Guest Book Review – Lucky Jim (1954) – How it’s Laying Siege to the Academic Ivory Tower

In recent years there have been complaints about both the university environment and the standard of education being provided. It seems that pretension and bogus studies have taken precedent over material that should help enlighten and civilize the student. What value does it have despite higher education being a profitable industry worth billions of dollars in endowments? Especially if the students graduate not being any more educated, nor the faculty and staff have any pure interest in what they’re teaching. These are not new thoughts.

Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954) is a story of extreme irritation, perhaps rage, at the academic status quo as displayed by protagonist Jim Dixon. Who is Jim Dixon? He’s a lecturer at a provincial English university, one of the many post World War II veterans shuffled into academia to help support the expansion of university enrollment following the war. He’s somehow fallen into the teaching of medieval history, though he detests the material, at an institution whose colleagues and students prick him with constant irritation. His life is in a tumult, and one more wrong move, he could be out of job, having not yet attained a permanent spot on the faculty. More shenanigans ensue, and soon, his luck to hold things together might seem about to run out.

Amis’s comedic first novel landed at the right time in 1950s Britain. There was a new generation coming up, and they were sick of doing things just so because tradition said so, often dictated by upper-class and the aristocracy. Some critics labeled these who took their resentment and expressed it through the arts as a group called the “Angry Young Men.”

As hinted at above, post-war welfare expansion had increased higher education enrollment. The government knew they wanted the students there, qualified or not, but often did not know what do with them after they were placed. It seems this problem has not disappeared, nor is it limited to the British educational system. Using his experience of dissatisfaction with both the teaching and the material being taught at the university level, Amis portrays university life being populated by neurotics, frauds, snobs, cranks, and cheats. These are definitely not the sort of people you would entrust to the nation’s civic life.

Amis draws a picture of an interesting atmosphere as Jim must suffer, often in silence, as he deals with situations that keep pressing against his exposed nerves. Fellow lecturer Margaret Peel is neuroticism personified. She keeps drawing Jim in with promise of romance, then backs away with fits and seizures. We wonder if Jim can’t have success in his career, why can’t he at least get a break in his romantic life. Maybe it’s his lot to suffer. This might change when a more physically and emotionally alluring woman is introduced into his life, the lovely Ms. Christine Callaghan. 

Professor Welch and his family seem to be the main antagonists to Jim’s happiness. Though supposedly on friendly terms with the senior colleague, Jim can’t stand the artsy pretentions of him or his clan. Having to participate in the Welch-hosted gatherings, he is embarrassed and bored by the proceedings. The worst of the family is Bertrand, the beret-wearing artist, who is less genius and more poseur. Bad news is that Christine is supposedly his girl. How could someone so lovely be drawn to such an abysmal family? Moreover, how can he escape the slipping clutches of Margaret to drop into the company of Christine? It all reaches a comedic climax that becomes the nadir of Jim’s academic life before all his associates, but then soon becomes his triumph and a step to a happiness that has seemed to have eluded him. Perhaps he’ll be able to stop making all those hidden faces of disgust and wear a visage of joy by the end.

This novel is one of the standards that all readers and writers of comedic fiction should have familiarity with. Though there have been changes in the university culture since the fifties, and there are differences across national cultures, much has remained the same. Many of the staff, faculty, and administration have remained in a bubble that has stultified rather than expanded academic inquiry.

The publish-or-perish situation that Jim deals with to preserve his position has become a common joke in both the ivory tower and outside of it. And like Jim, numerous academics feel that they have to submit work that is of limited value, or worse, complete nonsense. Others, however, begin to believe in the nonsense and that’s where the rot sets in.

This does not mean that there isn’t valid academic inquiry circulating, but as Jim mentions, it’s often rare. Before his final lecture, he mentions to the sympathetic Gore-Urquhart that “well taught and sensibly taught, history could do people a hell of a lot of good. But in practice it doesn’t work out like that. Things get in the way. I don’t quite see who’s to blame for it. Bad teaching’s the main thing. Not bad students, I mean.”

It may be cliché, but the more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s as true with the educational establishment as it’s with other sectors of life. At least by picking up Lucky Jim, you can laugh at it all, especially the human condition with all its strange varieties and personalities that sometimes provoke us a bit too much.

Published by Christopher Fried

Writer of poetry, fiction, and book and film reviews. Author of satirical comedic novel Whole Lot of Hullabaloo: A Twenty-First Century Campus Phantasmagoria (2020).

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