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The Lonely Londoners

The Lonely Londoners Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Sam Selvon

Born in Trinidad in 1923 to Indian parents, Sam Selvon was the sixth of seven children. After attending school in his hometown of San Fernando, he started working for the Royal Naval Reserve when he was only fifteen. After five years as a radio operator for the Reserve, he relocated to Port of Spain, where he was a reporter and occasional literary writer for the Trinidad Guardian. It was during his time as a newspaperman that he started writing seriously, though he often used pseudonyms. Moving to London in the 1950s, he took a job as a clerk at the Indian Embassy and wrote during his time off, which he used to pen poems and short stories that eventually went on to be published in various British journals. He also published his first novel, A Brighter Sun, in 1952, shortly after arriving in England, but his most widely-known work, The Lonely Londoners, came out four years later. Throughout his career, he wrote thirteen books and two collections of plays. He also married twice and had four children between both marriages. In the 1970s he moved to Canada, where he remained until dying at the age of 70 during a visit to Trinidad.
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Historical Context of The Lonely Londoners

Reading The Lonely Londoners, it’s helpful to have some familiarity with the history of West Indian immigration into England. Above all, two historical factors are worth keeping in mind when considering the book’s engagement with the history of immigration. First, many West Indians came to England during World War II to either serve in the military or to work as weapons-makers. Second, in 1948—three years after the war’s end—the country passed the British Nationality Act of 1948, an act that officially granted citizenship to anybody born in “the United Kingdom and Colonies.” As such, people from places like Trinidad and Jamaica—areas colonized by the British—were permitted unrestrained entry into the United Kingdom for the first time. Because there were more economic opportunities in London than in the West Indies, West Indians began immigrating in large numbers virtually overnight.

Other Books Related to The Lonely Londoners

Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners exists in the tradition of Caribbean Migrant Literature, a genre interested in ideas of migration, integration, and postcolonialism. One lesser-known predecessor of The Lonely Londoners is George Lamming’s The Emigrants, a book about Caribbean migration to London and the various trials and tribulations that people face when trying to acclimate to new cultures. Another—more famous—related literary work is Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which examines the flipside of integration, focusing on what happens to a culture when its colonizers suddenly leave. Lastly, Frantz Fanon’s work of postcolonial theory Black Skin, White Masks is worth mentioning, as it interrogates the psychological effects of racism on formerly colonized people, and examines interracial sexual dynamics in depth—a major theme in The Lonely Londoners.
Key Facts about The Lonely Londoners
  • Full Title: The Lonely Londoners
  • Where Written: London
  • When Published: 1956
  • Literary Period: Postmodernism
  • Genre: Migrant Literature, Caribbean Literature
  • Setting: London in the 1950s
  • Climax: Because The Lonely Londoners is an episodic novel that focuses on character sketches and anecdotes instead of a straightforward plotline, it is impossible to pinpoint a climax in the text. However, the book’s most climactic moments usually come when the characters navigate the many obstacles inherent to the immigrant experience, like grappling with London’s entrenched racism or trying to attain upward mobility. 
  • Antagonist: The subtle racism (referred to in the book as “the old English diplomacy”) that interferes with Moses and his friends’ ability to prosper in London.
  • Point of View: Third-Person Omniscient

Extra Credit for The Lonely Londoners

Finding the Voice. When he first started writing The Lonely Londoners, Selvon used plain, straightforward English to tell his tale. Before long, though, he realized that this style of narration was unfit for the subject matter, so he changed his authorial tone, employing instead the creolized English that so perfectly captures the nuanced vernacular of his characters.

Pressure. In 1976, twenty years after he wrote The Lonely Londoners, Selvon co-wrote Pressure, a movie about a black boy born in Britain to Trinidadian parents. Forty-one years later, The Telegraph declared the film the forty-second best British film in history.