Graham Swift: Stories About Families

Barry J. Fishman '89

Swift's four novels and his collection of short stories may all be read as independent works, but there are many common elements that flow from one to another. From "Learning to Swim," the story of a husband, wife, and their young son, through Waterland, Swift's most complex novel which tells the story of the Atkinsons and the Cricks, and including Out of This World, his most recent novel, where in a flip-flopping narrative the reader watches Harry and Sophie Beech piece together their shattered father-daughter relationship. The characters in these novels all share a great deal of unhappiness, they all have troubled pasts that must be sorted through, and they all have closets that must be cleaned out to enable them to reconcile differences that more often than not span generations. These hidden difficulties often manifest themselves in the "battle of the sexes" that Swift portrays in every one of his novels and many of his short stories.

One common denominator of Swift's tales is the troubled relationships between husband and wife that frequently center around the birth of a child. In "Learning to Swim" husband and wife compete first in lovemaking and then over their child. The two struggle for control of the child's heart: the water-loving father trying to lure him into the ocean, the land-bound mother fighting to keep him on the shore. In the end the child, Paul, escapes. He kicks away "half in panic, half in pride, away from his father, away from the shore, away, in this strange new element that seemed all his own." (LtS p.28) The dominant concept is not that Paul is now swimming but that he is moving "away." An uneasy marriage is also at the root of the conflict in "The Hypochondriac." A similar situation exists in The Sweet Shop Owner, where Irene dominates her marriage to Willy. Regular marital roles are reversed: Willy yearns to express his love for his wife while she frowns upon such "feminine" behavior. In giving birth to their daughter Dorothy, Irene feels that she is doing Willy a favor, giving in to his desire to be a father, and therefore enabling him to fulfill his male role. But Dorothy, like the little boy in "Learning to Swim," breaks away from home and runs from the battle between her parents.

In Shuttlecock, Prentis describes his sexual relationship with his wife as a perverse sort of adventure, "the only form of adventure left to us in our age." (Shuttlecock, p.74) Prentis gives an obviously one-sided description of their sex life, the same one-sided description that he gives of his relationship to his children. Prentis feels that the television set should be removed from the house. He fears that it will steal his two boys away from him, and that the Bionic man will become their new hero. It is just this sort of opposition (and over the same issue) that Sophie and her husband Joe suffer in Out of This World. She sees her two sons watching television and realizes that they are no longer listening to her. Joe also describes TV as a barrier between parent and children, but he does not recognize, as Sophie does, the competition that exists between the two of them for the attention of the children. When Sophie can no longer stand the competition, she has a mental breakdown. The only hope for her is a reconciliation with her past in the person of her father.

United Kingdom