In Oscar and Lucinda and Waterland glass and water function as sources of creation and destruction, life and death. For Lucinda Leplastrier, the female protagonist and "Glass Lady" of Carey's novel, glass is "a joyous and paradoxical thing, a good material as any to build a life from" (111). Literally, glass serves as the basis for Lucinda's economic life; the Prince Rupert drop which Lucinda adores as a child is the seed which grows into her dream business, the Prince Rupert Glassworks. The production of glass provides Lucinda with her economic independence and social status as a woman.
Just as glass creates an economic life for Lucinda, water creates an economic life for the Cricks and Atkinsons in Swift's Waterland. While the Atkinsons strive to transform water into beer ("Ex Aqua Fermentum...Out of Water, Ale"), the Cricks work as the "drainers and land-reclaimers", attempting to control and manipulate the river waters which have created their homeland:
For the chief fact about the Fens is that they are reclaimed land, land that was once water, and which, even today, is not quite solid... The Fens was formed by silt...Silt: which shapes and undermines continents; which demolishes as it builds; which is simultaneously accretion and erosion; neither progress nor decay. (8-9)
As indicated by the title of Swift's novel, the land of the Fens is a waterland, a land which is simultaneously solid and liquid, a land with the power to self-create or self-destruct. While water imagery is used to construct the life of the Fens and the life history of Tom Crick and his people, water imagery also serves to represent death and destruction"...the Leem brought down its unceasing booty of debris. Willow branches; alder branches; sedge; fencing; crates; old clothes; dead sheep" (4). As a conduit of debris and more significantly, Freddie Parr's dead body, water functions as the bearer of death as well as the creator of life in Swift's novel. In Waterland, Henry Crick's death from broncho-pneumonia further illustrates the destructive force of watery substances:
Phlegm enveloped him...And now it's choking him, filling the cavities of his lungs, welling in his throat. He's escaped the flood, but he's drowning. (342)
Describing the phlegm as "Neither liquid nor solid; a viscous semi-fluid. Benign..yet disagreeable" (344), Swift connects the reader back to the nature of silt and to the nature of the Fens itself. In the beginning of Waterland, water imagery creates the life and land of the Fens people yet, by the end of the novel, water imagery returns in the form of deadly phlegm, flooding the body of Henry Crick ("waterman" and keeper of the Atkinson Lock.)
At the end of Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, images of glass also gain new meanings of death and destruction. Initially a symbolic representation of Lucinda's life and dreams, glass becomes a critical component of Oscar's death experience and plays an important role in the destruction of the Australian Outback. When Oscar falls to his sudden and violent death, he is surrounded by elements of both water and glass:
Shining fragments of aquarium glass fell like snow around him. And when the long awaited white fingers of water tapped and lapped on Oscar's lips, he welcomed them in as he always had, with a scream, like a small boy caught in the sheet-folds of a nightmare. (432)
Reminiscent of the "calamitous floods" described in Waterland (342), the final scene of Oscar and Lucinda reveals the destructive nature of both water and glass. Ironically, the waters which should have figuratively cleansed Oscar of his confessed sins (see 431) ends up being the agent of his own destruction.
- Glass and Water: Symbolic Imagery in Oscar and Lucinda and Waterland — an Introduction
- Glass and Water, Love and Sexuality
- Glass and Water: Progress, Power, and the Weakness of of Empire
Last modified 1 March 2004