The Enclosed Space in the Neo-Victorian Works of Swift, Byatt and Carey

Marta Cobb '97 (English 168, 1996)

The enclosed space -- a space in which one is constrained, either voluntarily or involuntarily -- plays a major role in both Victorian and neo-Victorian novels. This space, whether physical, psychological, or both, is generally a gendered space; women exist within while men roam more freely without. Different authors, however, portray this space in various ways. In Possession, A.S. Byatt treats the enclosed space, both then and now, as the only purely feminine space. Leaving this space means becoming involved, usually in a sexual manner, with men and their world. In her deliberate use the enclosed space, Byatt offers an extremely ambivalent view of the space itself and the dangers of leaving confinement. It might offer a safe haven for women's creativity, but frequently it shuts out their feelings and desires. Furthermore, no one can leave without sacrificing the integrity of the space. Graham Swift also sets up the enclosed space as an area for feminine activity; in Waterland it becomes a place for female madness and mysticism -- the two frequently blur together. As the characters come closer to the present, however, the mysticism increases in perversity and grows closer to madness until Mary is locked in the asylum because she believes that God wanted her to steal a baby. Peter Carey, however, takes the most negative view against the enclosed space in Oscar and Lucinda. Its constraint is almost always forced upon Lucinda and the feminized Oscar from the outside. Lucinda in her attempts to escape feminine captivity, finds herself shut out from society altogether. Despite her exile, however, she manages to become a powerful figure in Australian labor history. In contrast, Oscar cannot escape, but rather finds the enclosed space enacted upon him in increasingly grotesque ways until finally he dies within it. Despite their different uses of constraint, in each novel the enclosed space plays an important role in defining women and their responsibilities.

United Kingdom Oscar and Lucinda