Mary in Waterland and Omar in Shame: History, Humanity, and History

Carla Guttmann (English 34, 1991)

History, important point of reference from which Swift and Rushdie depart, takes the form of stories, as constructions of a past reality, in Waterland and Shame. In order to understand the value of this theme for each author, one must take into consideration their different theories of history. This differentiation helps to distinguish between both authors and yet unite them by means of their treatment of those characters who deny their histories.

Swift presents history as intricately involved with one's family's past, since the generations of people who have preceded you have some effect on your present life. Crucial in understanding why his wife kidnapped a child, Tom Crick recounts his family history. The entire novel reveals a stream of consciousness whereby Tom makes sense of his present through reflection on his past.

Although Rushdie writes about generations and families, his interest lies specifically in Pakistan's history. Linked to the country's past and included in those who he describes as having "floated upwards from history, from memory, from Time"(p 91), Rushdie implicates himself directly in history's selection process.

Although Swift and Rushdie place themselves differently within their novels, since Rushdie is the only one who assumes the role of the narrator, they still arrive at the same reference to colonization. Both authors describe history as a power struggle, whether that has to do with land reclamation in the Fens or English Colonial rule in Pakistan. The metadiscourse in both novels, by means of their examples of colonization, shows the inextricable role that the past plays in the present.

Precisely because Rushdie, as an Anglo-Pakistani, feels deprived of his history and that Tom needs his history in order to make some sense of his present and nonsensical situation, that this theme acquires such importance in the novels. Serious consequences arise, therefore, for the characters in Waterland and Shame who have escaped or rejected their histories. History and human emotion are interdependent, because ignoring one denies the other. Both Mary Metcalf and Omar Khayyam Shakil escape their histories and in doing so, deprive themselves of fundamental human reactions, curiosity and shame.

In Waterland, Mary becomes hardened by the death of Freddie Parr. She feels that her sexual curiosity ultimately cost the life of another. After his death she loses her inquisitive spirit that had characterized her nature for so long.

Once upon a time there was a future history teacher and a future history teacher's wife for whom things went wrong, so-- since you can not dispose of the past, since things must be-- they had to make do.

And he made do precisely by making a profession out of the past, out of this thing which can not be eradicated, which accumulates and impinges- whose action, indeed, was imitated by the growing number of books (works of history, but -more recently- also of natural history) which filled the first-floor room of the Greenwich house which the history teacher made his study, and spilled out onto the landing and staircase. He made a profession-a life's work- out of the past, for which his justification was the children to whom he offered daily the lessons that the past affords. To them he presented the equivocal gift of history - burdensome yet instructive- to carry into their futures. And thus the history teacher- though his relation with his young charges echoes first the paternal, then the grand-paternal, though he sees in their faces (but does not admit it) less and less the image of the future, more and more that of something he is trying to retrieve, something he has lost- could always say (he acquires a penchant for a paradox) that he looked back in order to look forward.

But she made do (so he thought) with nothing. not believing in either looking back or looking forward, she learnt how to mark time. To withstand, behind all the stage-props of their marriage, the empty space of reality (p 109-110).

Mary's past, present, and future come to a stand still because she has repressed her history and is unable to continue her life with any of her previous zeal. She becomes desensitized and dehumanized because she does not come to terms with her past, as Tom does. Mary's situation is accurately summed up in one of Tom's history lessons :"when curiosity is exhausted (so long live curiosity) that is when the world shall come to its end" (p 176).

"Omar Khayyam Shakil was sometimes plagued by that improbable vertigo, by the sense of being a creature of the edge: a peripheral man" (p. 18). Omar is in a similar state of being as Mary. His denial of his family and thus his history deters him from having an active role in his own life. He is a voyeur, as Farrah declares, and he is well suited to his profession as a doctor. He is an outsider who can see the most intimate parts of the body without being overwhelmed by a feeling of shame. Omar's mothers who have, ever since their father's death, felt shame, wished that their son would never feel such humiliation. However, this wish keeps Omar from ever becoming fully human.

But where has he got to? Why does he not telephone, visit, get bounced out on his behind?-- I discover him in Q., in the fortress home of his three mothers, and at once I know that a disaster has taken place, because nothing else could have lured Omar Khayyam into the mother country once again. He has not visited "Nishapur" since the day he left with his feet on a cooling iceblock; bankers' drafts have been sent in his stead. His money has paid for his absence...but there are other prices, too. And no escape is final. His willed severance from his past mingles with the chosen insomnia of the nights: their joint effect is to glaze his moral sense, to transform him into a kind of ethical zombie, so that this very act of distancing helps him to obey his mothers' ancient injunction: the fellow feels no shame (p. 137).

Omar has paid the price for his absence from his home and a denial of his origins. He neither has a conception of history nor of human emotions.

Swift and Rushdie both write of the recognition of history as fundamental to your existence. It seems most logical with Rushdie, who has been "'unstuck' from the memories of the land " (p. 91) unvoluntarily, that a character like Omar, who could take command over his history but refuses, be subjected to a life as an "ethical zombie" (p. 137). However, Swift desensitizes Mary in order to reveal the devastating effects that the death of Freddie Parr had on her life. Whatever the authorial motivations, and there are perhaps hundreds more, Mary and Omar have both lost their capability to be human and their lives hang as if in continual suspension.

Postcolonial Web Pakinstan OV Rushdie OV Shame OV Waterland OV