The Fallen Nature of Narrative and Knowledge -- Fragmentation and and Filling the Void in Possession, Oscar and Lucinda, and Waterland

Katherine Lesch '97 (English 168, 1996)

A. S. Byatt's Possession (1990), Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda (1988), and Graham Swift's Waterland (1983), which all take place in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, seek to reconcile the nineteenth- and twentieth-century views of the nature of narrative. Byatt's own "People in Paper Houses," quotes B. S. Johnson's claim that "'the nineteenth-century novel' was finished by the outbreak of the First World War...Its wrongness is that it tells a story -- and 'telling stories is telling lies'" (19-20). In the nineteenth century, Romanticism celebrates the wholeness of vision gained by exploring the fantastic and the supernatural; in the twentieth century, postmodernism insists upon the fragmented narrative as a more accurate reflection of unruly life. Byatt, Carey, and Swift compare these two narrative traditions in light of one enduring archetypal narrative: the fall from innocence to knowledge.

All three novelists share the common goal of bringing the metaphor closer to reality. In the postmodern ethos, the gap that invariably exists between metaphor and reality represents the fallen nature of narrative. For the postmodern theorist, metaphor can never quite reach what it represents: the metaphor always resembles its referent, but never quite achieves the same nature.

These three nmovels offer different textual strategies for filling this void. Possession suggests that fusing narrative and the other (what narrative describes) is indeed possible. Byatt supports her claim with Romantic ideology and calls her text a romance. In Wordsworth's words, Byatt reveals "the invisible world" of unity by means of an intense moment of creative and sexual possession.

Oscar and Lucinda subverts the attempt to fill the void and undermines the principle of narrative order. Carey decenters the novel in a hellish reality located below the more comforting world of illusion that his characters are accustomed to. In so doing Carey reveals the anarchy beneath the seeming order of things: "Carey writes with a disturbing, surreal clarity, in which the recognizably quotidian mingles unnervingly with the actualized terrors of the subconscious, leaving the reader sensitized and disoriented" (Hassall 642). Carey alerts the reader to the nauseating and Victorian grotesque quality of any attempt to merge natural opposites.

In Waterland, natural opposites do meet together naturally. The making of history and the storytelling of history, which imposes order on the raw stuff of history, become opposite poles of the same round "0" of eternity. These two efforts, both contained within the word "shaping," will continue as long as we seek explanations for the inexplicable. Swift says simply that the lack of certainty cannot be a fall if there never was certainty, and hence this lack provides continuity. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century characters all live in an age of uncertainty and questioning.

United Kingdom