Why Isn't Anybody Happy Here?

Barry J. Fishman '89

Commenting on Swift's short stories, one critic pointed out that Swift's characters seems to be "distrustful of happiness." This observation carries over to many of Swift's novels as well. The critic goes on to state that "it all may be true and we may indeed be living on a blighted planet in which any pursuit of life for its own sake is a pathetic illusion... what I find difficult to accept is that such blighting is so universal or so unremitting. No life is without pain but, equally, very few lives are all pain." Speaking up against this criticism is Harry Beech, who in Out of This World comments, "I am happy." (p.21) Why is Harry so happy, and how does he fit into Graham Swift's world?

Harry lives in a world of pain, surrounded by death and destruction. His career as a photojournalist has taken him to the scene of many of the twentieth century's worst human tragedies. Harry's personal life has also been a shambles. His dead father was at odds with him for most of his life, his wife, who cheated on him, is dead, and his daughter has not spoken with him since the death of his father ten years ago. How is it possible for Harry to be happy?

The answer seems to lie in his ability to derive pleasure from those immediately around him, and more importantly in his photographer's ability to put distance between himself and his subjects. It is clear at many points in Out of This World that Harry thinks in pictures, from the way he thinks of his young fiancÚ Jenny ("She is always so much better than the picture in my head." p.55) to his memories of his family ("Cut to period photos of: the new 'Robert Beech' Wing of the King George Hospital" p.91) to his description of history itself ("once everything was black and white. No, I don't mean simpler, clearer -- when were they ever that? I mean, literally: monochrome." p.203) Harry applies this distancing technique to his own life so effectively that he is able to view past disasters with a cool and journalistic eye.

With this in mind, Harry's young fiancÚ Jenny becomes the center of his life and returns happiness to him. It is no surprise that he does not wish to photograph Jenny. Once he photographs her she will become distanced and unreal. He states very clearly that she always surpasses his mental "photographs" of her. From his detached point of view and his ability to view life from behind a camera eyepiece, Harry Beech has accomplished the impossible for a Swift character -- has has actually achieved happiness.

Postcolonial Web United Kingdom OV Swift OV Out of This World