Literature and Society essay

In order to make a valid determination as to whether or not the conclusion of Alan Sillitoe’s “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” (1960), it is necessary to probe deeply not only into the story’s theme, but into the symbolism of the story, as well. As a matter of fact, in order to reach an valid conclusion regarding the thematic thrust of the story, it is necessary to explicate the story’s symbolism as clearly as possible.

This is because the story, bereft of symbolic connotations, would reveal a very different theme than the story as it presently exists. When regarded from a non-symbolic perspective, the story seems to imply an overt theme of social resonance. This theme could be thought of as the theme of “sociopathology” or the theme of “social oppression” depending upon how any given reader, given the final out come of the story’s plot, weighted their sympathy: either with Smith or with the “esablishment” that Smith so clearly rejects by throwing the final race.

Looking at the story from a non-symbolic viewpoint, the best clue that the reader has for determining whether or not Smith’s stab at “honesty” was successful in the end, is Smith’s own writing — the story itself as a whole — and, in particular this passage which is near the story’s end: I’m out now and the heat’s switched on again, but the rats haven’t got me for the last big thing I pulled.

I counted six hundred and twenty-eight pounds and am still living off it because I did the job all on my own, and after it I had the peace to write all this, and it’ll be money enough to keep me going until I finish my plans for doing an even bigger snatch, something up my sleeve I wouldn’t tell to a living soul. (Sillitoe, 1960, p. 54)

Two things are immediately evident from this passage: first, that Smith has, indeed, gone back to a life of crime, a life which any alert reader will recognize as being, ultimately, self-defeating and, second, that Smith’s present life, his life post throwing the race, has resulted in an increase in his feelings of alienation and isolation. The give-away clue regarding Smith’s sense of isolation is the phrase ” I wouldn’t tell to a living soul” (Sillitoe, 1960, p.

54) while Smith’s sense of heightened alienation is revealed by the phrase “the rats haven’t got me for the last big thing I pulled” (Sillitoe, 1960, p. 54) and also by the fact that Smith admits that he intends to carry out an even bigger crime in the near future. One has a clear sense that Smith has failed, miserably, in his stand against the society which he believes has wronged and exploited him, and that his present state is not only tragic, but ironic as well, given that his predilection for crime, once rooted in social -classcism, is now rooted in a desire for violence and self-destruction.

Keeping in mind that Smith’s “internal” motivation for throwing the race was to convey a sense of irony to the “rats” and the establishment, his previous observation that “And so this story’s like the race and once again I won’t bring off a winner to suit the governor; no, I’m being honest like he told me to” (Sillitoe 46) reveals that even the conveyance of the story itself is an act of social deviance and violence.

Throwing the race as not enough for Smith — the very story of how he came to throw the race is an additional “kick” at the stablishment which he clearly labels as classicist and dishonest: “something out of Ivanhoe that we’d seen on the pictures a few days before” (Sillitoe, 1960, p. 40). This clearly stated antagonism sets the stage for Smith’s throwing of the race to be an heroic act, as he clearly believes it is.

In his own mind, the throwing of the race is an act of supreme honesty: “Because I’m slowing down now for Gunthorpe to catch me up, and I’m doing it in a place just where the drive turns in to the sportsfield–where they can see what I’m doing, especially the governor and his gang from the grandstand,” (Sillitoe 51). The irony, which is present for any alert reader to capture in this same passage is when Smith admits “I’m sure he’ll never understand because if he and all them like him did it’d mean they’d be on my side which is impossible” (Sillitoe 51).

This admission is not, however emphatic, a statement of objective fact, but a statement of deep subjective conviction on Smith’s behalf. he is firmly entrenched against the establishment and simply views himself in an unending war against it. because victory would be understanding and this is “impossible” — Smith understands that he can’t “win” the race against the establishment; he can merely endure.

This realization is embodied symbolically by Smith’s action of throwing the race. That said, the symbolic aspects of the stroy provide the final resonance of the story’s theme. Since Smith’s act was, itself, intended to be viewed symbolically, the reader can easily conjecture that Smith, as reliable narrator, is to be found in the symbolic resonances of the story and not in the linear development of the plot alone.

This means in that recognizing that his situation is “impossible” Smith is merely providing himself with what be considered a rationalization for continuing his life of crime and for his anti-social feelings and tendencies. However, the underlying symbolic connotation suggests otherwise: if the race as a whole can be considered analogous to Smith’s war against society, and vice-versa, then the outcome of the race is not merely that Smith threw the race to his opponent, but that he chose to throw the race.

This autonomous act is not, however antisocial in inception, technically a criminal or violent act, so it is necessary to conclude that Smith’s ultimate gesture to society is neither criminal nor sociopathic, but based on a rational response to an irrational society. By following the symbolic cues as well as the linear plot-cues of the story, Smith’s eventual outcome can be regarded as affirming of individual liberty and freedom as opposed to being indicative of a state of ironic self-destruction.


Sillitoe, A. (1960). The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1st ed. ). New York: Knopf.