Shame as the Impetus for Stories: Rushdie, Swift & Ishiguro

Matthew Meschery '93 (English 34, 1991)

What are the origins of the stories, the personal histories, that are brought to the page by Rushdie, Ishiguro, and Swift? The stories found in Graham Swift's Waterland, Salman Rushdie's Shame, and Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day were birthed from a singular thematic element--shame.

At the beginning of Graham Swift's Waterland, the narrator, a history teacher, begins to add his personal stories to his history lesson. The narrator, Tom Crick, tries to illustrate to his students the idea that history is nothing but fairy tales and that it is no more important or meaningful than a individuals life story. Therefore, he begins his personal history of the Fens with "Once upon a time." (6) Gradually, as Crick tells his story, he gives the reader clues about why his personal stories need to be told, and just how they became stories or histories (whichever way you want to look at it) in the first place. He often does so by talking about history in general, but we, the readers, can rest assured that Cricks' life story is included in the "big" history of the world. Tom Crick says, "What is a history teacher? He's someone who teaches mistakes. While others say, Here's how to do it, he says, And here's what goes wrong"(203). This is one example where Crick alludes to history as a body of stories that exist as a natural reaction to peoples' mistakes, embarassments, and shames. Tom Crick actually makes other similar references earlier on in the novel when talking about his own life. One hundred pages into the novel, Crick states, "Once upon a time there was a future history teacher and future history teacher's wife for whom things went wrong, so -- since you cannot dispose of the past, since things must be, they have to make do" (107). Two pages later Tom really gets to the point, but the point comes in two small sentences that are very easy to pass over. Two sentences, floating by themselves on the middle of page 110 read, "So that your history teacher's wife, children, may be said to have been the inspiration of all that he taught you." Yes, what a relief it is to hear Crick say it himself. The shame that Crick feels at his wife's situation and how that situation caused him to lose his job, makes him suddenly realizes why he tells personal tales about the Fens to his students--because history/stories exist because of mistakes, humiliations, embarassment, and shame.

This is the perfect place to start making the great connection that the first paragraph of this paper outlined. Rushdie in Shame takes about the same amount of time as Tom Crick does before he discusses the origins of his work. On page 124, Rushdie talks of the birth of his fictional tale, "My Sufiya Zinobia grew out of the corpse of that murdered girl.... Wanting to write about shame, I was at first haunted by that imagined spectre of that dead body...." Rushdie continues describing his feelings about the situation of this girl who was killed by her father because he was ashamed that she had made love to white boy. After hearing the story, Rushdie, himself felt a certain amount of shame because as he says, "I, too, found myself understanding the killer"(123). After reading these passages from shame, I finally understood why I was asked to read the books in the order that Professor Landow requested for the EL 34 course. Rushdie's story, being about shame and having its origins in shame, is a parallel to Waterland in that both books have this theme running throughout them that the stories of people are rooted in shame.

The assignment that I set out to complete was to ask the question of why do the stories in Waterland and Shame exist. What was the force that set these stories in motion? I was only supposed to compare two books; however, I found that after reading Kazuo Ishiguro's book Remains of the Day, that the story that Stevens, the narrator tells, too, has its origins in shame. Ishiguro approaches the theme of shame a little differently than the two previous books. Ishiguro never really come right out and say "shame is the root of this story" as, for the most part, do the other stories. Ishiguro has shame lying beneath the narration waiting to be discovered by the reader at the end of the novel. At the end when Stevens states, "what dignity is there in that?"(243) the reader finally discovers, simultaneously with Stevens, that the 70-year-old butler is ashamed of his life and has been shamed by the British Empire which he devoted his life to. Stevens would never have discovered how pathetic his life was if it weren't for Lord Darlington's mistakes and the shame that he felt about them. In taking the reader on a journey into someone's life and then dropping them off on the side of the road left with nothing but the shame and sorrow of that life, Ishiguro allows the reader to, feel this thing called shame which I have been rambling on about for the past four pages. By letting the reader discover shame with Stevens at the end of the book, Ishiguro has gone one step further than Swift and Rushdie, for he brings shame to the reader in a more personal, less abstract manner. After reading Remains of the Day , the reader can really get a sense of the idea brought about in Waterland that shame manifests itself only in the form of a personal outcry, a story.

Postcolonial Web Pakinstan OV Shame OV Waterland OV