Esther’s Space- journey through my life

October 4, 2008

On ‘Oscar and Lucinda’

Filed under: Australia — Tags: , , — estherspace @ 2:51 pm

When it comes to Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey’s 1988 Booker Prize-winning novel, it seems like everybody’s got something to say, and it’s all positive.  I agree, it’s an amazing novel.  But how, o muses, am I to begin to take it apart and examine all of the pieces more critically?

I just finished a long-overdue re-reading of the novel, and it has been a mind-blowing experience (well, not literally, more like the little explosions that take place when I have ‘realizations’ happened pretty often).  This is certainly a book that must be re-read.  Admittedly, while I enjoyed my first reading, I did begin to wonder if the story would ever actually end.  But, with a second reading, I began by just opening the book to a random chapter (they’re all pretty short and self-contained), and it was a richly rewarding experience.  The novel’s self-referentiality is astounding.  The end is no surprise if we were to pay precise attention to the novel leading up to it.  But, readers generally don’t pay that close of attention.  I think it’s because Carey gives us so many pieces of information that we would generally deem ‘important’ that it becomes impossible to track them all, so we start to pay less attention, only to find out that those bits and pieces we left by the wayside were more relavant than we anticipated.  Sneaky Carey.

But on to what I’m trying to figure out:  I am writing this paper, and am arguing that the characters in Oscar and Lucinda are endowed with a post-Foucauldian awareness of the mechanics of power, and spend their time searching for moments where they can claim agency for themselves as independent individuals (I’m thinking primarily of Lucinda).  And, while that is taking place within the novel, the novel’s position as a Booker Prize winner undermines this agency, since the Booker is, in effect, an exercise in postcolonial imperialism aimed at maintaining an exoticized image of the Commonwealth.  That these two pieces go together is a feat I’m still working on choreographing.

The problem:  Lucinda, while definitely ‘different’ from the other females surrounding her, is still mired in the cycle of society.  Her mother was ‘different’ too, but she never made anything unusual of herself.  Lucinda is raised in her mother’s shadow, feeling trapped by her mother’s ideas.  But, Lucinda herself does not necessarily prescribe to the same sort of radical ideas– she simply has no other model for behavior.  She is confused by the gender roles that she is hated for not adhering to, instead of being willfully opposed to them.  And the factory, what her mother described as the great home for female economic independence, is not something that Lucinda comes into owning as part of her cause.  Instead, she becomes involved because she wants friends, and the Bishop likes to talk about glass, so she gives them something to talk about.  It is the same with her card games.  It is not that she consciously is invested in shocking society, but that she wants some sort of friendship, and cardplaying, while a limited sort of friendship, provides this for her.  So, she doesn’t seem to be taking any sort of agency, but instead is a bit listless in her social interactions.  She’s confused by society instead of drawn into it, but is still ruled by it. 

Maybe I can use the imperial/colonial thing here.  Is it a problem in translation across the sea?  Is that why Lucinda is the way she is?  But, other women have succeeded.  And, at the end of the novel, Lucinda is working in a pickle factory.   But the narrator tells us that she went on to do those factory reforms that would make her famous, much more famous than her relationship with Oscar.  Throughout the novel inability to or miscommunication is consistently what stands between Lucinda and Oscar.  Perhaps her revelations about this after Oscar has left is what frees her from….from what?  from social expectations, or at least feeling bad about defying them?  I don’t know.  Just thinking out loud.

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