Analysis of Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

This is the bleak title novella in a collection by Alan Sillitoe. Although Sillitoe dislikes the label, the story is invariably grouped with other works by the so-called Angry Young Men of the period, works “dominated by a mood of bitterness and defiance” (Byars, 585). LIke Sillitoe’s famous novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), in this story the author adopts the persona, colloquialisms, and imagined writing style of a young, badly educated working-class man, in this case, Smith. (He is given no other name.) A 17-year old from Nottingham, Smith sees the world as divided between Out-laws and In-laws, whose battles take place in institutions such as Borstal (a reformatory) in the county of Essex, where he has been sent as punishment for robbery. “Them bastards over us aren’t as daft as they most of the time look. . . . They’re cunning, and I’m cunning. . . . If only ‘them’ and ‘us’ has the same ideas we’d get on like a house on fire, but they don’t see eye to eye with us and we don’t see eye to eye with them” (7).

In Borstal power is represented by the “governor.” When this patronizing middle-class man discovers that Smith has a talent for running, he has the idea of making him the winner of the national long-distance championship being held in Essex. Smith, despite his contempt for the governor’s plan, agrees to train for the race because running makes him feel mentally and physically free, as opposed to feeling like “a cut-balled cockerel” (19). However, he also decides to lose the race deliberately in order to strike back at the governor and publicly affirm his own values, despite knowing that he wil be punished for doing so. Organized sport, in this instance, seems to be associated with the establishment; talent gets hijacked by those in charge for their own ends. As Smith explains, “Our doddering bastard of a governor, our half-dead gangrened gaffer, is hollow like an empty petrol drum, and he wants me and my running life to give him glory, to put in him blood and throbbing veins he never had.” Smith views himself as a human racehorse, running for “a bit of blue ribbon and a cup for a prize,” which will become the possessions of the institution, not himself (8). Although “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” seems to be a story of defeat, it has also been read as a gesture of self-assertion and refusal on the part of a young everyman to accept the smug, comfortable values of a decaying older generation—represented by the governor (a kind of surrogate father). “I’m a human being and I’ve got thoughts and secrets and bloody life inside me that he doesn’t know is there” (13). One of the messages of the story is that the Borstal system fails to work; men like the governor cannot hope to change Smith.

As more about the journey the protagonist has taken is revealed, readers’ responses to him can become confused. Sillitoe himself has noted that “Smith is a . . . complex character. What his trouble is, we don’t go into” (quoted in Hanson, 39). Smith regards himself as outside the “normal” boundaries of society; he is isolated and committed to life as an Out-law, which requires craftiness and deceit if he is to remain free. He has no intention of getting an honest living; he is motivated not by need but by pleasure and excitement. He is crude, callous, and self-centered, and he has a potential for violence— as when he imagines what he would do with power: “And if I had the whip-hand I wouldn’t even bother to build a place like this to put all the cops, governors, posh whores, penpushers, army officers, Members of Parliament in; no, I’d stick them up against a wall and let them have it” (15). When he leaves Borstal, he avoids National Service because he has developed pleurisy and is pleased by this; at the time he is writing he has just stolen another £628 and is planning to steal more. At the same time, however, the story also invites sympathy for Smith, in part through the first-person narrative; Smith confides in the readers and encourages the feeling that he telling the truth (although it is questionable how truthful or reliable a narrator he actually is). He is self-reliant and determined but cannot imagine success because there will always be someone in authority waiting to stop him. We learn something of his working- class family; his father has died agonizingly from cancer of the throat; his slatternly mother has a “fancy man” and has squandered the insurance money from her husband’s death. Except for his friend Mike, he seems to have always been alone. As Smith recalls his father’s death during the last stage of the race in a way he never has before, he finds inspiration in his father’s refusing medication and hospitalization and ultimately choking in his own blood: “If he had guts for that then I’ve got guts for this” (51). Claire Hanson reads the mixture of blood, tears, and self-awareness as a form of rebirth. Smith “comes alive through the vision of his father’s death, sight, sound, taste and smell, as well as existential nausea come into play to emphasize his newfound awareness” (Hanson, 44). In this reading Smith achieves a tragic and almost heroic status. As Bayer argues, “[r]unning, the dominant, symbolic action in the story, suggests three motifs: the experience of life, the endurance test, and the lonely journey or pilgrimage” (586). Alan Penner further suggests that rather than a sign of “moral decay” Smith’s rebellious gesture is the demonstration of a “Christ-like passion for a tragically deluded society suididally hostile to life” (46). However, readers might also consider how much Smith actually changes. The story ends with the words “That I do know” (54), suggesting that Smith has learned something. He is still, however, a small-time crook; he may always be so. A film of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Tom Courtney, Michael Redgrave, and Avis Bunnage, was released in 1962.

Analysis of Alan Sillitoe’s Stories

John Bars. “The Initiation of Alan Sillitoe’s Long Distance Runner.” Modern Fiction Studies 22, no. 4 (1976): 584–590.
Hanson, Claire. Understanding Alan Sillitoe. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. Penner, Alan. Alan Sillitoe. New York: Twayne, 1972.
Sillitoe, Alan. The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. London: Flamingo, 1993.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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