Places: Lucky Jim

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1954

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social satire

Time of work: Mid-twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedRedbrick university

Redbrick Lucky Jimuniversity. Unnamed provincial university at which Dixon lectures in history. Kingsley Amis first conceived the idea for Lucky Jim while visiting his friend Philip Larkin at the University of Leicester. He realized that the fictional portrayal of such an insular and parochial community had not previously been attempted. Before Lucky Jim, novelistic treatments of English university life had involved either Oxford or Cambridge, but with the return of so many soldiers after World War II, both as pupils and teachers, provincial universities, commonly referred to by their construction of red brick (as opposed to the dreaming, granite spires of “Oxbridge”), became much more significant in the intellectual life of the country.

Originally called Hamberton, Jim’s unnamed university is fairly generic, as is the city in which it is placed, unspecified by region and minimally described. Amis borrowed one symbolic detail from the University of Leicester: its location across the street from a cemetery. Otherwise, the campus is strictly portrayed in functional terms; it has a library, common rooms, laboratories, but nothing seemingly worth describing in anything but generalities. At the end of the novel, the campus does not even inspire Jim to take one last look when he leaves. Although the university is a fitting location for the “crappy culture” that Amis later noted as an important element in the novel, it must be kept in mind that many of these judgments are Jim’s and not necessarily Amis’s.

Interestingly, the only rooms that are described in detail are those in which the Summer Ball takes place. These walls are decorated with historical, martial illustrations that Jim, a reluctantly aspiring professor of history, cannot (or will not) identify. However, these murals are fitting, in a mock epic sort of way, since the Summer Ball marks the first important battle between Jim and Bertrand Welch for the favor of Christine. It also brings Jim to the attention of his “fairy-godfather,” Gore-Urquhart.

Welch home

Welch home. Suburban dwelling of Professor Welch, the head of the university’s history department. Also never completely described, it seems full of culturally pretentious bric-a-brac and trashy, trendy artworks. A statue of Buddha that adorns Jim’s guest room so disgusts him that he cannot name it but can only describe it (“a small china effigy, . . . in a squatting position, of a well-known Oriental religious figure”). Although Jim hates the place, particularly after suffering through an unpleasant weekend there, he finds himself drawn to it because of Welch’s importance to his future and the presence there of Christine Callaghan.

*London

*London. Great Britain’s capital city is Jim’s ultimate goal in his dream of escape, which he achieves upon becoming Gore-Urquhart’s secretary. Jim’s own name (Dixon sounds like “Dick’s son”) contains a partial allusion to a previous young man from the provinces, Dick Whittington, who dreamed of going to London and succeeding. Curiously, London is never fully visualized in Jim’s thoughts, although he admits having gone there perhaps a dozen times; it appears only as a strangely two-dimensional vision of chimney pots surmounted by a bank of clouds. This deflationary image is in keeping with the general tone of the book. At the end of the novel, Jim admits that the one section of London he will not live in is Chelsea, presumably because of its reputation as a neighborhood of artists.

BibliographyBradford, Richard. Kingsley Amis. London: Edward Arnold, 1989. A brief but incisive volume, in which Bradford argues that most critics have failed to grasp the complex nature and intentions of Amis’ work. Concludes by labeling him a “comic misfit” inspired by the novelist and essayist G. K. Chesterton and the poet A. E. Housman.Gardner, Philip. Kingsley Amis. Boston: Twayne, 1981. Dated because it does not cover Amis’ entire career, but still a reliable introduction to his earlier novels, stories, and poetry.McDermott, John. Kingsley Amis: An English Moralist. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. An important study emphasizing not only the moral seriousness of Amis’ work but also its generally underrated intellectual and aesthetic range. McDermott examines why Lucky Jim was so successful upon publication and why it remains popular.Moseley, Merritt. Understanding Kingsley Amis. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. A basic, accessible survey, in which the author describes Lucky Jim as “one of the key books of the English 1950’s” and goes on to place it in the context of Amis’ subsequent work. Includes a good bibliography.Salwak, Dale. Kingsley Amis: Modern Novelist. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992. An extended, sympathetic biographical and critical study written with Amis’ assistance. Lucky Jim is considered independently and in the context of Amis’ subsequent development, particularly in relation to the dark later novel Jake’s Thing (1978). Salwak declares that Dixon is so appealing because his adventures allow us to “break free from well-ordered, sensible lives.”
Categories: Places