(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In the early chapters of OSCAR & LUCINDA, Peter Carey traces the development of two appealing but obsessive personalities who meet each other and their doom in nineteenth century Australia. Like her mother, Lucinda Leplastrier is an ardent feminist, convinced that the liberation of women will come through the building of factories. When she inherits the family land, her immediate response is to sell it in order to buy a glass factory, which she promptly allows to fail. Meanwhile, in England, Oscar Hopkins has inherited a fanatical and irrational nature from his nonconformist father. Ordained an Anglican priest and then defrocked, Oscar feels led to sacrifice himself in Australia.

When he meets Lucinda, for the first time he feels cherished by a woman; deeply in love with him, Lucinda wants to make him happy by building a glass church to be transported overland to a distant settlement. Ironically, their innocent but loving relationship becomes a scandal; the overland trip with the glass church is soiled by cruelty and murder; and after being seduced at journey’s end by the great-grandmother of the narrator, the disillusioned Oscar welcomes death.

As in his earlier novels, BLISS and ILLYWHACKER, in OSCAR & LUCINDA Peter Carey demonstrates an unusual gift. Though his characters are extreme and his situations unlikely, he writes a convincing story, partly because of his meticulous use of detail, partly because his world is no more absurd than the present one, in which similar innocents so frequently are destroyed by their own dreams.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. June 6, 1988, p. 6.

Kirkus Reviews. LVI, April 1, 1988, p. 472.

London Review of Books. X, April 21, 1988, p. 20.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 19, 1988, p. 2.

New Statesman. CXV, April 1, 1988, p. 28.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, May 29, 1988, p. 1.

The Observer. March 27, 1988, p. 42.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIII, April 29, 1988, p. 66.

Time. CXXXI, June 13, 1988, p. 75.

The Times Literary Supplement. April 1, 1988, p. 363.

Oscar and Lucinda

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

The historical novel has undergone a curious change of direction in the decades since World War II, a change that first came to widespread attention with the publication in 1969 of John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a Victorian pastiche that simultaneously parodied the narrative conventions of nineteenth century fiction and experimented with what have since been termed postmodern, metafictional techniques. Since then, a number of similarly provocative historical novels have appeared: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977), and T. Coraghessan Boyle’s Water Music (1981), to name only a few. All these books freely mix historical facts with distortions, inaccuracies, anachronisms, and outright fantasy in a playful and willfully subjective manner that mocks the scrupulous methodology and high seriousness of the classic works of historical fiction. Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey’s third novel and the winner of Great Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize for 1988, employs many of the devices of this new subgenre, but it does so in a markedly less aggressive manner than the works mentioned above. Oscar and Lucinda may herald the existence of a second generation of historical metafictionists, writers for whom the radical experiments of the past have become conventions in themselves.

Oscar Hopkins, Carey’s protagonist, is the only son of a recently widowed Fundamentalist minister, Theophilus Hopkins, who has made a name for himself in scientific circles as a brilliant amateur marine biologist. (His work eventually earns for him three full columns in the 1860 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.) Theophilus, a deeply passionate though emotionally straitjacketed man, is unable to show Oscar any of the affection he feels for him. Instead, his love manifests itself in rigorous and unrelenting discipline. He rears the boy according to the most austere religious principles, which among other things forbid any celebration of Christmas, a holiday Theophilus regards as fundamentally heathen. One December morning, Theophilus catches young Oscar with his mouth full of Christmas pudding (smuggled into the house by a sympathetic maid) and beats him mercilessly. Later the same day, Oscar prays to God to settle the pudding question by showing him a sign: “If it be Thy will that Thy people eat pudding, smite him!” At that moment, Theophilus, seeking specimens in a tidal pool, has a minor accident, and Oscar interprets this event as an unmistakable answer. Soon afterward, he packs his bags and goes to live with his father’s rival, a poverty-stricken Anglican minister, Hugh Stratton.

Under Stratton’s bemused tutelage, Oscar is accepted at Oriel College, to prepare for the Anglican ministry. At Oriel, he is introduced to horse racing by a dissolute divinity student, Ian Wardley-Fish, who eventually becomes his first and only friend. Never doubting that God speaks to him in signs, Oscar decides that gambling is a perfect method for ascertaining His will. He studies betting with a single-minded determination and scientific spirit inherited from his father, and soon amasses enough money to send gifts of food and coffee to his ever-impoverished surrogate father, the Reverend Stratton. Stratton is convinced that Oscar’s wealth is the Devil’s work, and he goes to great lengths to discover the secret, ostensibly to chastise the boy, unconsciously to cash in on the method. After his graduation from Oriel, Oscar leaves Stratton his carefully maintained betting journals, but the man has no “horse sense” and quickly loses what little money he possesses.

In spite of his long sojourn with Stratton and his rigorous course of study with the Oriel Puseyites, Oscar remains a staunch literalist who believes in the absolute truth of the Bible, with all of its miracles. Once he learns the trick of letting God guide him through signs, portents, and games of chance, Oscar abandons all thought of self-determination. When the notion of leaving England for New South Wales first enters his head, Oscar bases his decision on the toss of a coin. The toss comes up heads. Trying his best to ignore his pathological fear of water, Oscar sails for Australia. On the boat he meets Lucinda.

Lucinda Leplastrier’s father was, like Theophilus Hopkins, an eminent Victorian immortalized in the pages of the...

(The entire section is 1811 words.)