The novel opens in the midst of a rowdy Saturday night, "the best and bingiest glad-time of the week" for 22 year old Arthur Seaton, a factory worker in post-war Nottingham. Weekdays are spent "sweating his guts out" in the bicycle factory and daydreaming through repetitive work. However, after payday Arthur and his friends spend their weekends drinking and fighting, to "swill" the factory out of their system and explode the "piled up passions" from monotonous work.
Arthur is engaged in a passionate affair with Brenda, the wife of a friend, and subsequently juggles his time between secret nights with Brenda, her married sister Winnie and a more traditional relationship with the younger Doreen. Unfortunately Brenda becomes pregnant and in a period prior to the 1967 Abortion Act she terminates the pregnancy by bathing in boiling water and drinking a bottle of gin. The account of the abortion is graphic and portrays the complete lack of control women had over their bodies and their sexuality before the victories of the women's liberation movement of the next decade.
This scare fails to dampen Arthur's hedonistic outlook though, as he continually evades detection from the foreman at the factory and from various husbands out to revenge his affairs. But his plan to "have a good life and not care about anything" is thrown into disarray after his misdemeanours finally catch up with him and he is brutally beaten by Winnie's husband and his squaddie mate.
This event begins the short second half, "Sunday morning", section. Arthur is portrayed in a more reflective and resigned mood, less invincible to the trappings of social norms. He agrees to marry Doreen, although the reader is left feeling that he is far from settled.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is Alan Sillitoe's most famous depiction of working class life, portraying multi-layered characters constrained by the conventions of capitalism. The characters are never simple. Arthur says, "I ain't a communist. I tell you. I like 'em though, because they're different from these big fat Tory bastards in parliament. And them Labour bleeders too. They rob our wage packets every week with insurance and income tax and try to tell us it is all for our own good." Arthur is a rebel, coming of age in a period where "no strong cause for open belligerence existed as in the bad days talked about" but "it persisted for more subtle reasons that could hardly be understood but were nevertheless felt".
He rages against the "system", but from an individualistic perspective, "fighting with mothers and wives, landlords and gaffers, coppers, army and government". His prime concern remains how to spend his hard-earned wages on dapper suits and weekend frivolity. Sillitoe offers no discussion of collective alternatives to combat the alienation articulated by Arthur's rants against society and his rebellious behaviour. Nonetheless the novel is an exciting read. It is a vivid portrayal of the anger and frustration felt by many working class young people and will be appreciated by anyone who yearns for their weekend on a grim Monday morning.
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was first published in 1958