Relationships as Compromise in The Sweet Shop Owner

Barry J. Fishman '89

The narrator of The Sweet Shop Owner refers to relationships as "bargains struck." (p. 43) This description is apropos not only for the work at hand but throughout the rest of Swift's writing as well. Relationships, especially between the sexes, are uneasy affairs. If marital bliss does not exist in Swift's world his writing does paint a very insightful portrait of the battle between the sexes. The Chapmans' relationship is best summed up by a description of their shared physical disabilities: "With both of them it was heart trouble." (p.19)

Irene Chapman feels ill at ease with just about everyone before her marriage, so it is no great surprise to find her uneasy with her husband Willy. At one of their first encounters we learn that the one thing they both enjoy is watching children at play (p.26). The perverse twist that their marriage will undergo is foreshadowed at this juncture when Willy runs off to play with the children leaving Irene to watch. This matches quite accurately the events of their marriage. Irene sets Willy up in his store, leaving him to "play" shopkeeper. She assumes all of the adult responsibility, reading the newspapers (he was indifferent to the news), investing their money (her money really, and what did he need with pretty things?), and keeping watch over the house.

When Willy must leave London during World War II, he and Irene write letters to each other. This correspondence represents more open communication than is visible at any other point in their relationship. Even so they are unable to express that most basic of sentiments for each other, "I love you." As Willy read Irene's letters he looked "for signs -- 'With Love, with All my Love.' And he wondered should he write 'I love you' (for perhaps in this time of war - ; though he knew, if he did, it would alarm her, more than war, more than bombs and blackness." (p. 65) Verbal expression of love would be more than Irene was willing to tolerate. Her relationship to Willy was clearly a "bargain struck," and its delicate balance was upset only once, when Irene gave Willy a daughter, perhaps out of some misguided sense of wifely duty.

Birth scenes are never joyful experiences in Swift's writing. Attention is focused less on the new life than on how the baby changes the relationship between the husband and wife, the mother and father. (link to "The Watch" "Learning to Swim") As Irene's pregnancy progressed Willy commented that "Her face showed only the pinched looks of someone labouring to pay a debt." (p.101) In the delivery room Willy looked not at the baby but at Irene. Drained from the labor Irene looked at him and her face seemed to say, "See, I have done it. See, I am a woman after all. That is my side of the bargain." (p.102)

From that point onward the Chapmans' relationship is measured not on their own terms but through the eyes of their daughter Dorry. "Dorothy," thinks Willy, "you thought [Irene] didn't have a heart. You never loved her. You merely suffered each other. And you thought I was her slave; she made a fool of me." (p. 103) As a result, Dorry grows up without loving her mother and with no respect for her father. The bargain that Willy and Irene made with each other produced Dorothy, but Dorry herself got nothing. After Irene's death Dorry tries to extract her payment through a betrayal of her father, and in an absurd scene she robs her own house of all her mother's valuable possessions. When Willy must sit down, weak from his heart condition and the workday, Dorry attacks him, "Well it it's all such a strain why don't you shut that bloody shop for good! You can now, can't you? She's been dead nine months, you know!" (p.200) With Dorry's final acknowledgement of "the bargain struck," Willy breaks down.

The Chapman family is not unique among Swift's characters. This type of flawed marriage is common. Can there ever be happiness between married couples in Swift's work? Are problematical marriages common in the works read for English 32? How do these marriages affect each individual's relationship to the outside world in which he or she must operate.

Postcolonial Web United Kingdom OV Swift OV Sweet Shop Owner