Water: The Drowning Motif in Out of This World

Barry J. Fishman '89

Out of This World is a novel that often reflects upon the parent-child relationship, painting a fierce competition for affection between the mother and father and a struggle for the respect of the child. On a holiday to the seaside (where else do the English go?) Harry thinks that his daughter Sophie is drowning and promptly goes to her rescue. This leaves the reader with one question: was Sophie really drowning, or was it only Harry's over-protective instincts at work? This episode illustrates the central conflict that exists between man and wife in Swift's works -- the battle for control over the child.

Harry first brings the incident up to scrutiny as part of a confession about his fear on the day of Sophie's birth "I had never imagined what it was like to become a parent. I became afraid." (p.31) Harry's greatest fear is that someone will take Sophie away from him. The tremendous feeling behind this statement is shown in a typical parental statement, "If someone must die, let it be somebody else, let it be some other little girl, not Sophie. Or even: If someone must die, let it be me, not her." (31-32) The ironic twist is that it is not Sophie that dies, but Harry's wife Anna. "And I never wished--" says Harry, "So help me, I never, not for one moment, wished--" (32) that he could take his wife's place in death. His parental feeling for Sophie is much greater than his emotions for his wife. It is almost as if upon Sophie's birth Harry transferred his love from Anna to his daughter.

Sophie's is the second recollection of that day at the beach. She relates to the reader the way that her mother used to speak with her in Greek, a language that Harry cannot understand. "Holidays," says Sophie," That's what I remember. We went down to Cornwall... I was supposed to have nearly drowned there once, but I don't remember. Just Harry rushing suddenly into the water, ... , and grabbing me and carrying me up the beach. He held me so tight... as if he didn't want to let me go, even when Mum wanted to take me, and I cried. But I don't remember nearly drowning." (p.52-3) Sophie's memory recalls the events but does not offer an interpretation. Although she does not realize it her own marital life in some ways mirrors that of her parents (indeed, all of Swift's characters'), especially as regards her children.

While talking to Dr. Klein Sophie reveals the competition she feels with her husband Joe. When she was pregnant with Paul and Tim she could possess them absolutely, "I was like a black cloak around you; you were like a little warm light." (p.137) As the twins grew older, Sophie felt that they were drawing away from her more and more, becoming like their father ("they're his own sex!"). Sophie fails to make the connection between her fear of losing her sons to Joe and Harry's fear of losing her to Anna in the unspoken battle of the sexes that permeates Swift's writing.

The holiday at Cornwall is brought up one more time by Harry. In this final recollection Harry admits that there was another reason he feared losing Sophie. Although he had suspected that Anna had been having an affair with Frank Irving, a rising star in Beech Munitions Corporation, he could not confirm those suspicions. With this fear in the back of his mind, however, he held on to Sophie even more tightly. "[Anna's] face had this calm, sensible expression. Could she tell? Then she said to me, 'She's crying because you're holding her so tight. If you've just saved her from drowning, there's no need to suffocate her now.' She said this lightly, laughingly, without anger. I thought: She doesn't suspect." (p.165) What Anna "doesn't suspect" is that Harry knows about her affair with Frank.

The drowning episode thus becomes a symbol for the dissolution of Harry's and Anna's marriage. When parents in Swift's writing become disenchanted with each other, becoming either cold or carrying on extramarital affairs, they begin to compete for the attention of their children. These family dramas are an integral part of the fragmented family trees presented in Swift's novels. The major conflicts occur between man and wife, father and child.

Postcolonial Web United Kingdom OV Swift OV Out of This World