Narrative in Waterland and Great Expectations

Henry Lien '92

Hey, remember in fourth grade how Miss Chapman used to say that when you're trying to tell a story that short sentences that get right to the point are best and how she wouldn't let you use big words like 'majestic?' And remember when she wrote "Jesus wept" and said it was the most beautiful sentence ever written since the beginning of time and you wrote, "Jesus wept his eyes out majestically" and she said you had an attitude problem? Well, Miss Chapman should get a load of some of this stuff.

Whereupon Mary...spirals, hunches her shoulders, digs her elbows into her ribs, holds out two quivering forearms on either side of her, takes in breath but makes no other sound nor any other movement to relieve her situation (never having encountered it before) freezes stock-still and wide-mouthed while something squirms, twists, writhes inside her knickers and finally (because eels are adept at exctricating themselves even from the most unlikely predicaments) squeezes itself out by way of a thigh-band, flops to the grass and with unimpaired instinct snakes towards the Lode.

At which Mary breaks into a fit of prolonged and disconcertingly shrill giggles.

It's huge! It's like three run-on sentences in one. Miss Chapman would hate it. She wouldn't realize that this scattered, tangential, non-linear narrative style is a metaphor for the dissaray of the memory process and the random chaos of real events that stories try to sort out. She wouldn't see that this wordy, messy narrative is an intrinsic part of this book. No way. She'd never guess that all the various stories in the book about the French Revolution, and the phlegm and the eels and ancestry are woven together in the first-person as a written documentation of Tom Crick's desperate efforts to make sense of his troubled life. She wouldn't see how the historical context and developments alluded to, like the technology that made drainage of the Fens and land reclamation possible, still have deep repercussions and become a metaphor for things like Tom Crick's constant struggle to reclaim meaning in his life, water the liquid form of the ultimate 'Nothing.'

Miss Chapman wouldn't be too keen on how Dickens handles narration, either. Not only is it exactingly detailed, using many S.A.T. words, highly subjective, imbued with the speaker's emotions, but it also stops and talks directly to the speaker and it goes into Victorian conjectures about the relevance of what was just narrated to ultimate truth and stuff! Here's an example of Dickens talking to the reader and getting all subjective. "And now that I have given the one chapter to the theme that so filled my heart, and so often made it ache and ache again, I pass on..." (Page 330). Then he tells about some Japanese folk tale about a house falling on a sultan, foreshadowing his disappointment in Estella and his other great expectations. "So, in my case; all the work, near and afar, that tended to the end, had been accomplished; and in an instant the blow was struck, and the roof of my stronghold dropped upon me" (Page 330).

I think these styles of writing are really neat, especially in deeply personal narratives like these. Miss Chapman would freak over them, but there are simpler books for people like her with plenty of pictures and bigger print.

United Kingdom