Waterland, Shame, and the Conversational Narrator

Elizabeth Garcia (English 34, 1991)

In both Salman Rushdie's Shame and Graham Swift's Waterland the narrator removes himself from the story when the narrator speaks about a very painful or serious subject; they use this mechanism to prevent themselves from becoming emotionally involved.

For instance, Waterland uses this defense mechanism when Tom Crick speaks to his students about his past and his wife.

Children, once upon a time there was a future history teacher's wife who wore a rust-red school girls uniform and wore her deep brown hair in a straight fringe, in the regulation fashion under a school girls beret or straw hat; but who--wearing little or nothing at all--invited the future history teacher to explore the intricacies of her incipient womanhood,--to consider the mysteries of her menstrual cycle--and to offer reciprocal invitations. Who liked to find things out, to uncover secrets, but then ceased to be inquisitive, whose life came to a kind of stop when she was only sixteen, though she had to go on living. (106)

In this passage, Tom is removed by speaking through a third-person viewpoint when he refers to himself as "future history teacher" instead of using "I" or "me". In this manner he protects himself from getting emotionally involved in the story.

The narrator in Shame similarly removes himself from the text occurs when he analyzes what he has written thus far and tries to find a way to proceed.

Once upon a time there were two families, their destinies inseparable even by death. I had thought, before I began, that what I had on my hands was an almost excessively masculine tale, a sage of sexual rivalry, ambition, power, patronage, betrayal, death revenge. But the women seem to have taken over; they marched in from the peripheries of the story to demand

the inclusion of their own tragedies, histories and comedies, obliging me to couch my narrative in all manner of sinuous complexities, to see my 'male' plot refracted, so to speak, through the prisms of its reverse and 'female' side. It occurs to me that women knew precisely what they were up to--that their stories explain, and even subsume, the men's. Repression is a seamless garment; a society which is authoritarian in its social and sexual codes, which crushes its women beneath the intolerable burdens of honor and propriety, breeds repressions of other kinds as well. Contrariwise dictators are always--or at least in public, on other people's behalf--puritanical. So it turns out that my 'male' and 'female' plots are the same story, after all. (189)

In both of these passages the removal of the narrator appears immediately, for both sentences begin with "once upon a time." These words immediately give the impression that a narrative will take place in which the narrator plays the role of an outsider.

As both passages continue, the authors use different means to keep the narrator away from the story. Rushdie uses a bizarre sort of humor. This technique appears, for example, when he mentions how the female characters of this fictional novel are telling him how they want their story written. In Waterland, however, continuous distancing appears when he refers to his wife as "the person who" instead as "she" or "her".

Towards the close of both passages, the authors' style become similar once again. Rushdie and Swift seem to use this technique of distancing the narrator from the story in order to end on a serious note without getting emotionally involved. Rushdie, for example, ends his passage by acknowledging the fact that what he thought were isaues that pertained only to men such as "sexual rivalry, ambition, power, patronage, betrayal, death, and revenge" are issues that also affect women. Swift, on the other hand, ends his passage in a more dramatic way by refering to how a young woman's happy life basically ended at the age of sixteen.

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