Story-Telling in Swift and Dickens

Gary Weissman '90 (English 32, 1988)

The validity of history and the implications of asking Why are considered in chapter 10 of Graham Swift's Waterland (1983). The narrator, Tom Crick, speaks in first-person, like Pip in Great Expectations, and lets the reader know he is fully aware that he is telling a story. While normally the actual story-telling process conceals itself so the reader concentrates on the story being told, both Tom Crick and Pip pause in their stories to speak directly to the reader (though in Waterland, Tom Crick addresses an ambiguous audience, either the reader or his history class). Pip frames chapter 38 by proceeding it with, "A great event in my life. . . now opens on my view. But, before I narrate it. . . I must give one chapter to Estella," and ending it with, "And now I have given the one chapter to the theme that so filled my heart." Tom Crick interrupts his story to explain that history is important because it provides explanations, allowing a better understanding of the present through analyzation of the past.

Both of these interruptions in the story-telling discourse make the reader aware that the stories are being told subjectively by narrators and, more importantly, by the authors of the books. By calling attention to the actual story-telling process, the author emphasizes that importance lies not in the story itself, but in how the story is told. The reader should not be a mere consumer of the story, but a producer of ideas in reaction to the story. The productive reader may ask such questions as why is the story being told in such a way and not in another, where does the narrator's voice differ from the author's, and what values or opinions does the narrator or author present to the reader. The productive reader asks Why.

The abundance of story-telling in Great Expectations, and the essentially historical process of piecing together these stories to find explanations, reveals that the complexity of story-telling and its relation to history are major themes in Dicken's novel. In addition to Pip, Herbert Pocket, Jaggers, Magwitch, Miss. Havisham, and Wemmick all tell stories. Similiarly, Swift presents history as complex story-telling and piecing together of stories. Waterland and Great Expectations are mysteries, solved only because Tom Crick and Pip are able to ask Why.

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