur Seaton in SNSM published in 1958, echoes the dissent of the Angry Young Men of the late fifties and sixties in Britain and functions as a binding theme and narrative strategy yoking together the different fragments of the novel.
The purpose of this paper is to study the various aspects of the anti-hero’s dissenting action, assess the limits of his rebellion and eventually relate the complexity of the narrative to a larger corpus of literature that is more likely to be dubbed “literature of dissent” rather than “literature of exhaustion” (John Barth 70 – 83); although Sillitoe’s novel may partake of both. Such subversive trends, typical of post-war British literature, permeate a wide spectrum of working-class ethics ranging from mere industrial dissent to more life-enhancing assent. The ultimate purpose of such literary representation of modern life in Britain is to question, at the same time, the bourgeois standards of profitability and the controversial identity of the marginally subversive working-class anti-hero trapped between hope and despair, revolt and submission.
The elusiveness and ambiguity of such characters are exposed at length in various works such as: SNSM (Arthur), “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (Smith) by Sillitoe; Billy Liar (Billy) by Keith Waterhouse; Animal Farm (the pigs) by George Orwell; they are also dramatised in Look Back in Anger (Jimmy Porter) by John Osborne, and in The Caretaker (Aston, Davies and Mick) by Harold Pinter, etc.
A bird’s eye view of the history of literature and of history at large may reveal a teeming cluster of dissatisfied heroes and anti-heroes who act and react against the extant authority and the established values of their predecessors. Greek mythology is replete with rebellious and warring gods and goddesses. Kronos “dethroned his father” Uranus “and was in turn dethroned by his son Zeus” (The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase & Fable 615). Atlas, the Titan, rebels against Zeus. Monotheistic religions are also full of dissidence: Satan emblemises disobedience and pride as opposed to divine clemency and bounty. He rebels against Almighty God, tempts Adam and Eve and subverts one third of the angels.
In his book Totem et Tabou. Quelques concordances entre la vie psychique des sauvages et celle des névrosés (qtd. in Kristeva 22), Freud demonstrates that the original “Oedipal revolt” carried out by the rival sons represents an archetypal deed of dissent against the domination of the father figure and signifies, at the same time, the appropriation of pleasure and power by the rebellious sons. Having killed and eaten their domineering father, the dissenting sons inaugurate, through the “totemic meal,” a religious and symbolic ritual that represents at once “revolt and feasting.”
Such a preliminary overview of various opposing realities shows that dissent and ambivalence may be inscribed in the order of things. Man’s worldview derives from his empirical belief that there may be no action without reaction, no harmony without entropy, no life without death, no agreement without conflict. All hangs in a dialectical, contrapuntal, delicate and tensed relationship.
Anger and dissent in SNSM
From the outset, Arthur Seaton appears as a proud young man rising to a record-breaking-beer-drinking challenge suggested by some character, nicknamed Loudmouth in the novel, who wants to show off in the presence of a female audience at the White Horse Club. “Big talkers” of Loudmouth’s ilk are contemptuously despised by Arthur; and by accepting the challenge, he hopes to “show him up and take him down to his right size” (7).
After defeating his opponent who goes “green half way through the tenth pint,” the narrator says, achieving thus an honourable record of drinking, Arthur manages to make a fool of himself, though. He tumbles and rolls down the stairs, nearly breaking his neck. Then after another drinking bout, he is literally sick over a bourgeois middle-aged man and his wife in the saloon bar. Needless to say that the whole event turns into a hilariously burlesque scene as the woman keeps yelling at the “stupefied” Arthur to “Apologise,” repeating: “Go on, apologise” (11).
In his dazed intoxication, Arthur could only see “teeth between open lips, narrowed eyes, claws raised” (12). The woman became “a tigress” (12).
Arthur must run away from the threatening woman. “Before she could spring he gathered all his strength and pushed through the crowd, impelled by a strong sense of survival towards the street-door, to take himself away from a scene of ridicule, disaster, and certain retribution.” (12)
Arthur has a peculiar awareness of his work at the factory. He knows that working conditions are appalling because the machine imposes its own speed and he has to put up with it, working like a robot (the “gaffer”’ or foreman is actually called “Robboe”). In order to cope with this maddening tempo of his job, Arthur uses cunning, he says
Cunning, he told himself gleefully, as he began the first hundred, dropping them off one by one at a respectable speed. Don’t let the bastards grind you down, as Fred used to say when he was in the Navy. (32)
For example, he works very fast in the morning and slowly in the afternoon, without letting his weekly earnings drop below a certain figure (roughly about £14 per week). He has to make believe that he works at a steady rhythm all day long otherwise the gaffer becomes suspicious and may lower his pay. He must also make sure that his wages do not rise above a certain level in order to avoid heavy taxation. Since he is doing piecework, his earnings vary according to his output. The lower the production, the poorer the wage is. But, ironically enough, if Arthur tries to increase his production above a certain standard, his wages are drastically reduced by taxes. So knowing this, Arthur slyly and skilfully keeps to a given production rate so that he may still enjoy good wages while eschewing unfair taxes and the foreman’s jealous suspicion.
Arthur’s industrial dissent reaches a peak when he starts fantasising about blowing up the whole factory with its maddening din. Apparently, Arthur cannot imagine anything more radical than a proper and final blast of the factory to voice his disaffection and contempt.
But if they said: ‘Look, Arthur, here’s a hundredweight of dynamite and a brand-new plunger, now blow up the factory,’ then I’d do it, because that’d be something worth doing. Action. […] I’d sit and laugh like a horse over what I’d done, at the wonderful sight of gaffers and machines and shining bikes going sky-high one wonderful moonlit night. Not that I’ve got owt [ sic ] against ’em, but that’s just how I feel now and again. Me, I couldn’t care less if the world did blow up tomorrow, as long as I’m blown up with it. […] But I’m having a good life and don’t care about anything, and it’d be a pity to leave Brenda […] especially now Jack’s been put on nights. (32)
Arthur’s impassioned monologue here conceals an indeterminate and confused frame of mind. Confusion results from the character’s inability to determine the real causes of his alienation, on the one hand, and his impulsive reaction to suppress such a frustrating situation, on the other. He wishes to “blow up” the factory, the people in it, the whole world including himself, although, he says, he has nothing “against ’em” (32). At the same time, he confesses that he is “having a good life” (32). What characterises Arthur actually is his lack of any significant action and above all his tendency to go “off into pipedreams” (31) even when he is working away at the lathe. Arthur’s apocalyptic vision of the whole thing shows that he can easily turn into a cynical sadist as he may then “sit and laugh like a horse… at the wonderful sight of gaffers and machines and shining bikes going sky-high one wonderful moonlit night” (32). On exposing the paradoxically fascinating (attractive/repulsive) romanticised fantasia of his character, Sillitoe almost succeeds in making Arthur Seaton likable.
When it comes to Arthur’s political awareness, it seems to be just as dimly formulated as his own industrial and social stance. Arthur seems to grope towards some kind of political awakening without ever achieving it in the course of the narrative. His dissatisfaction with the Conservatives and Labour, for example, reaches the point of outright hatred. He calls the Conservatives “these big fat Tory bastards in parliament” and Labour “bleeders” because they “rob our wage packets” (28). He considers himself a “lucky” worker sympathising with communism, little knowing what it actually means to be a communist. For instance, he does not believe “in share and share alike” (28). His reductive notion of communism as equated with better working conditions, fairer wages and less income tax, derives from his vested-interest and instinctive resistance to indoctrination.
I ain’t a communist, I tell you. I like ’em though, because they’re different from these big fat Tory bastards in parliament. And them Labour bleeders too. They rob our wage packets every week with insurance and income tax and try to tell us it’s all for our own good (…) when I’d made a big packet I’d settle down somewhere with fifteen women and fifteen cars, that I would do. (28)
Arthur confesses to Jack, his workmate and Brenda’s husband, that he voted “communist” at the last election out of sheer compassion for “the poor bloke” who might not “get any votes.” Ironically, he adds “I allus like to ’elp the losin’ side.” (28)
The poetics of dissent in SNSM
The character’s actual dissent and his fascinating inflammatory discourse hardly tally. Far from being a manifesto of dissident working-class propaganda, dramatises the anger and dreams of a twenty-two-year-old bike-factory worker and exposes in a glaring light the living and working conditions in the late 1950s in Nottingham. The novel, which was later adapted to the stage and the cinema, shows Arthur Seaton trapped in his daily routine, working like a slave at the lathe whenever he is not altogether engrossed in some devil-may-care revelry and mischief. More often than not, Arthur is portrayed as a picturesque, almost picaresque, out of time out of place anti-hero. There is something quixotic about him as the gap widens between his legitimate anger and his deviant solutions and shortcomings. His bragging is easily deflated by his own impulsiveness. He remains throughout attached to his “secret” revolt, while railing openly and never achieving any liberating breakthrough.
 See for example “Encore Freud: rebellion et sacrifice” in Sens et Non-sens de la Révolte by Julia Kristeva. Paris : Fayard. 1996, pp. 21 ff.
 “The minute you stepped out of the factory gates you thought no more about your work. But the funniest thing was that neither did you think about work when you were standing at your machine. You began the day by cutting and drilling steel cylinders with care, but gradually your actions became automatic and you forgot all about the machine and the quick working of your arms and hands and the fact that you were cutting and boring and rough-threading only within limits of only five thousandths of an inch.” (31)
- Quote paper
- Mansour Khelifa (Author), 2006, Dissent and Assent in Alan Sillitoe's Novel "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning". The Dilemma of Arthur Seaton, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/314249