Postmodernist narrative rejects the linear, the absolutes of cause and effect and the model of civilization, society, and time as inherently progressing and improving as time passes into the future. Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda and Graham Swift's Waterland, as well as other twentieth-century fictional "historical" novels such as A.S. Byatt's Possession, exemplify this deconstruction of time and progress as the novels depict histories, stories, and myths that neither profess concrete notions of growth and development nor linear accounts of the progression of time. Even the notion of the dependable narrator, traditionally considered the foundation of the historical tale, is disrupted in these post-modern tales of the past, as omnipotent voices interject themselves throughout these stories without a practical basis for their knowledge or insight. Analyzing the crisis of narrative and time in post-modern works, with a focus on Carey's and Swift's novels, leads to a discussion of three primary elements in the fabrication of the story in this genre: history, progress, and false narration. Utilizing overarching notions of storytelling, systems of belief, and imperialist politics, these authors reveal the movement away from Victorian literary modes of definitive knowledge and linear time to create stories based on the cyclical, the unpredictable, and even the impossible. In these post-modern works, words can be disconnected from their referent, random occurrence can supplant conceptions of cause and effect, and the "Here and Now" can become indistinguishable from the past, present, and future.


Victorian and modernist conceptions of history rely upon a conception of history as a series of events progressing toward enlightenment, understanding, and the end of human conflict. This attituide toward history is labeled "progressive history." Contradicting such beliefs that espouse the inevitably of betterment, postmodernists discard the so-called "myth of history." In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard advances the postmodernist view of this myth of order and referential progression and chronology. Baudrillard states: "History is our lost referential, that is to say our myth . . . Whereas so many generations, and particularly the last, lived in the march of history, in the euphoric or catastrophic expectation of revolution—today one has the impression that history has retreated, leaving behind it an indifferent nebula, traversed by currents, but emptied of references. It is into this void that the phantasms of past history recede." In Waterland, the protagonist Tom Crick traces his family history, societal history, and personal history directly through this nebula, so that past, present and future no longer progress linearly but circle back on one another to create a continuity or circularity in time that disrupts the progressive history of other eras. In his role as teacher, Crick explicitly champions this cyclical nature of historical development in the classroom by detailing the many retreats human beings have made in the face of supposed progress throughout human history. "It goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards as it goes forwards. It loops. It takes detours. Do not fall into the illusion that history is a well-disciplined and unflagging column marching unswervingly into the future" (135).

Cyclical time is introduced — and reinforced — by a variety of symbols and images that appear throughout the novel. The first metaphor for circularity is that of revolution, a phenomenon which Crick explains is etymologically connected to a "turning round, a completing of a cycle." Understanding historical, societal, or even linguistic revolution as a return to the past or to what came before upsets the entire notion of Victorian progression and linearity. Swift's protagonist affirms that a revolution is "the last setting one would expect Nostalgia to thrive," but in this revolt, Swift suggests that society is rejecting the notion of history progressing through the creation of what is false and "decadent" (137). If what a people are seeking with revolution is a return to the past, then not only is this type of popular rebellion a literal pronouncement of the tautological essence of time, but it is also a renouncement of the Victorian model of positive historical progress. In a revolution, people seek the establishment of the past in the present, and wish this past to serve as a guide for the future.

In Waterland another negation of linear time is the river Ouse, the body of water that runs forward throughout both the Fens, history, and Tom Crick's story while concurrently winding back on itself, repeating its course. Throughout the novel, the passage of time is marked by this passage of water. Instead of existing merely as an indication of the constant forward flow of history, the Ouse also directly interjects itself into this history, as water becomes a primary actor in the sequence of events in the narrator's life. Water is the site of Freddie Parr's murder and the final resting place for Tom Crick's future, his unborn child extracted from the womb of his soon-to-be wife. However, water also provides the source of livelihood for the Crick family, a lineage that defines itself as a "water people. Swift writes that the Ouse "flows on, unconcerned with ambition, whether local or national. It flows now in more than one channel, its water diverging, its strength divided, silt-prone, flood-prone. Yet if flows—oozes—on, as every river must, to the sea . . . So that while the Ouse flows to the sea, it flows, in reality, like all rivers, only back on itself, to its own source . . . " (145). Swift unequivocally equates the cyclical nature of the Ouse and the circular bent of history, but he simultaneously also uses the river to question the definitive view of history progressing with certain meanings and for specific reasons. He says that the Ouse flows without "ambition," granting both death and life in its murky waters to the people of the Fens and to Tom Crick's family over their ancestral history. In this sense, the river not only cycles back on itself, but its effect on history and time remains ambiguous. The Ouse challenges the "cause and effect" notion of historical progression merely because it causes and affects a variety of consequences at once; it is unclear, unexpected, and even perhaps random how this body of water can both create and destroy on its path to circular return.

Although Peter Carey sets Oscar and Lucinda's primarily in the past, like Waterland, it also questions notions of linear chronology. Again like Swift, Carey utilizes ancestral history to connect past to present, showing the cyclical components of events and their ramifications. Oscar and Lucinda's narrator is not of primary significance in the novel, as he is in Swift's work and in A.S. Byatt's romance novel. Nonetheless, t many instances throughout the book pull the reader suddenly back from the past in order to reconnect with the present-day life of Oscar's descendent. The novel begins by establishing the physical resemblance of the narrator's family to Oscar Hopkins. "We lined up: my mother, my brother, me, my sister. We had red hair, long thin necks like twisted rubber bands" (1). This genetic continuation of the past is further exemplified when the narrator distinguishes his father — the non-descendent of Oscar's infamous union — from the rest of the family. "He was not like us at all. He was short, broad-faced, pigeon-chested. He had crinkled eyes and crooked teeth. He laughed and farted. He was a cunning spin bowler . . . He was not like us . . . " (1). Though the narrator's father has no physical continuity with the history of his wife, he is strongly affected by her past, by the tale of the glass church transported to St. John's, and by her on-going obsession with Oscar's religious legacy. The historical monument that is not the father's history intrudes upon his present-day life and makes him part of a cyclical past that is not even his own.

The narrator also has a more physical connection to his ancestor's life than mere genetic resemblance, a point revealed in the passage on the "Prince Rupert's Drops." The impetus for Lucinda's ownership of the glassworks, for her future life as a champion of the factory worker, for Oscar's voyage to Boat Harbour and consequent mating with Miriam, which then spurred the creation of a family line inducting the narrator of this story, can be attributed to the tear-drop shaped glass of the Prince Rupert drop. Lucinda's passion for the drop consequently shapes her own future and the future of others. "So it was the Prince Rupert's drop, shaped like a tear, but also like a seed, that had a powerful effect on Lucinda Leplastrier. It is the nature of things. You can catch a passion from them . . . " (109). The effects of this passion are woven into the present as the narrator declares that he has a drop "right here beside me as I write (I hold it in the palm of my left hand while the right hand moves to and fro across the page) . . . " (108). The narrator, in his resemblance to Oscar, is a physical artifact of Lucinda's and Oscar's history, but he also possesses an object that symbolizes this connection between past and present. When describing the drop, the narrator communicates a sense of awe and passion for the glass — "If you were here beside me in the room, I would find it almost impossible not to demonstrate to you, to take my pliers and — in a second — destroy it" — that inspired Lucinda to purchase a glass factory a century before (108). This short moment in the epic, like the other moments of intrusion on the part of the narrator, serve to reinforce the cyclical connection between past and present and future, in a novel that appears superficially to be set solely in the past.

A final example of the crisis of linearity displayed in Carey's novel concerns the story of Kumbaingiri Billy — the history of a story within a story. Billy's account of an ancestor who observed Oscar's conveying the glass church to Bellingen provides the basis for an oral tradition which is passed down within Billy's aboriginal tribe and hence to the narrator. This oral history exemplifies one kind of cyclical regurgitation of history in the novel. The tale of Oscar's transport from the perspective of the Australian natives who viewed it also undermines the neat construction of histories and tales as accurate depictions of sequences of events. The narrator questions the source of Billy's narrative, and he posits the possibility that it could have derived from a different tribe, from an earlier date — the history itself is left suspect. "I listened to the story a number of times. Kumbaingiri Billy must have first heard it when he was very young, and now I think it seems probable that its source is not amongst the Kumbaingiri, but the Narcoo blacks whom Mr. Jeffris conscripted at Kempsey to guide the party on the last leg of its journey. But perhaps it is not one story anyway. The assertion that 'our people had not seen white people before' suggests a date earlier than 1865 and a more complex parentage than I am able to trace" (395). In this passage, history becomes muddled by recollection, the limits of the narrator, and by the essence of storytelling itself — the importance of conveying an idea and the essential features of an event supersedes the specific dates, details, and legitimizing facets of the past requisite for narratives in history books. Billy's oral tradition, which establishes a story that serves to link the past to the present, thus creates the circularity that defines Oscar and Lucinda, but it also destablizes this past just as it promotes its continuation into the future. Postmodern historical narrative accepts this notion of unstable history as a consequence of abandoning the all-encompassing meta-narrative, but with this abandonment of the unified, solitary voice of history comes the crisis of narrative. In the postmodern literary world, time is circular and the clear-cut chronology of history that defines the Victorian era is traded for a history exemplified by its characterization as an "indifferent nebula, traversed by currents, but emptied of references."

Just as postmodern narrative rejects linear order and stable notions of chronology, so too it abandons the traditional concept of historical development as a series of determinate causes and effects. Undermining cause and effect is a primary feature of postmodern rejection of Victorian modes of linearity and stable narrative. Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, for example, challenges the idea of the expected outcome, upsetting the reader's perception of what will and should happen at the close of the story and deviating from the reader's assumptions about the history of the narrator's family. Throughout the story, the reader is led to believe that the narrator is a product of a union of the two primary characters in the story, Oscar and Lucinda. The omnipotent descendent understands his existence to be a consequence of the interactions between the characters in the book's title. "In order that I exist, two gamblers, one Obsessive, the other Compulsive, must meet. A door must open at a certain time . . . .But even this, a conclusion which requires, of the active party a journey as complex as that of a stainless steel Pachinko ball . . . might not have taken place if the ventilation system of Leviathan had not displayed a single eccentricity of which its designers had been totally unaware" (187). The irony of this passage perpetuates the postmodern disruption of cause and effect. Though the narrator's existence depends upon Lucinda meeting Oscar, it is not because the two eventually marry and have children but because Lucinda's role in Oscar's life ensures that he eventually meets the actual mother of his children — Miriam. In this sense, the cause is not connected directly to its effect but is instead enveloped in much hazier and ill-defined chain of events. The postmodern novel, even when it is set in the past, relies upon a history where A does not cause B, but instead may have some distant and unclear impact upon B. Cause and effect, as an orderly, systematic, and decidedly Victorian means of understanding historical chronology, is questioned and rejected in this literary period that defies traditional notions of narrative

The aforementioned passage in Carey's novel also illuminates another primary aspect of the role of history in postmodernist story-telling — its unpredictability and random nature. The narrator in this novel affirms that the course of Lucinda's relationship with Oscar depended upon such seemingly insignificant details as the placement of Lucinda's ship cabin in relation to the stewards' gambling room or the ventilation system of that specific ship. Furthermore, the entire religious context of Oscar and Lucinda, and consequently the unfolding of the events leading to the establishment of the glass church in the Outback, is predicated on an incident involving the disobedient consumption of a Christmas pudding in Oscar's evangelical childhood home. If it were not for Oscar's taste of the forbidden, he would not have thought to question his father's spiritual beliefs and eventually abandon them in favor of Anglicanism. One slight twist in this fictional tale of fate disrupts the entire foundation upon which the bildungsroman rests. In Waterland, Tom Crick confronts this question of the unpredictability of nature and evolution. He wonders at the utter changeability of the "zenith" and the inability of human beings to stabilize its placement. Swift's protagonist asks, "Why must the zenith never be fixed? Because to fix the zenith is to contemplate decline . . . Because there must always be — don't deny it — a future" (93). Tom Crick's Fens provides the perfect backdrop to this tale of historical disorder and random occurrence; it is a waterland that spurs alcoholism, sexual adventurism and murder amongst its inhabitants, it is a materialization of what is wild and incontrollable in nature and in history. Both Swift's and Carey's novels emphasize this breakdown in the progression of history and time within which events occur predictably and with reason. Instead, the authors describe a world in which a single random incident in the life course may alter an entire sequence of events and affect numerous generations to come, a universe in which the zenith may not be nailed down, identified, or extrapolated.

A final aspect of the crisis of the narrative caused by the destabilization of history involves the role of myth or story in creating this history. Tom Crick posits human beings as the "story-telling animal," a species that constructs tales in order to provide order and extract comfort from the seemingly random series of events that propel the universe through space. Crick affirms that for man, "wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trails signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories, he has to keep on making them up. As long as there's a story, it's all right" (63). The creation of stories as a coping mechanism is just as evident in Oscar and Lucinda. Even before the death of her mother, Lucinda fictionalizes the relationship she has with Elizabeth, constructing a reminiscence of closeness that did not actually exist in order to escape the unwelcome incidences of loneliness, anger, and antagonism that actually permeated her childhood.

Lucinda did not know her mother well. This was not what she imagined. All her life she dusted and polished the fiction she had made as a child: that they were "intimates", like sisters. In her memory there was always laughing and hair brushing, and tickling and cuddling . . . All these things really happened, but if they were remembered so vividly it was because anxiety and bad temper had been far more common. [73]

As readers, we too construct our own stories in Carey's novel in order to establish a sense of continuity and stability utilizing the haphazard set of facts the author bequeaths us. Carey sets up a narrative composed in equal parts of the backgrounds of two individuals — Oscar and Lucinda — and tied together by the narrative of a future Hopkins descendent. By nature we take this neat package as what it seems to be and create a story in which Oscar marries Lucinda and begets the progeny that eventually brings the narrator into the world in a future generation. Although Carey does distort this perfect chain of events by the introduction of the real bearer of Oscar's child in the chapter entitled "Orphans," this contradictory piece of evidence is so discordant with our notions as an audience of what the denouement should be, that we disregard it in the larger scope of the expected union of Oscar and Lucinda. In this sense, the author perpetuates the human need to fabricate stories to engender feelings of safety and comfort; Carey leads his readers to construct just this sort of story to reconcile all the disconnected facts of the novel and make them appear as a unified and logical tale.

It is also possible to perceive the postmodern perspective on history as a disruption of the traditional bildungsroman blueprint of story-weaving. Suzanne Hader, utilizing a distilled definition of bildungsroman derived from Marianne Hirsch's "The Novel of Formation as Genre," characterizes this genre as a type of story describing "a single individual's growth and development within the context of a defined social order. The growth process [in a bildungsroman] . . . has been described as both 'an apprenticeship to life' and a 'search for meaningful existence within society'" (source), The novels of Carey and Swift, as well as Byatt, belie this conception of a character's positive development and socialization into society, however, as they bring into question the "building blocks" upon which the Victorian bildungsroman would be founded.

In Oscar and Lucinda, Lucinda constructs her life around glass; it is this material which propels the woman's relationships and actions and which consequently motivates the direction of the novel as a whole. Glass in this postmodern work acts as a metaphor for the inherent insubstantiality of the traditional building blocks of life, for the physical properties of glass reveal it to be a substance that while seemingly resilient and indestructible from the exterior is in fact actually quite fragile. From the moment of Lucinda's first interest in the glassworks, Carey highlights the paradoxical nature of glass, and in doing so, questions its reliability as a foundation for a life and livelihood. "I am not suggesting that our founder purchased the glassworks to get more drops, it is clear that she had the seed planted, not once, but twice, and knew already the lovely contradictory nature of glass . . . that glass is a thing in disguise, an actor, is not a solid at all but a liquid...that it is invisible, solid, in short, a joyous and paradoxical thing, as good a material as any to build a life from" (111). The author's slight ironic phrase, "as good a material as any to build a life from," undermines the plausibility of life-building at all, deconstructing traditional notions of human growth and development throughout the course of the life span. Furthermore, the composition of glass, not quite a liquid, not quite a solid, reinforces this idea of the unstable base for this postmodern bildungsroman. In the end, this passage foreshadows the downfall of Lucinda's and Oscar's relationship, for it is glass that eventually causes Oscar to embark on a journey into the Outback, leaving Lucinda behind, and it is the glass church which ultimately becomes Oscar's tomb. The construction of this testament to their relationship — a sacred building made of the paradoxical substance — eventually leads to the destruction of their union, Oscar's death, and the loss of Lucinda's fortune. What the glass church does instigate, ironically, is the creation of a family lineage that is completely unexpected by the reader. This unanticipated conclusion also undermines the traditional concept of a "novel of growth." In the end, it is not romantic love that prompts the beginning of the Hopkin's clan but Miriam's manipulation of Oscar's circumstances, a set of circumstances that came to be due to one woman's passion for glass. The unreliability of glass as the foundation for a bildungsroman is substantiated by the outcome of a novel — traditional literary notions of growth, development, and the "search for a meaningful existence in society" are negated as a lineage is born from the remnants of deceit, death, and loss.

Byatt's Possession also suggests the postmodern notion of the unstable bildungsroman, but in this case, the literary form in undermined by the unreliable quest for knowledge. Maud and Roland live the lives of the dedicated scholar; their careers, private lives, and even romantic pursuits are controlled by the more overarching quest to possess information about the past. As the fate of Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Ash becomes increasingly intertwined with their own, striving to possess knowledge about the lives, love, and poetry of these two Victorian authors imbues Maud and Roland with a sense of coherence in their lives denied by their academic study of the disjointed and postmodern in the setting of the late-twentieth century British university.

Roland thought, partly with precise postmodernist pleasure and partly with a real element of superstitious dread, that he and Maud were being driven by a plot or fate that seemed, at least possibly, to be not their plot of fate but that of others . . . Coherence and closure are deep human desires that are presently unfashionable. But they are always both frightening and enchantingly desirable. [456]

The quest for truth, the search for a source of tautological knowledge — these are the elements of the traditional bildungsroman, and Possession does fulfill this promise of Victorian romantic and personal development to a certain degree. But Byatt's postmodern fiction also challenges this coherent structure of knowledge sought by Maud and Roland. The end of the novel reveals that the two academics will never discover the true end of this Victorian love story; they will always remain somewhat "in the dark." This is accentuated most succinctly in the postscript. "There are things that happen and leave no historical trace, are not spoken or written of, though it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been. Two people met, on a hot May day, and never mentioned their meeting. This is how it was" (552). Byatt states that the past, present and future are affected by certain events which will never be discovered by outside parties, which will never become part of the larger, more objective set of facts classified in university halls and libraries as knowledge. In this sense, certain aspects of human history are never fully knowable. Thus, that which drives Maud and Roland as well as the entire academic structure of the university, the belief that with the proper investigating techniques and dogged determinism all indicators of the past may be unearthed and analyzed, is revealed as a false assumption. In this literary conclusion, Byatt effectively undermines the larger quest for knowledge and concurrently strikes yet another crack in the foundation of the Victorian "building-block" novel.

Waterland depicts a final blow to this shrine of the Victorian literary genre. One of the most entrenched aspects of the bildungsroman is its portrayal of the inevitability of progress — the progress of human empire, the conquest of man over nature, the belief in the superiority of the future over what has come before. In this sense, history provides the basis of the ultimate bildungsroman — the Victorian tale of human existence. From the meager beginnings of the first human beings, people have striven to develop, expand, and improve the quality and ease of their lives over the course of each subsequent generation. This traditional notion of progressive history is cemented in the construction of linear time. By positing history as a cyclical rather than a linear function, Graham Swift upsets this notion of never-ending advancement and progress. The author's protagonist espouses a notion of history based upon the reclamation of what is lost, rather than upon the gain of what is not yet found.

There's this thing called progress. But it doesn't progress, it doesn't go anywhere. Because as progress progresses the world can slip away. It's progress if you can stop the world slipping away. My humble model for progress is the reclamation of land. Which is repeatedly, never-endingly retrieving what is lost. A dogged, vigilant business. But you shouldn't go mistaking the reclamation of land for the building of empires. [336]

Through his ruminations, Tom Crick dashes the historical significance not only of linear advancement but also of imperialism; he destroys any notions of "life-building" based upon the "building of empires" and by doing so contradicts what was considered to be the epitomy of Victorian progress. Swift's deconstruction of progressive time and human history is yet another indicator of the downfall of the Victorian bildungsroman and the crisis of narrative in the postmodern novel.


"But you shouldn't go mistaking the reclamation of land for the building of empire" — advice that invites the question of how progress should be measured in the postmodernist work, when appropriation of land can no longer be equated with the advancement of society and traditional ideals and social paradigms are undermined and weakened. Two notions of progress contribute to the crisis of the narrative in the postmodern novel. The first is the destruction of the supremacy of imperialism and the second is the destruction of systems of belief. The first concept — the weakness of empire — is reiterated throughout both Waterland and Oscar and Lucinda. Lucinda's glass factory is symbolic of the societal urge to industrialize, mechanize, and mass-produce in the nineteenth century. Carey's heroine, though despising the physical pollution and grime that pervades the factory, holds fast to the larger significance of this symbol of capitalist modernization as a bastion of liberation for her sex.

She had seen industrialization as the great hop for women. The very factories the aesthetes and romantics so abhorred would, one day soon, provide her sex with the economic basis for their freedom. She saw factories with nurseries incorporated in their structure, and staffed kitchen . . . Her factories were like hubs of wheels, radiating spokes of care. [70]

However, the illusion of creating gender equity as well as industrial progress within the constraints of the colonial environment is quickly revealed, for Lucinda, a woman working in man's world, is rejected by worker and craftsman alike as a legitimate owner and supervisor of the glassworks. It is only with Oscar by her side that Lucinda receives even nominal acceptance or toleration from her own employees. Lucinda's glass factory only further reinforces the very substantial glass ceiling that she fights against her entire life — her ownership of the male means of production does not guarantee her a place of power in colonial Australia, which strongly abides by the gender conscriptions of the homeland. Carey upsets this Victorian conception of progress-by-ownership of industrialization, for, ironically, only when Lucinda, who becomes a labor leader, is forced to labor in one of these factories after the loss of her fortune does she exercise any influence in her society.

Carey's novel also stresses the flaw of making progress contingent upon the development of colonial imperialism, and the glass church becomes the emblem of this misplaced notion of societal advancement. Specifically, Jeffris' voyage across the Outback with this symbol of industrial production becomes synonymous with the colonial establishment of technology over "savagery," civilization over nature.

Mr. Jeffris did not like the church, but he was certainly not without a sense of history. Each pane of glass, he thought, would travel through country where glass had never existed before, not once, in all time. These sheets would cut a new path in history. They would slice the white dust-covers of geography and reveal a map beneath, with rivers, mountains, and names, the streets of his birthplace, Bromney, married to the rivers of savage Australia. [374]

However, the utter incongruity of this structure within the Australian wild provides a physical indication of the failure of the colonizer to invoke progress by conquering an environment ill-suited to European models of technological improvement. Carey provides a literal example of the pitfalls of imperialism by illustrating the death and destruction caused by the church's translucent structure.

There were bush-flies inside the church. They did not understand what glass was. There were also three blue-bellied dragon flies. For one hundred thousand years their progenitors had inhabited that valley without once encountering glass. Suddenly the air was hard where it should be soft. Likewise the tawny hard-shelled water beetle and the hand-legged wasp. They flew against the glass in panic. They had the wrong intelligence to grasp the nature of glass. [418]

Carey explicitly states that the insect's death in the sun-baked glass oven provides a metaphor for Oscar's misunderstanding of his own limitations. It also symbolizes the limitations of the colonial masters who defy nature to establish technological prowess in the untamed wilds of their empire. In Oscar and Lucinda, the follies of a progress built upon the usurpation of the natural order and appropriation of another people's history, is indicated through the drowning of Oscar Hopkins. As "white fingers of water tapped and lapped on Oscar's lips," and then drag him to his death, Carey reminds the reader that a narrative built upon the coerced establishment of society in a environment which subscribes only to natural development and growth creates a crisis in the narrative, for this story and history is based upon a false conception of progress (432).

Tom Crick stresses that empire-building may never supplant the reclaiming of lands, for if it does, nature enacts her revenge with natural calamity. The calamitous floods that rush through the fens, the constant erosion of silt and soil, and the fire that subsumes the New Atkinson Brewery all stand as testament to the strength of the natural order over the imperialist intrusion of progress. As Crick asks in his historic tale concerning the great Brewery fire during the coronation ceremony: "Had this phenomenal ale, intended to regale the people on day of national festivity, only exposed the inflammatory folly of their jingoistic ardor and revealed to them that they preferred destruction to rejoicing?" (175). In Old Testament style, these postmodern authors utilize the vengeance of nature to show the weakness of a history or narrative based upon such false conceptions of human progress and advancement.

Carey and Swift both address the second aspect of progress as crisis in the narrative — the loss of faith in a system of belief. Oscar and Lucinda treats this topic as a primary theme throughout the novel, as gambling and religious doubt align themselves in the lives and actions of chief literary characters. From the first lines of the story, Carey's novel immerses us in the Victorian crisis of faith. Oscar's quest to propound the tenets of Anglicanism is derived from doubt about the righteousness of his father's faith, a strand of evangelicalism that does not permit physical pleasure. Even after accepting Mr. Stratton's religion and receiving a clerical degree from Oxford, Oscar continues to grapple with his religion as his compulsion to gamble repeatedly overwhelms his religious morals. Set in the era of Darwin's The Origin of Species, Carey's work highlights the questioning of faith and entrenched, rigid systems of belief that had historically provided guidelines for behavior and moral action. In this time of unsureness, nothing but the physical, the "Here and Now" is stable or definite, so that the whole act of religious belief is likened to a spiritual gamble. "Our whole faith is a wager, Miss Leplastrier. We bet — it is all in Pascal and very wise it is too . . . we bet that there is a God. We bet our life on it. We calculate the odds, the return, that we shall sit with the saints in paradise . . . It is true! We must gamble every instant of our allotted time span. We must stake everything on unprovable fact of His existence" (218). Though Oscar chooses in favor of living by this bet, other aspects of the novel suggest the dying strength of the type of Victorian faith that causes Oscar to "wake before dawn in a cold sweat" (218). Lucinda, for instance, though a moral individual, is ultimately ruled by her individual and earthly passions, rather than by the promise of ethereal good grace. After Oscar departs on his voyage to Boat Harbour, Lucinda experiences a clarity of mind that is akin to a lifting veil. Lucinda realizes that "she had not cared about the church. The church had been conceived in a fever. It was not a celebration of sacred love but their own" (378). Though evidently religious in its physical architecture and adornments, the true essence of the church lay in its creation as a symbol of human, not godly, love. In the passage, Carey utilizes the trope of an epiphany, traditionally associated with the acquisition of religious belief and understanding, to instead suggest that the mortal and the material have surpassed the other-worldly and the spiritual in this age of religious crisis.

Aside from manipulating the plot to emphasize this shaken system of belief, Carey utilizes the narrative structure itself as a means of privileging natural evolution over a divine universe. As mentioned in the history section above, a sequence of seemingly random events drive Oscar and Lucinda forward. As the narrator repeatedly interjects, his very existence depends upon a variety of physical conditions — that Lucinda and Oscar would both travel to Australia on the Leviathan, that they would visit the same Chinese gambling parlor on the same night, that both even had a gambling habit in the first place. What these chance encounters reveal is that in Carey's colonial Australia, the universe is propelled by external events that are completely unconnected to a fated system portended by the divine. In the end of the novel, when Oscar renounces (albeit unknowingly) Lucinda in order to pursue religious duty, he is in fact renouncing his life and happiness. Carey creates a structure in which to choose the divine over the physical and material is not the correct gamble.

In Waterland, Tom Crick's system of belief is also threatened, though it is not a spiritual set of beliefs that is at stake. Crick is dismissed from his position as a history teacher because the "powers-that-be" do not consider the modern world to require of its students extensive knowledge about the past. In this post-Victorian and even postmodern era, societies' historical successes and failures, adventures and discoveries amount merely to "a rag-bag of pointless information" (23). The repudiation of history in the academic setting is the equivalent of a denial of the sacred for Crick, who is a weaver of stories beyond the walls of the classroom. But Tom's crisis is not the same as a crisis of faith. Religious belief requires the believer to stand firm in conviction despite a lack of evidence of any existence of the divine. For Tom, his entire life history is evidence of the significance of the past in informing the present and formulating the future. What is in crisis, however, is modern society's faith in the cyclical and powerful force of history. Within the depths of his novel, Swift raises the question of whether a society that denies its own history can truly assert to be making progress.

False Narrators

The final aspect of the crisis of the postmodern narrative takes the form of the false narrator, the entity who illustrates, explains, and depicts a story without actually having any means of knowing all very details he or she is describing. But from the postmodern perspective, the legitimacy of the "grand narrative" is brought into question, as theorists of this era reject a system of knowledge in which only the very few are able to determine what is true and what is to be disbelieved. For postmodernists, the local stories and histories are privileged, rather than the meta-narrative. Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition validates this notion that knowledge in the postmodern period does not rely upon an overarching "grand narrative" for validation. Lyotard contends that "in contemporary society and culture — postindustrial society, postmodern culture — ...the grand narrative has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation . . . " (37). This theoretical postulate is relevant to the works of Carey and Swift, where the narrators present their stories as if they had access to the historiographies of their ancestors. In reality, both Crick and the descendent of Oscar Hopkins have no way of knowing the emotions, thoughts, and detailed behaviors of their predecessors in these stories they depict with such detail. From this perspective, the reliability of the narrators of these novels is suspect, and the veracity of the stories is called into question; the narrative is, once again, in crisis. But what Lyotard and the postmodern theorists assert is that reality does not belong in the hands of a few primary historians or authors, and so the truth described by these narrators is just as reliable and useful as the truth detailed in a textbook. The nature of what is official and what is fiction is no longer clear-cut in this time beyond the Victorian and modern age. Instead, a variety of histories, truths, and stories become possible. In the postmodern novel, the problem of the false or unreliable narrator puts pressure on the reader to discern and decide his or her own version of what is true and what is not within the context of the story.

The crisis of the Victorian or modern narrative is a pervasive issue within the postmodern story or within the novel that uses postmodern techniques to propel the unfolding of its plot. In Oscar and Lucinda and Waterland especially, history, progress and the legitimacy of the narrator are all thrown into flux, as linearity is destroyed, notions of imperialist progress are scorned, systems of belief are invalidated and discarded, and the story-teller herself is revealed to be unreliable in the traditional sense of the word. This narrative dilemma is resolved, however, by relying upon a theoretical system that deviates from that of the Victorian literary model. In postmodern theory, time and history can be understood as cyclical and the role of the historian does not have to be limited to the privileged few. By employing postmodern devices as remedies for the traditional narrative framework they destabilize, Carey and Swift serve to further separate their stories from the Victorian genre of literature that preceded their own.


Baudrillard, Jean. Simulation and Simulacra. trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994 (orig. 1981).

Byatt, A.S. Possession. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Carey, Peter. Oscar and Lucinda. New York: Vintage International, 1988.

Hadre, Suzanne. "The Bildungsroman Genre: Great Expectations, Aurora Leigh, and Waterland." www.victorian

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984 (orig.1979).

Swift, Graham. Waterland. New York: Vintage International, 1983.

Last modified 1998