Like Graham Swift's Waterland, Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda frames itself as a fictional autobiography. The narrators of both texts look back to the Victorian past as a time of origins. Tom Crick, Swift's narrator, describes his family's history over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Carey's narrator, who is given neither a name nor gender, also traces his/her family's nineteenth-century history, in the form of the great-grandfather, Oscar Hopkins. I would like to argue here that Carey's narrator also locates within the Victorian past the origins of religious doubt. The story of Oscar Hopkins takes place, as Carey informs us on the first page, between the years 1841 and 1866. Oscar's life is thus contemporaneous with Charles Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species, the text which possibly did more to upset Victorian faith than any other. Like Darwin's text, Carey's Oscar and Lucinda offers us an alternative to the Christian model of the world. Instead of imagining a God who controls the world and who offers man a life after death, Carey's narrative entertains the possibility that man's existence is not the result of some divine force, but of random events in nature. Man, like the animals Darwin studied, was not planned and is at the mercy of his environment.
Although Carey's text establishes itself as a fictional autobiography, the narrator focuses on the lives of Oscar Hopkins and the Australian factory owner Lucinda Leplastrier and tells us very little about his/her life. What we do learn of the narrator's life, however, is significant to the text as a whole. We learn that the narrator lives with a mother, father, brother and sister. The mother is characterized by her ardent religious faith. The narrator, however, questions this faith. "My mother told the story of the church in a way that always embarrassed me. There was an excess of emotion in her style. There was something false. We must have all known it, but we never spoke about it. I could not have named it anyway" (2). The narrator's father provides a sharp contrast to the mother. Whereas the mother is devout and reverent, the father is represented as earthly and profane. "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 could roll a cigarette with one hand" (1). The father has an earthly sincerity which the mother lacks. Already, then, from the text's opening pages, we have the coding of the intensely religious as false.
The narrator's voice disappears after the second chapter and emerges briefly at several other points in the novel. In the chapter entitled Christian Stories, the narrator lists the Christian doctrines to which his/her family subscribes. The narrator writes, "We had none of the doubts of the 1860s. At Christmas we made a star of Bethlehem from cardboard and silver paper" (61). The doubts to which the narrator makes reference clearly refer to the impact of Darwin's ideas on Victorian culture. On the surface, the narrator's statement imagines a period of religious doubtfulness during the mid-nineteenth century, followed by a re-affirmation of Christian belief in the twentieth century. The narrator's story, however, subverts this affirmation of Christian belief. Rather than imagining his or her life as planned by God, the narrator imagines life as the result of random events in history.
At several points in the novel, the narrator opens up the question, "What if Event X never took place?" The narrator recognizes that his/her life is contingent upon past events. In Chapter Three, the narrator ascribes his/her entire story to the Christmas pudding which Theophilus Hopkins' servants make for the young Oscar. "There would have been no church at Gleniffer if it had not been for a Christmas pudding. There would have been no daguerreotype of Oscar Hopkins on the banks of the Bellinger. I would not have been born. There would be no story to tell" (5). Significantly, the material object which the narrative values most in terms of origins, the Christmas pudding, functions to make Oscar doubt the religious faith of his father, a faith which does not permit the individual to enjoy physical pleasure. The narrator's entire story, therefore, originates from the doubting and questioning of religious faith. Much later, the narrator claims that "In order that I exist, two gamblers, one Obsessive, the other Compulsive, must meet" (187). This imagining of human life as contingent on past events serves to undermine Christian teaching that life is determined by God. Like Darwin's theory of evolution, the narrator's conception of human existence stresses the importance of external conditions and events in shaping that existence. Here, humans are not at God's mercy, but at the mercy of the past.
The characters to whom the narrator introduces us also wrestle with religious doubt. Once Darwin's ideas become known, nothing, it seems, is a sure thing, not even the existence of God. The recurrent theme of gambling makes this idea explicit in the novel. Indeed, the ultimate gamble is seen as the individual's decision whether to believe in God. Oscar explains this gamble to Lucinda while en route to Sydney.
Our whole faith is a wager, Miss Leplastrier. We bet — it is all in Pascal and very wise it is too, although the Queen of England might not find him nearly Presbyterian enough — 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. Our anxiety about our bet will wake us before dawn in a cold sweat. We are out of bed and on our knees, even in the midst of winter. And God sees us, and sees us suffer. 
Here Oscar alludes to Pascal's Wager, which hypothesizes the existence of God. The wager claims that an individual's best bet (i.e. the bet with the largest return) is to believe in God. If God truly exists, the individual will be saved. If, in fact, there is no God, the individual has not lost anything. If the individual bets that there is no God, when in fact there is, he/she will be damned and will have lost everything. Thus, according to Pascal, the only way for the individual to be saved is for him/her to bet on God's existence.
But Carey's text questions whether man's best bet is the rejection of all earthly pleasures for the possibility of salvation. What if man rejects earthly pleasures, lives as a devout Christian, and then dies, only to discover that there is no God? Is the sacrifice of earthly pleasure worth the possibility of salvation? This seems to be the ultimate question with which Carey deals in his narration of Oscar's and Lucinda's bet. The two bet their fortunes on whether Oscar can transport the glass church to Boat Harbour by Good Friday. It is Lucinda's hope that Oscar will win the bet, forcing her to give her inheritance to him. Lucinda has conflicted feelings about her inheritance. Although she recognizes the freedom it gives her, she feels guilty about it, since "the money did not belong to [Papa and Mama], or to her either. The money was stolen from the land. The land was stolen from the blacks. She could not have it" (104). By giving her money to Oscar, she rationalizes that she would relieve her sense of guilt and she would still "be captain of her soul" (329).
Once Oscar leaves on the voyage to Boat Harbour, however, Lucinda realizes the mistake she has made in letting him go. She realizes that it is not God or the church she cares about, but Oscar himself.
She had not cared about the church. The church had been conceived in a fever. It was not a celebration of sacred love, but of their own. Likewise this wager — she saw now, with her head pressed hard against the window pane, with her eyes tight shut, that she had only made this bet so that she might finally do what she had never managed to do upon a gaming table, that is to slough off the great guilty weight of her inheritance, drop it like a rusty armour she did not need, that she be light as a feather, as uncorrupted as an empty purse, unencumbered, naked, with her face pressed into the soft and secret place at the bottom of his graceful neck. 
Here Lucinda valorizes the physical and subordinates the divine. The church that she and Oscar have constructed is not a testament to their faith in God, but to their love for each other. The love that exists between them, it seems, is the only thing either of them can count on. What is so tragic about Oscar's death at the end of the novel is that he has run from the one sure bet in his life (Lucinda) while giving his life to something uncertain and unknown. Again, Oscar's death calls into question whether it is worth it for the individual to repudiate physical pleasure for the hope of salvation.
Carey, Peter. Oscar and Lucinda.. 1988. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.
Last modified 1998