In portraying characters in crisis over their systems of belief, Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, Graham Swift's Waterland, and A.S. Byatt's Possession all treat the Victorian past. Carey's protagonist Oscar, raised a member of the Plymouth Brethren, receives what he believes a mandate from God to convert to Anglicanism. Alhough he becomes an Anglican minister, he is a compulsive gambler, which further complicates his faith. Waterland's Tom Crick faces dismissal from his post as a history teacher because the headmaster feels that history is no longer relevant — a proclamation that shakes the very tenets of a man who is, in sum and substance, a story-teller. In Possession, the fictional Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash struggles to reconcile the evolutionary theories of Darwin with his fear that his individuality will not live on. In referring to the past, each novel has a particular way of treating metanarrative, varying from the traditional to the aggressively postmodern. In each novel, the author's narrative strategy casts an illuminating light onto all crises of knowledge, Victorian and postmodern alike.
Throughout Carey's novel, Oscar is driven to the point of near-paralysis by his conflicting views about religion. His hopscotch-like board with various symbols, "a structure for divining the true will of God" (Carey 25), dictates that he must live in an Anglican household, creating a foreseeable rift with his father, a minister of Plymouth Brethren. As Oscar sees it, God continues to step in and determine his fate in the form of other equally random means of assertion. One flip of a coin tells him to go to New South Wales (158) and another to take a job at Lucinda's glassworks company (293). Yet while he feels the presence of God so strongly in his life — or at least, enough to wager his life on the belief that God exists (see 218) — Oscar consciously commits sinful acts: he gambles obsessively and has pre-marital sex. Understandably, Oscar's inability to stop gambling is the source of much anxiety and neurosis throughout the novel, for both himself and his friends.
The divine mandates that Oscar receives may be important to Oscar, yet their purpose is more urgent for the narrator, for they propel Oscar toward locations and interactions that bring about the narrator's very existence. For our anonymous narrator, God and the past seem to serve the same purpose; that is, Oscar's crisis is only crucial in its role in the narrator's lineage. Yet Carey throws a postmodern wrench into the conventional novel of ancestral history. Oscar and Lucinda is configured as the genealogy of the narrator, as established by the narrator's rare first-person interventions throughout. He remarks, for example, "In order that I exist, two gamblers, one Obsessive [Oscar], the other Compulsive [Lucinda], must meet" (187). Carey goes on to describe other necessary aspects of their meeting: the carrying of a prayer book, the propulsion of the Compulsive from a doorway, and the ventilation system of a ship — elements which, like the novel's title, are meant to mislead the reader into thinking that Oscar and Lucinda are the narrator's grandparents. Carey's coup de theatre is that the narrator's grandmother is not in fact Lucinda, but Miriam, who is introduced in the novel's penultimate moments. Oscar loves Lucinda but copulates with Miriam, shortly before he disappears into the water forever in attempting to float downriver the glass church he and Lucinda have built.
Lucinda had a profound impact on Oscar's life, and his interaction with her did ensure that the narrator would meet Miriam. This fact leads us to realize that so virtually all of his encounters with everyone he ever met brought about the future in which his great-grandson would be telling his story. In portraying Lucinda, who is not the narrator's grandmother, as a primary component of the narrator's genealogy, Carey shows the irony of the construction of history as the product of seemingly corresponding causes and effects. His novel shows that even those events we cannot label as important from a historical vantage-point havw major impact. Oscar and Lucinda thus challenges the metanarrative of history as the product of seemingly cut-and-dried causes and effects.
Oscar and Lucinda also questions the idea of a supposedly neutral historical perspective. While the narrator consciously spins a tale that will make us think Lucinda is his great-grandmother, he also drops hints throughout the novel that she is not, such as his early mention of Miriam, before she is officially introduced in the final pages. As readers, though, we are so conditioned to think of Lucinda as a contributor to the narrator's bloodline that we shrug off this seemingly contradictory piece of information. By the time Miriam's status as great-grandmother is made clear, we realize how we have distorted the past in order to secure the stability of what we misidentify as future truths. In so doing, we come to grips with our tendency — our need, even — to shape history into an essentially unreliable narrative for the purpose of supporting our present condition.
History as metanarrative is further challenged by the very story that the narrator tells. Our nameless descendant of Oscar recounts the life and times of his ancestors as though they were documented knowledge, yet his story is constituted by events and emotions of whose occurrence he could never possibly know. The novel, then, is essentially fabricated entirely of the what-if, calling attention to the construction of the narrator as an informed source. Jean-Fran¨ois Lyotard, in The Postmodern Condition, observes that challenging the legitimacy of historical narrative begs the questions, "'How do you prove the truth' or, more generally, 'Who decides the conditions of the truth?'" (29). This project mirrors that of Oscar and Lucinda, which itself demands of the reader, how do you know if what I'm saying could or could not have happened? Carey troubles not only history-as-construct but the reliability of the historian as well, further distinguishing his narrative strategy as postmodern.
Oscar and Lucinda also interweaves historical characters with fictional ones, further problematizing the opposition between the real and the historical. The narrator tells us, "you can look up [Theophilus Hopkins, Oscar's father] in the 1860 Britannica" (Carey 5). Lucinda's mother "is that person Carlyle refers to in his correspondence as the 'Factory'" (70). Carey goes beyond a mere one-sentence mention to a non-fictional character in his discussion of George Eliot, whom Lucinda thinks is a snob (166-8). He tells us, for example, that she doesn't approve of Lucinda's backside. As Brian McHale notes in Postmodernist Fictions, this "bandying-about of celebrities' names...has the scent of scandal about it [the source of which] is ontological: boundaries between worlds have been violated" (85). Nothing Carey has written about Eliot or Carlyle contradicts any historical record; thus we are left with the question of how to determine "which version of history is to be regarded as the 'official' account..." (87). The answer: it's all subjective. Any and all histories are possible.
Last modified 1998