Room at the Top Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1957

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1947

Locale: Warley, an imaginary town in Yorkshire, England

Characters DiscussedJoe Lampton

Joe Room at the TopLampton, an ambitious twenty-five-year-old accountant who takes a job in the municipal treasury of the City of Warley, in the northern English county of Yorkshire. The physical move from his hometown to Warley allows Joe to make a social move away from his working-class background. He tries to dress in a middle-class manner, and through the Warley Thespians, a theater group that he joins when he gets there, he learns more middle-class ways. He also faces a moral dilemma. Determined to get the best for himself, Joe is cold-blooded and calculating in his will to rise. For example, he used his time in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II to study accounting instead of planning heroic or patriotic deeds. The will to rise collides with his personal relationships. He meets two women at the Warley Thespians, Alice Aisgill and Susan Brown. He is attracted to Alice, and they have a passionate affair, but marriage with Susan, the daughter of Warley’s most powerful industrialist, would further his career. Joe chooses Susan, and Alice commits suicide. Joe knows that he is responsible for Alice’s death, but no one else blames him and he accepts marriage with Susan.

Alice Aisgill

Alice Aisgill, the thirty-four-year-old wife of a local businessman. She is unhappy and frustrated. She had given up an acting career in provincial repertory theater for marriage to a man who proved to be interested only in business. As an outlet for her frustration, she gets involved in the Warley Thespians. She also has affairs with younger men. Alice loves Joe but recognizes that he is self-centered and ambitious. She almost believes him when he talks about marriage, but her more realistic view of their relationship ultimately prevails. Still, when he abruptly dumps her for Susan, she is devastated. After going on a drinking binge, she misses a curve while driving too fast and is killed. Her friends think it was an accident, but it really was suicide.

Susan Brown

Susan Brown, an attractive nineteen-year-old woman, active with the Warley Thespians as a way of filling time until marriage. Daughter of the town’s most powerful economic and political figure, she has little education, few skills, and few interests. She is empty-headed and superficial. She is attracted to Joe because of his good looks and aura of sexuality, and because her parents (especially her mother) disapprove. Although she breaks off the relationship when she learns of Joe and Alice’s affair, she really wants him back and allows him to persuade her to meet. They make love, and she becomes pregnant. The two eventually marry.

Jack Wales

Jack Wales, Joe’s rival for Susan’s affections. He is a war hero from a rich business family. While Joe was studying accounting, Jack plotted a heroic breakout from the prisoner-of-war camp. While Joe drudges in his office, Jack drives a sporty car and attends an elite university. Joe sees Jack as the symbol of how the English class system weighs him down, blocking his rise. Jack turns out to be a lightweight, unable to maintain Susan’s interest.

Mr. Brown

Mr. Brown, Susan’s father. He is Warley’s leading industrialist and an important member of the town council. He, like Joe, came from a working-class background. His main concern is to keep fortune hunters away from Susan. He tests Joe’s resolve by offering to set Joe up in business if the latter promises to leave Warley and Susan. When Joe refuses to be bought, Mr. Brown agrees to the marriage and reveals that his daughter is pregnant. Mr. Brown sees in Joe the same determination and lack of scruples that he himself had shown in his rise, so he welcomes Joe into the family.

BibliographyAllsop, Kenneth. The Angry Decade: A Survey of the Cultural Revolt of the Nineteen-Fifties. London: Peter Owen, 1958. Although this book was written at the end of the very decade it discusses, it remains the single best study of that period in British literary history. Its chapter on Braine uses interviews with the author.Braine, John. Writing a Novel. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1974. Braine’s own explanation of how he crafts fiction, the result of reflections on his teaching of creative writing, provides insights into the development of Room at the Top. Essential reading, in which Braine includes examples of how he planned and revised this novel.Frazer, G. S. The Modern Writer and His World. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964. Includes a highly negative evaluation of Room at the Top and, hence, is useful as a counterweight to more laudatory views. Frazer finds in Braine’s work a cheap style, inadequate understanding of the characters of Joe Lampton and Susan Brown, and silliness in thinking that a thirty-four-year-old woman is decrepit.Lee, James W. John Braine. New York: Twayne, 1968. A balanced survey of Braine’s background and upbringing in the north of England and a consideration of the four novels that he had published by 1968. The chapter on Room at the Top is a good analysis of the novel’s themes and literary style. The only book devoted wholly to a study of the author.Sinfield, Alan. Literature, Politics, and Culture in Postwar Britain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. A survey, written from a left-wing perspective, of the relationships between political change and literary production in Britain since 1945. It includes a chapter on left-wing writing.
Categories: Characters