Telling Stories

Sasha Khmelnik '06, English 156, Brown University, 2004

Although Dickens, like most Victorians, prided himself on the realist quality of his novels, both Peter Carey and Graham Swift are much more intrigued by the function of the narrator and his place in the story. In their separate takes on Dickens's Great Expectations they each create the character of the story-teller, through whom they explore the various motivations and biases that might be at play beneath Dickens's removed third person voice. For Peter Carey this is the character of Tobias, distinctive from the novel's narrator, whereas Swift goes a step further to address the idea of story-telling in the first person voice of his narrator:

Even in his last moment, it's said, in the split second of a fatal fall -- or when he's about to drown -- he sees, passing rapidly before him, the story of his whole life.

And when he sits, with more leisure but no less terror, in the midst of catastrophe, when he sits -- as Lewis can see himself sitting, for the sake of his children -- in the fallout bunker; or when he only sits alone because his wife of over thirty years who no longer knows him, nor he her, has been taken away, and because his schoolchildren, his children, who once -- ever reminding him of the future -- came to his history lessons, are no longer there, he tells, if only to himself, if only to an audience he is forced to imagine, a story.

So let me tell you another. Let me tell you. [p.63]


Here Swift presents story-telling, which can be easily linked to writing, as an act of desperation motivated by impending death, loneliness, or insanity. In what ways does Dickens's narrator reflect these motivations and in what ways is his approach different? What about Dickens's tone and style suggests the motivations of his narrator?

Swift goes on to talk about the significance of history, structuring much of his novel in the form of a history-lesson. In what ways does this differ from Pip's telling his own history, or from Tobias's novel? What are Pip's motives for telling his story?

What are the distinctive elements of Swift's style that make the narrative voice especially audible to the reader?


Swift, Graham. Waterland. New York: Vintage, 1992.

United Kingdom Reading Questions

Last modified 10 March 2004