World War II and The Sweet Shop Owner

Barry J. Fishman '89

World War II leaves a strong impression on Willy and his wife Irene. The war and its effects upon both the landscape and the lives of ordinary people is a recurrent subject in Swift's writing. Conflict of one sort or another is visible even in the papers that Willy sells in his shop -- "PEACE BID FAILS" is one particular headline that appears at several places in the work. Statements like this have a dual significance for Willy, referring both to his attempts to find inner peace and to society's somewhat more fruitless efforts to make some sort of lasting peace with itself.

Willy has a permanent limp after badly breaking his leg while putting up the sign-board for his shop. All through his life people ask him if he was injured in the war. Willy always answered, "What war?" (p.44) This small joke of Willy's is also repeated at several points in the novel. Does this mean that there was no war for Willy? His denial of WWII is unjustified. Although he did not fight, his job in Stores Operations allowed him to view the war in cold and calculating terms. As if keeping track of the stock in his own shop Willy kept a running count of how many helmets and packs he handed out to soldiers who probably would never return home from the front. What his reply indicates is not so much a denial of the war itself but of his role in it. War should be consigned to history, it should not exist in the present tense. Willy's belief in this principle is affirmed by his long recollections of his old history class. The battles taught there were always distant and could not, so Willy assumed, ever affect his life.

Chapman's London was badly scarred in the war and many of its young men, including one of Irene's brothers, were killed in the fighting. On the V-E Day London echoed with cries of "Victory! Victory! "But no one used the other word that had hissed gently in the falling rain: Peace." (p. 85) Even though the individual battles were over, there can be no inner peace. "PEACE BID FAILS." As if to reinforce this Hancock appears at the victory bonfire and tries to dance with Irene, who never finds inner peace after being raped as a young woman. Even though her own battle with Hancock lies far in her past she can never forgive him.

War is a very effective metaphor in Graham Swift's world. It bespeaks conflict, and at the same time of the search for peace. As one critic commented, "Swift's characters seem uncomfortable unless they're unhappy." This may be true not because they crave unhappiness, but rather because their battles, like society's are never over. True peace never comes to The Sweet Shop Owner.

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