Sillitoe effectively criticises the legal system in “Uncle Ernest.” Uncle Ernest is a working-class lonely man who lives an isolated, despondent existence. Joan and Alma, whom he befriends, are very poor and in need of a father figure. Ernest has lost all of his old friends. His family has left him. He is need of company. He can no longer cover up his loneliness like he covers up the sofas he re-upholsters for a living. Ernest buys food for them, clothes, and gifts. All three are happy in the relationship they have with one-another. However, one day, he was told, “Now look here, we don’t want any more trouble from you, but if ever we see you near those girls again, you’ll find yourself up before a magistrate” (57). Ernest is deprived his life, what makes him happy. He is deprived the only friendship he has because the unwritten social code suggests that a man such as himself befriending young girls as such means that he is a paedophile. The detectives interfere with his life. Sillitoe shows the legal system not only makes false assumptions, but goes by an unwritten social code that is accusational. The issue of conformity is central; Ernest is not a “normal” member of society, therefore he is further ostracised.
The story Uncle Ernest by Alan Sillitoe, set in the postwar slums of England, illustrates one man’s recollection of the past, his perception of life, and the eventual accusations made against him. The accusations followed an event which boosted his spirits; however, with the return of the accusations, his life takes a downward spin.
Ernest is the man’s name; scrubby beard, grubby looking, with a clean hat. Ernest was in World War I, and he often dreams of the shattering memories of the war. The most lucid memory Ernest has is the memory of his comrades during World War I. Ernest feels that he should have died along with his comrades. But since he did not, his solution to the problem is to crawl in a bottle, as he spends all of his money on booze. Realistically, Ernest wants to see no one because he doesn’t want to feel anything.
Overall, Ernest’s perception of life is grim; he feels very alone. He eats alone and sleeps alone. He has no family to comfort him, nor a wife to hold him. When others see him, they view him as a ghost. In this way, Ernest is an anti-hero. He feels outside the realms of society, is a frustrated loner, and lacks all direction in life.
However, Ernest’s life changes for the better when a pair of young sisters, Alma and Joan, begin to keep him company. The girls befriend him, and, eventually, he begins to buy them food and talk to them on a regular basis. He views them as his own daughters and the only people he has to love.
Ernest is accused of leading the girls in the wrong direction, however. This accusation splits Ernest from both girls, and they all depart in their own ways; Ernest back to the bar, and the girls back to where they came from. Ernest doesn’t care about anything after that.
Many of Sillitoe’s stories are located in urban working-class slums and reflect the environment he knew himself. In story after story these ghetto-dwellers are seen as society’s underdogs, as victims of a series of injustices, real or imagined, which undermine their sense of personal dignity and self-esteem. Ernest Brown, for example, the protagonist in “Uncle Ernest,” is a lonely, aging upholsterer who befriends Alma and Joan, two young schoolgirls he meets at a local café. In a series of encounters, always at the café and in public view, he buys them food and small gifts and takes pleasure in learning something of their lives. He asks nothing of the girls in return, and they come to think of him affectionately as “Uncle Ernest.” After a few weeks, however, he is accosted by two detectives who accuse him of leading the girls “the wrong way” and forbid him to see them again. Unable to cope with this “official” harassment, Ernest Brown retreats into alcohol and despair.
In one sense “Uncle Ernest” is an anomaly in Sillitoe’s short fiction, for although it illustrates the victimization his characters often face, it chronicles a too-ready acceptance of the larger society’s interference and power. For the most part his characters remain defiant in the face of directives from those in positions of authority