Perverse Sexuality in Possession, Oscar & Lucinda, and Waterland

Jane Fronek '97, English 168, Brown University

Besides its narrative reliance on improper sexuality, Possession, Oscar & Lucinda, and Waterland all contain "a veritable discursive explosion" of perverse and immoral sexuality. In Oscar & Lucinda, the repeated focus on sexual organs, the almost sexual excitement inherent in gambling, the nude playing cards, and the constant awareness of the uncontrollablity of the hair of both Oscar and Lucinda are indications that Carey is pleasurably reinserting the sexual into his account of the Victorian. The already-sexualized nature of hair as a symbol of wantonness is multiplied in Carey's novel as Lucinda's hair cannot be tamed and Oscar is consistently recognized for and identified by means of his hair. Because the modern reader will most likely be aware of the sexual valence of hair, Carey's use of eccentric hair to characterize both Oscar and Lucinda, combined with the obsessive pleasure each one takes from gambling, incorrectly flags one or both for sexual promiscuity. The failure of the sexual promise of hair again locates the novel as peculiarly modern; in a Victorian novel such hair would connote sexual promiscuity. Carey's authorial decision to undercut this possibility supports my assertion that a certain degree of pleasure is involved in gaining control over both the Victorian material and the reader by means of knowledge of the sexual.

In Waterland, there is also an excess of perverse sexuality. The incestuous relationship between Ernest Atkinson and his daughter, Helen, the sexual explorations of Mary and Tom Crick, and the graphic portrayal of Mary's abortion are among the excessive representations of what would be considered perversely sexual. Tom Crick's description of his and Mary's fifteen-year-old forays in the windmill centers, not on normative heterosexual intercourse, but on a detailed recollection of what could be labelled clinically as mutual, manual stimulation: "we first explored, tentatively but collaboratively, what we called then simply 'holes' and 'things'" (Swift 50). In fact, traditional sex is never illustrated in nearly the detail that the experience with "holes" and "things" is delineated by Tom:

And yet the chief and most wondrous power of Mary's hole was its capacity to send waves of sensation not only all over Mary's body, but all over mine; and this not by some process of mental association but by a direct electric current which flowed up my arm, flushed my face, and gathered in the part of me to which Mary was simultaneously applying her hand. (Swift 51)

The kind of information Swift includes in this experience is unusual for a memory of sex during World War II but characterizes the treatment of sexuality throughout Waterland.

This unusual, but also matter-of-fact style which Tom Crick utilizes to explain the extraordinary stories he tells is again apparent during an inclusion of another kind of perverse sexuality: his explanation of Helen and Ernest Atkinson's incest (Swift 228). Tom reports: "for all its being a trap, she loved her father, both in the way a daughter should and in the way a daughter shouldn't, and she didn't want to hurt him. And though she didn't want a child, yet--she wanted a child. She wanted a future. And she was used to nursing men who'd become again like helpless infants. And inside the nurse is the mother" (Swift 228). This rational narration of and explanation for the perverse, post-Victorian sexual relationship between Ernest Atkinson and his daughter is required for Swift's fragmented plot to both hold together and hold the reader. Although Swift's narrator's deft disclosures of perverse or vaguely non-normative sexuality marks his novel, the pleasure resulting from these disclosures is anti-Foucauldian in a very different way; for Tom Crick, the pleasure in revealing the sexual is inseparable from the pleasure of the narrative. For Tom, all the stories are both strange and compelling: they must be revealed and explained, not only to rewrite the Victorian past and its legacy, moral and otherwise, but to learn those historically-continuous lessons of love, life, and passion. In this sense, Swift follows the form of Byatt's novel's suggestion that Victorian ideology may not be restricted to or have even ended in the nineteenth century.

In these three novels, the failure of Victorian ideas more generally is tied into the perverse sexuality central to the tragic conclusion of the plot of each text. Indeed, sexuality in these narratives seems to be both symptomatic and emblematic of a greater, modern disillusionment about the effects of the Victorian past. Although the literary emulation of the Victorian certainly signals some degree of celebration of its legacy in Waterland, Possession, and Oscar & Lucinda, the continual and critical appraisal of the ideals of the nineteenth century that each novel performs seems to conclude with mixed reactions. I contend that Graham Swift and Peter Carey are especially anti-Foucauldian in their novels, garnering precisely the pleasure-in-debunking and liberally inserting the sexual into spaces in which it was imagined that it was forbidden that Foucault identified as not only historically inaccurate, but dangerous in the flattening and forcing of nineteenth-century sexuality into a binary opposition between repressed and liberated. However, Byatt's usage of sexuality seems to reveal the modern as quite possibly more Victorian (in the sense Foucault realized it was being used in, as shorthand for prudishness and obsessively moral) than we realize. Indeed, for Byatt, nineteenth century ideas about sexuality seem to be just as problematic for the individual as modern notions of sex. The improper sexuality represented in Possession is in keeping with the Foucauldian notion of a "discursive explosion," since the bulk of the sexual activity in the novel is buried within Randolph and Christabel's correspondence.

Despite Possession's different relation to Foucault, sexuality functions for Byatt as it does for Carey and Swift, as emblematic of the problems with Victorian ideology; it is sexuality in all three novels which results in the tragic downfall of plot, characters, and the narrative's entire interest in the Victorian past. In Possession, improper sexuality results in Randolph and his child never knowing of one another's existence and Randolph's message to Christabel via the child is forgotten. In Oscar & Lucinda, the death of the great-grandfather and the almost accidental great-grandmother are the result of the perverse sexualization of the entire social landscape. Finally, inWaterland, the "Saviour of the World" is an incestuously-conceived potato-head who becomes a murderer. Since all of these novels in some ways narrativize the Victorian crisis of faith, their suggestion that this faith be re-placed with belief in the narrative is already revealed as a site of false consciousness through the novelists' use of the sexual. The management of Victorian and Victorian-derived sexuality in Byatt, Carey, and Swift's texts reveals that any faith in narrative will produce only another set of false beliefs.

Postcolonial OV Gender OV Possession Waterland Oscar & Lucinda