Children, there's this thing called civilization. It's built on hopes and dreams. It's only an idea. It's not real. No one ever said it was real. It's not natural. No one ever said it was natural. It's built by the learning process; by trial and error. It breaks easily. No one said it couldn't fall to bits. Waterland, 336
Providing a community with a set of beliefs about its history, stories create the foundation for the ideology of a civilization. The past and present coexist as two poles of a magnet which together produce a field of assumptions and beliefs. Modern culture shapes our imagining of the Victorian past and simultaneously depends on Victorian society in its construction of the present. To the modern eye, the Victorian period holds a critical moment in history as our codes of language, notions of nationality, and theories of self derive from this point. However, society rejects the rigid constrictions Victorians followed as too confining for modern desires. These attractive and repulsive forces between Victorian and modern culture mystifies the Victorian past. Our curious wonder of a society that seems both close and far away from a modern understanding of the world makes it an intriguing medium for modern authors to explore the notion of our stories breaking into the pieces from which they were built.
Narration controls a story; postmodern authors exploit this authority, highlighting their suspicion of the artificiality of the past. Stories construct our history and shape the values of our culture. Therefore, in a society that strips values of their meaning by recognizing their precarious existence, it becomes necessary to call into question the stories that produce these values. Three postmodern novels reveal the need to tell stories and believe in them in order to find meaning in one's life. Graham Swift's Waterland layers stories and histories to explain a chaotic past. A.S. Byatt's Possession centers on exposing the true story of two fictional Victorian writers. The narrator in Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda claims a story of two people who in fact are not both his relations. Although distinct in form and structure, a similar paradox runs through these novels. Although they use Victorian modes of telling a story to give order and meaning to the narrative, the authors expose the fallacy of constructing meaning, and subsequently order, from narrative.
The three authors create order in their stories by using Victorian motifs, images all readers recognize and attach meaning to. For example, all three books contain a character that has been raised motherless. As the narrator in Oscar and Lucinda points out, "our history is a history of orphans, or so my mother liked to say. She used the word in a sense both literal and sentimental" (329). The sentimental feelings the orphan child creates appeals to the reader on a personal level. Waterland explains how being an orphan changes the way a person can cope with life. Tom's mother told him stories when he was young, but Mary's mother died when she was born, so Mary never heard stories. Consequently, Mary never tells stories to cope with life, but ends up living in a fairytale world of "innocence and maidenhood" (265). The characters' very unpostmodern belief in fate and luck resonates with Victorian narratives. Oscar chooses to become an Anglican by throwing lots, Roland happens to find Randolph Ash's uncompleted letter to Christabel, and Tom's father believes his son should marry Mary because fate declares it so. Finally, objects and images continually weave through the narratives to connect the pieces of the story, just as the file and shackles repeatedly appear in Dickens's Great Expectations. The glass imagery in Oscar and Lucinda, Dick's swimming under the water, and the resemblance of Christabel in Maud Bailey work to coalesce the narratives. The reader understands these symbols provide clues to the outcome of the stories. The authors' rewriting of the Victorian past offers a rich and consequential setting for the modern narrators to begin searching for meaning. However, the problematic significance of the stories to the modern characters shatters our understanding of the function of narrative in our lives.