A working class anti hero: Arthur Seaton in Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
by Marc Bordier /
In August last year, I cycled all the way up Parliament Hill to Highgate Cemetary to see the final resting place of Karl Marx, an imposing gray stone monument dedicated to the famous thinker and defender of the working class. Wandering through the leafy and tranquil alleys of the cemetary, I also stumbled upon the grave of a less known author, who also stood up as the voice of the working class, although in a very different way.
British writer Alan Sillitoe gained recognition in 1958 with the publication of his sensational debut novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Set in Nottingham in the fifties, the book tells the story of a young and rebellious working class anti-hero named Arthur Seaton. As a skilled and productive worker at the Raleigh bike factory, Arthur makes a comfortable living of fourteen pounds a week, which he immediately spends in expensive suits and binge drinking at the local pubs every week-end. A compulsive womanizer, he also indulges in multiple affairs with married women, including Brenda, the wife of his colleague and mate. Brenda ultimately becomes pregnant, and with the help of Arthur, she goes through a painful abortion involving gin and a hot bath. After this episode, Arthur neverthless continues with his careless and selfish lifestyle. Ultimately, his adulterous behavior is exposed, and he ends up beaten up in a dark alley by two angry soldiers. At the end of the novel, the rebellious young man has changed, and he is considering settling with a local girl named Doreen.
I must admit that I sometimes found it hard to read this novel, not so much because of its length, but rather because of its vocabulary and style. As a non native english speaker, I was initially put off by the use of the Nottingham regionalist language, including multiple words and informal expressions of British slang from the fifties. Yet, after a while, I got used to it, and I started enjoying the book. Saturday Night and Sunday morning is a vivid and uncompromising depiction of working class life in post-war Britain. In the introduction to the 1979 edition, Alan Sillitoe himself wrote “I had no theme in my head except the joy of writing, the sweat of writing clearly and truthfully, the work of trying to portray ordinary people as I knew them, and in such a way that they would recognize themselves.“ I particularly liked the fact that the novel moved away from the now stereotyped and politically biased depiction of a brave young working class hero fighting for his ideals, such as Etienne Lantier in Emile Zola’s classic novel Germinal. Nothing of this kind here: although Arthur Seaton is angry and rebellious, he cares first and foremost about himself. In a way, Alan Sillitoe’s character is a right-wing anarchist who provides a scathing denial to Marx’s vision of a united working class. As one of my literature teachers used to say, “The rich are as dumb as the poor, and the poor as selfish as the rich”.