Notions of History in The Sweet Shop Owner

Barry J. Fishman '89

Graham Swift's writing constantly questions the relevance of history and the teaching of it. For Willy Chapman, the central character of The Sweet Shop Owner, history gains importance with old age. As a schoolboy he preferred looking out the classroom window to listening to his history master. Like the schoolchildren in Waterland, none of it seemed important. In that book the children saw no future for themselves, and thus could not understand the relevance of history; the same problem exists in The Sweet Shop Owner. Willy lives in a world where history is recorded each day in the newspapers he sells, yet his own family saga, like Tom Crick's in Waterland, is of much greater importance.

On the second page of the novel Swift both foreshadows the main character's death and enters him into the annals of history. Waiting for his daughter, Willy imagines himself sitting stiffly in his armchair, like "a cold, stone statue." "He would be history." (p.10) intones the narrator. A message that runs throughout the novel is that history is unavoidable. No matter what one does, at some point you will either be swept up by history or "become" history. Willy's wife, Irene, leads the life of a shut-in, her only contact with the outside world what she reads in the newspapers every day. On their honeymoon, Irene reads of unrest in Europe and predicts war. Willy does not contradict her predictions, thinking that no matter what you did or how you conducted your life "history came to meet you." (p.32)

Reflecting on his schoolboy days, Willy remembers the history master "speaking as if his words were turning into print. Henry VIII and his wives were like characters in costume. They weren't real, but they didn't know it. History fitted them into patternsŠ Let them go to meet history. History would come anyway. Nothing touches you, you touch nothing." (p.44-5) Again, the attitude of the narrator is that history is both unreal and inevitable. Chapman knows that he will eventually become part of the past, like King Henry, but he will resist the change as long as he can. "We do not belong to history," (p.60) muses Willy as he lays in bed with his wife during World War II. Interestingly, while at Basic Training Camp during the war Willy comments that "here suddenly was 'History.'" (p.59) His friend Private Rees was reading the newspaper, commenting on the occupation of Paris: "History, that's what it is." (p.59) Willy realizes that history is being made all around him and that he was a part of it. "Yet how [does] it express itself?" he asks, "In barrack huts and wire fencing, in numbers, inventories, lists? . . . What was the connection?" (p.59)

Swift very skillfully depicts the conflict between a character's perception of his situation and what actually happens by setting his tales against the factual background of history. Whereas Willy and Irene have their small battles, a quite real war is going on around them. This parallelism is highlighted by one reiterated statement in particular. "PEACE BID FAILS" proclaims the newspaper. This headline comes to Willy's attention twice. The first time as he considers his troublesome marriage, the second time as he contemplates the conflict between his daughter and himself. Willy's small battles stand out in sharp contrast to the battles actually reported in the papers, and the sentiment of the phrase "PEACE BID FAILS" echoes throughout the entire novel.

History is personified for Chapman by Dorry's fiancee. As she grew older Dorry quite naturally grew away from her parents. Her father resisted academics but Dorry attends the University of London and becomes first in her class. When she brings her boyfriend, a graduate student in History, home to meet her parents, Willy is moved by politeness to say, "History. Now I've always been fascinated by history." (p.179) This is, of course, a lie. It would be accurate to say that Graham Swift has always been fascinated by history, but Willy Chapman has always run from history. If anything, his fascination is a morbid one. Dorry's undergraduate thesis is entitled "Romantic Poetry and the Sense of History," a concept that is almost totally foreign to her father. "What do you learn from history, Dorry?" he asks. (p.216)

The question of what one can learn from history is always present in Swift's novels. Perhaps it ties in to his fascination with knowledge. For instance, if Willy had known more of Irene's past (a rape, a mental institution) would he have lived his life in the same manner? Would he have done the same things? The contrast between personal histories and national histories, story and reality, provides a strong driving force for Swift's fiction.

Postcolonial Web United Kingdom OV Swift OV Sweet Shop Owner