In Oscar and Lucinda, although Peter Carey does not use the concept of the enclosed space as deliberately as Byatt, or as cyclically as Swift, constraint plays a major role in defining gender. The constraint he depicts is almost never voluntary, but frequently forced upon women, or, in the case of Oscar, perceived effeminacy. Lucinda resists the ties society attempts to impose upon her; she owns a factory, lives alone, and has intimate friendships with men. Society retaliates by making her an outcast. In contrast, Oscar, abused since childhood for his delicacy and general lack of so-called manly qualities, finds himself restrained. The material structures that contain him become a physical metaphor, or a grotesque, of the less tangible restraints — such as decorum and society — that bind women.
When her radical mother dies, Lucinda suddenly finds herself powerless to control her life. Since she cannot control her inheritance, her mother's lawyer sells her farms against her will. This lawyer also places her in the care of Mrs. Cousins, who takes away her bloomers and tries to make her wear an "obscene bustle" and a "crippling crinoline" (81). Stealing her clothing back, Lucinda continues to stumble into trouble:
But Lucinda did not know what to do in Parramatta. She tried to behave well, but as long as would not wear the bustle it seemed no one would behave well toward her. She sat by her mother's grave until it was judged morbid and she was taken away (81).
Lucinda discovers, for the first time, the lesson she will learn over and over again throughout her life. If she ever manages to escape the constraints that others impose upon her, people exclude her because she refuses to protect "that more precious and fragile asset: her reputation" (81). A woman in Australia, or anywhere, cannot live without an honorable reputation. Until she turns eighteen, she has no control over her life; "everyone wishe[s] to steer her this way and that, have her sit down, stand up, while all the time they smirked and thought her simple" (104). Her feelings call to mind the mixed desires previously expressed by Maud Bailey:
She was alone in the world, orphaned, unprotected. She trusted nothing so much as she trusted that money, which she wished fiercely, passionately, to keep, even while she tried to give it away. There was no one she could talk to about her feelings. She was pinned and crippled by her loneliness. In the afternoons she lay on her bed. There was a spring coiled tight around her chest. She held her arms straight and rigid by her side, like a trap waiting to be triggered (104).
She feels alone and exposed but, paradoxically, she also feels "pinned." She does not know whether to seek shelter in her money or flee the constraints it imposes upon her. Without her it, she would still have her farm and these people would leave her alone, but this same money protects her. After her birthday, only Lucinda's fortune keeps her from being "at their mercy" (104). For a while she owns her glass factory and lives as she pleases, not caring what the more decorous members of society think of her. With her money, however, she creates a protective shell from which she does not want to venture. As much as she hates the confining guilt and responsibility of it, she does not dare leave it. She cannot escape from this last constraint that causes her so much anxiety.
In contrast, Oscar, the man she will eventually love, seems to be at everyone's mercy. Like Lucinda, whom others perceive as having man-like qualities — she shakes hands "like a man" (122) — Oscar also exists outside defined gender boundaries. The people of his community see him as "so girlish, so harmless" that they cannot accept from him behavior they would "accept in a more robust boy" (56). As a child, "more robust" boys beat him, make him "eat dirt," and "put coarse mud on his skin because they could not bear it so soft and white" (33). Unable to tolerate the effeminacy it suggests, they attack his soft skin. As he grows older, "more robust" men still abuse him, although in more subtle ways. Wardley-Fish calls him "Odd Bod." Mr. Borrodaile, angered by Oscar's agreement with Lucinda in a debate, mimics Oscar's walk in an attempt "to make all that was good and kind in the young man appear to be weak and somehow contemptible" (205). More explicitly, Mr. Jeffris suggests that he should bathe with the rest of the expedition "to reassure the men that [he] ha[s] all the correct equipment" (390). Men perceive him as something strange, weak, or incomplete — something separate from themselves. Oscar's failure to live up to standards of manhood make him vulnerable to these attacks and to constraints similar to those which Lucinda tries to escape.
Once Oscar and Lucinda meet the course of their lives become even more extreme. Society increasingly shuts Lucinda out because she refuses to conform to its standards for women of her class. Meanwhile, he becomes increasingly contained for his inability to exhibit masculine qualities. Lucinda, sits alone in her room, desperately wanting to play cards with the stewards, but she knows they will allow not a woman of her class join them. Men cannot accept her as one of them and women dislike her lack of restraint, "her turbulent, often angry sense of her own power" (169). Even George Eliot finds it disturbing that Lucinda's eyes do not lower "in deference to her own" (169). In contrast, when Lucinda first Oscar him on the Leviathan, he is being loaded onto the ship in cage because he cannot board by himself (171). Afraid of the vast expanse of the sea, Oscar does not want to leave his room where he has squares of celluloid on his windows to contain its infiniteness.. Men find him cowardly and women find him disturbing. These two gender misfits fall in love, perhaps because they each recognize qualities in the other that the rest of the world misses or chooses to ignore. Oscar sees Lucinda's beauty and Lucinda realizes that, although he does not exhibit it in the usual way, Oscar does not lack courage.
As their strange love affair progresses, however, their situations become more desperate. Society, even her parish, makes Lucinda an outcast for living with a man. Even her glassworks, her last refuge, alienate her by readily accepting Oscar among them. In a telling scene, she watches from her window as her workers cavort in the yard (314). Lucinda, having escaped from those who would shut her in, finds herself shut out, even from the things she owns. Oscar, although an outcast as well, finds himself closed in increasingly grotesque ways. First he goes to work in stuffy office of Mr. d'Abbs:
He would end his days with no feeling of release, but with a dull headache and his shirt sticking unpleasantly to his skin. His dreams shrank until they could accommodate no larger idea than a curtain, or a crisply folded poplin shirt. He only had two shirts . . . his shirts smelt like the old rags Mrs. Williams kept in a bucket in the scullery in Hennacombe. The smell was remarked upon by his fellow workers without anything ever being said. It happened, somehow, in the silence, although silence is perhaps the wrong term. It was more that there was the odd pressure of silence, a lid of silence beneath which there were odd and secret stirrings of sound (296-7).
As Lucinda lives in her lonely cottage or works in her empty office, Oscar spends long days in this hot room with clerks who mock him for his smell and his incompetence. The constraint of the office, lidded with silence but filled with sound, makes Oscar miserable, but his pride and his belief that God wills it force him to stay. Carey's claustrophobic imagery — the sticking shirt, the use of words like "pressure" and "lid" — increases the sensation of Oscar's captivity. Leaving the office provides little sense of release; even his dreams tighten, only holding images of his petty desires, such as a curtain to block out the hot sun, or a shirt that does not smell of rags.
Oscar finally manages to escape when the two strike a bargain that would have allowed them both to unite and admit their love without a loss of pride. Oscar offers to take the glass church into the Outback and Lucinda promises him her fortune if he succeeds. Finally Oscar can prove himself and Lucinda can let go of her money, her "rusty armour," that has brought her so much loneliness. The expedition, however, deprives Lucinda of her beloved and subjects Oscar to one terrible confinement after another. His uniform fits poorly, but he never removes it, even to wash, for fear the other men will see him naked. At every river crossing, he is held down and made to swallow laudanum through a funnel forced between his teeth. In a drug-induced dream, he sees himself inside his father's aquarium, foreshadowing his death when he drowns inside the cathedral with which he hoped to win the woman he loves:
He slashed his hands on broken glass. The twisting of the platform had jammed the door . . . He held the doorknob as it came to be the ceiling of his world. The water rose. Through the bursting gloom he saw a vision of his father's wise and smiling face, peering in at him . . . Shining fragments of aquarium glass fell like snow around him. And when the long awaited fingers water tapped and lapped on Oscar's lips, he welcomed them as he always had, with a scream, like a small boy caught in the sheet-folds of a nightmare (432).
Trapped in an engagement with a woman he does not love, Oscar enters his church for a last time before the church sinks into the water. This last confinement he enters voluntarily in despair. Many of the restraints he experienced were violently forced upon him, but others he places upon himself. Oscar hates limitless expanses, feeling alone and exposed. Even in his last moments, he "panic[s] in the face of eternity" (432). The enclosed space, no matter how terrible, offers some measure of security. He cannot even leave it to swim through an opening provided by the breaking panes of glass. Too afraid of the water to swim to safety, Oscar drowns, leaving Lucinda even more alone and bereft of the fortune that protected her. Lucinda, however, manages to overcome despair and poverty and eventually becomes the great woman she had always hoped to be, but her money and her fears held her back. For Lucinda, this suffering "would be but a sharp jab in the long and fruitful journey of her life" (429). Lucinda takes the gifts that made her an outcast — her strength and her passion — and becomes famous for them.
Other parts of this essay
- The Enclosed Space in Possession
- Enclosed Mysticism and Madness in Waterland
- Solitude and Enclosure in Oscar and Lucinda
Last modified 1998