A most problematic narrative than Waterland, Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda invites a plethora of questions concerning false narrative. As Oscar and his father discuss the markings Oscar had actually been making, a prophetic voice writes "and they shall turn their ears from the truth and be turned into fables" (32). However, the words seem more suitable to Waterland; in Oscar and Lucinda, the narrator turns a fable into his truth. In the opening chapters, the narrator prepares the reader for a story about his origins. The narration tricks the reader into believing that Oscar and Lucinda must come together by the end of the story because the storyteller's existence depends on their joining. The chapter titled "Oscar and Miriam" devastates the reader who realizes that Oscar and Lucinda's lives are only connected through a story. Ending the story when Oscar encounters Miriam, the narration returns to the beginning, where the narrator's mother worships "the sacred glass daguerreotype of (his) great-grandfather" (1). Assumptions the reader made throughout the novel are shattered, leaving the reader to question the validity of the narrator; subsequently, problems with the narration arise that disrupt the meaning of the story itself.
The novel begins with the narrator describing his own life, but he disappears as the story unfolds. It is possible Carey became so involved with Oscar and Lucinda's lives that he forgot about his narrator. If that were the case, he could have erased the first two chapters and solved the problem by having no narrator at all. However, the narrator must exist to assure the reader that people depend on this story for meaning. His mother lives for telling the story: "My mother told the story of the church in a way that embarrassed me. There was an excess of emotion in her style. There was something false. We must have all known it, but we never spoke about it" (2). The narrator overlooks the story's artificial quality because he needs to believe in it just as his mother does, because there is nothing else to believe in. The mother's desire to make Lucinda part of her own history makes sense simply because Miriam's life does not offer a story the mother can be proud of. The false narrative allows the family to believe in their history having significance.
Between the beginning and the end, the narrator's voice returns to dominate the text once, in the chapter "Christian Stories" (60-61). Just as his family made "a star of Bethlehem from cardboard and silver paper," they create order in their lives by believing in stories. Depending on whether the author or narrator titled the chapter, the narrator may still believe in this list or he has lost his faith in miracles and stories. However, the reader never solves this puzzle. Indeed, Carey quiets the narrator just before the story turns to Lucinda, the woman the reader falsifies as the narrator's great-grandmother. After this point, the narrator only intermittently talks about his mother or uses a possessive voice when telling the story. The narration overtakes the voice of the narrator so that he exists only in relation to the story itself. Ironically, the narrator's problematic disappearance illustrates the danger of stories shaping one's existence. The story initially needs the narrator to claim it as meaningful; once the reader assumes the connection between the storyteller and story as valid the story the dependency rotates and the story creates the one who tells it.
After Oscar signs the marriage document, he "disappeared forever from my great-grandmother's life" (424). Miriam inherits the Lucinda's fortune, and receives a letter from Lucinda, who writes "I made a bet in order that I keep my beloved safe" (427). Miriam meets Lucinda only once, "outside the court in Sydney" (427). Finally, a letter is found in Miriam's petticoat from Lucinda returning the check for ten guineas (429). From these few remnants of Oscar and Lucinda's lives, how could a story be constructed? Ironically, the story could not have been passed on through Oscar's child because the mother never hears it. Oscar and Lucinda seemingly lacks an explanation of the pieces of the story coming together. Even if enough clues existed to build a story, the unbelievable detail the narrator provides about the characters' actions and thoughts falsifies the story. For example, the narrator brings Wardley-Fish back into the story looking for Oscar after Lucinda leaves Longnose Point (429). This piece of the story must be fabricated in order to complete the narration. The remarkable glass church Oscar and Lucinda construct provides a symbolic metaphor to this puzzle.
When Oscar and Lucinda first conceive of the glass church, "all of their emotions were fused together in this glass vision in which they saw that which cannot be seen" (324). The glass signifies meaning for Oscar and Lucinda because it brings them together. Lucinda describes the building of the church as living: "we are alive on the very brink of eternity" (355). The physical qualities of the glass parallel the pieces of the story the narrator artificially pulls together. The panes of glass don't hold up under the pressure of the water. As the transparent beauty shatters, the glass traps Oscar inside, sinking him with the church:
The tilting platform became a ramp and the glass church slid beneath the water and while my great-grandfather kicked and pulled at the jammed door, the fractured panes of glass behind his back opened to let in his ancient enemy. He could see, dimly, the outside world, the chair and benches of his father's study. Shining fragments of aquarium glass fell like snow around him. (432)
Carey prophecizes the destructive nature of stories when telling them assumes power over meaning in an individual's life. Ruskin asserts that a solid building must serve the purpose of the building and stand strong; the glass church does neither of these, but it provides meaning to Oscar and Lucinda while they believe in it. Indeed, the transport of the church destroys life in its path until Oscar prays for the Church's destruction. In the same way, the narrator's mother believes in the story even though it destroys her relationship with her husband. When stories fall apart, as this one does, the people who found meaning in them must falsify them in order to continue believing in them.
Although the novel breaks down the relationship between stories and meaning, Carey does provide solutions that order the novel. He accomplishes this partly by allowing a character to find meaning in work rather than stories or transparencies. Lucinda loses her fortune to Oscar's wife, which allows her to escape the delusion of the glass church and begin her life.
Lucinda was known for more important things than her passion for a nervous clergyman. She was famous, or famous at least amongst students of the Australian labour movement. One could look at this letter and know that its implicit pain and panic would be but a sharp jab in the long and fruitful journey of her life. One could view it as the last thing before her real life could begin. (428-429)
Unable to contain Lucinda, the narrative leaves a possibility for the past to become nothing more than history. The cheque Lucinda sends back to Miriam serves as an example: "By the time it was found, her letter was as fragile as the body of a long-dead dragon-fly. It's juice was dry. It was history" (428). Just as the church gets carted away because "it was not of any use," the past becomes meaningless as Lucinda lets go of it. The narrator fabricates the story, but unlike the other two novels, the author presents a possibility for escaping fantasies and living a productive life of one's own.
Other parts of this project
- Living the Past: Introduction
- A Fairy Tale Story, A Fairy Tale life: Artificial Narrative in Graham Swift's Waterland
Last modified 1998