In Graham Swift's Waterland, the ebb and flow of rivers directly coincides with the narrator's theory of progress. Calling upon the ideals of the French revolution, Tom Crick's idea of progress is associated with the idea of revolution, a "turning round, a completing of a cycle...the idea of return. A redemption; a restoration. A reaffirmation of what is pure and fundamental against what is decadent and false. A return to a new beginning" (137). Crick's idea of progress and return echoes in his description of the Ouse river:
So that while the Ouse flows to the sea, it flows, in reality, like all rivers, only back to itself, to its own source; and that impression that a river moves only one way is an illusion. And it is also an illusion that what you throw (or push) into a river will be carried away, swallowed for ever, and never return. Because it will return. (146)
In Waterland, the family story of the Cricks (water people) versus the Atkinsons (capitalist brewers) serves as a paradigm for England during the industrial revolution — the story of technology and capitalism overtaking the life and land of the Fens people. Figuratively connecting his idea of progress to the movement of the rivers, Tom Crick's narrative is an attempt to reclaim, retell, and reinstate the displaced history of his water land and water people.
In Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, glass functions as the embodiment of progress for the colonizer yet contributes to the physical and spiritual destruction of the colonized Australian Outback. From Oscar's point of view (that of the "white man"), the glass church is a cultural symbol of technology and progress; to transport the glass church into Bellinger is to transport the ideal monument of industry and Christianity, both critical elements of the British empire, into "unchartered" territory:
Each pane of glass...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. (374)
Although the glass church may be the ultimate symbol of technology and progress in the eyes of the colonizer, it stands as a symbolic piece of architecture completely ill-suited and in contradiction with the physical and spiritual nature of the Australian Outback. As a glass structure and literal vessel of light, the glass church traps heat, encloses and suffocates the smallest of nature's creatures:
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)
Illustrating the destruction of natural life with the arrival of "technology", this passage must be viewed in conjunction with a previous passage that compares the smallest of nature's creatures with the sacred stories and spiritual beliefs of the Australian Outback:
The country was thick with sacred stories more ancient than the ones he carried in his sweat-slippery leather Bible. He did not even imagine their presence. Some of these stories were as small as the transparent anthropods that lived in the puddles beneath the river casuarinas. These stories were like fleas, thrip, so tiny that they might inhabit a place (inside the ears of the seeds of grass). (416-17)
By suffocating nature's smallest creatures within its hard and transparent walls, the glass church figuratively kills the stories and belief system of the native culture. As a missionary symbol, the glass church disturbs both physical and spiritual aspects of the Australian Outback. In Oscar and Lucinda, religious expansion or technological "progress" (as embodied by the glass church) is the perpetuation of colonial power.
In Oscar and Lucinda, the shattering of the Prince Rupert drop prefigures the shattering of the glass church at the end of the novel. As by Randall Bass asks in "The Prince Rupert Drop as Central Symbol," "How might such totalizing structures as the Prince Rupert Drop — solid in its totality, but vulnerable once even so slightly deconstructed — serve for us, as modern readers, as a model for post-colonial critiques of the discourse of empire, civilization and progress?" Moving from the Prince Rupert Drop to the glass church, Carey moves the reader from the smallest figure of progress and technology to one of the biggest, emulating the rise and expansion of the British empire. Despite the strength of the Prince Rupert drop and despite the grandeur of the big glass church, the destruction of both of these objects in Carey's novel reminds the reader to pay close attention to the weakness of empire and to civilizations which lay sole claim to ideas of progress and technology.
- Glass and Water: Symbolic Imagery in Oscar and Lucinda and Waterland — an Introduction
- Glass and Water, Creation and Destruction
- Glass and Water, Love and Sexuality
Last modified 1998