The Girl in a Swing

by Richard Adams

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The Girl in a Swing

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1940

Richard Adams’ first three novels earned international acclaim for their incisive and somewhat anthropomorphic vision. They were merely preludes, however, to the mythical scope and style of his recent publication—The Girl in a Swing. With a penchant for ambiguity, irony, and meticulous detail, Adams juxtaposes the bizarre and banal and probes provocative issues of moral and psychological import. Reminiscent of Henry James or Edgar Allan Poe, perhaps, his latest work is a tour de force of symbolism, subtlety, and suspense; although little in the charm and conventionality of its early pages suggests the astonishing twists and turns the tale eventually takes. By employing, however, first-person narration enhanced by stream-of-consciousness and flash-back techniques, Adams lends candor and credibility to a plot which at times appears ambiguous, if not beyond belief. Consequently, he intermingles rational exposition with an alarming “immediacy” of inexplicable events.

At first glance, though, The Girl in a Swing is simply a new erotic novel—an elegiac account of conjugal love that is passionately intense, but painfully brief. Irony and intrigue co-exist, however, in the surrealistic, romantic incursions of Alan Desland, a conservative country gentleman, and Käthe—an unorthodox, exotic beauty—whose love inevitably alters the quality and course of their existence. Theirs is an instant courtship, an immediate marriage, and an ecstatic physical union fulfilling beyond every dream and erotic desire. Yet, when strange sounds and sinister shadows threaten idyllic bliss, the seemingly romantic novel assumes a Gothic hue. Plagued by recurrent nightmares and reticular events, Alan grows painfully apprehensive and increasingly aware of Käthe’s secret past. Having drowned her child to escape the “sins” of indiscretion and to seek happiness with Alan, Käthe inevitably learns the futility of flight from conscience and self-condemnation. Concurrently, either imagined or real, pitiful cries and ghostly apparitions persistently probe her guilt and fear of disclosure.

Less than two months after marrying Alan, his bride suffers a sudden and tragic death, the cause of which (adduced as ectopic pregnancy) is obviously clothed in bizarre and ambiguous detail. Moments before her death, in fact, both she and Alan had witnessed a ghostlike form emerging from the surf; and, unquestionably, the childlike visage precipitated his faint and her imminent flight from the hideous scene. Questions as to whether the appearance is “real,” an instrument of retribution, or simply a reflection of Käthe’s guilt, remain extant. For, although Adams explores the implications of fate, destiny, and divine judgment, he deliberately resists effecting a resolution by didactic or authorial intrusion.

Ironically, therefore, Alan perjures himself to preserve Käthe’s memory free from remonstrance and regret: “She could not forgive herself, and so she died. But I forgive her. More—I do not, I cannot wish anything undone, if that would mean we had never loved.” Käthe, he discerns, having never been subject to moral judgment, now “needed nothing from God;” so, secure in his faith, he resigns himself to accept his loss, his suffering, and his fate. Paradoxically, through death, Käthe lives eternal—a timeless perfection transcending the temporal world. Now, for Alan alone, she remains “in the swing, exquisite as porcelain, secretly smiling”—forever “flesh and dancing spirit.” Having awakened the mild-mannered Englishman to life and love, Käthe—in death—inspires him anew; like the precious porcelain he so reveres, she too transcends this dreary place where “we scratch about and wait to die.” Thus enriched by infinite excellence, Alan aspires to enlighten others that all might see: “What else thus bodies forth the nature of life and manifests, from the finite, the infinite? I have work to do. Somehow, my grief and loss are to enrich the world.”

Beyond its thematic allusions to illusion and reality, fate and destiny, guilt and moral restitution, The Girl in a Swing is a novel of intense and inordinate love—symbolic, sexual, and spiritual. It examines the myriad aspects of a woman’s love, sufficient to sacrifice any impediment to fruition, and a husband’s love so warmed by the light of his wife’s affection, it could deny her nothing and forgive her all. Also, although the narrative burgeons beyond the love motif, certainly love does serve as a catalytic force for plot and structure and assists in the critical assessment of the protagonist and his bride.

Alan Desland, for example, had always considered himself unattractive, and thus he acquiesced to the loneliness and alienation of a conventional and totally uneventful life. Deeming himself a veritable “nonentity,” he neither kissed nor embraced anyone—not even his mother whom he dearly loved; and, if anyone ventured to kiss him, he immediately recoiled and froze from the touch. Through adolescence and early manhood, he walked, fished, swam—always alone and apart from his peers. Proud of his puritanical self-sufficiency, however, Alan felt little more than a sociable interest in the female sex and found beautiful things more predictable—and thus more satisfying—than people. Consequently, he grew more immersed in his porcelain collection which, in lieu of love, seemed ideal—a simplification and refinement of “fallible, often-disappointing reality.” To a great extent, then, porcelain, rare and beautiful, emerged as the primary object of his affection—an extension of life subservient to the sexually and spiritually satisfying love he awakens to in Käthe’s arms. Eventually, enthralled by Käthe’s charm and bewitching beauty, Alan is too enamored to question her curious behavior or to probe the secrets of her past. Ironically, love seems to suspend the stolid shopkeeper in a dreamlike, timeless state at ease with life and “new” emotions: “I was growing, increasing, reaching an inner stature I had never known before.”

Conversely, Käthe is from the onset both mysterious and marvelously beautiful; she appears to live for love alone, and her avowed profession of love for Alan (“I’d do anything for you, now and always”) proves sound and sincere. An Aphrodite, more ethereal than real, perhaps, she is pagan in her pursuit of pleasure and is insatiably sensual, if not ruthless and unconventional. For her, making love is a manifestation of all emotions—an eternal sea, an ocean “of voluptuous largesse”; but eventually, joyfully, Alan too “set out” upon that water, “learned its moods” and “caught the tide.”

Although spellbound by ecstatic pleasure, Alan inevitably yields to encroaching fear and apprehension, pondering the mystery which surrounds her and the spirit whose servant Käthe seems to be. Moreover, to the reader as well, Käthe remains excitingly enigmatic, being at once an Aphrodite, earth-mother, and objectification of Alan’s dreams. The aura of mystery is enhanced, in fact, by her effusive “lustre of femininity” and her frequent associations with images of nature, rivers, or rainstorms: “her breath smelled like apples”; she appeared as an “astral mineral” in a “sea-like sleep”; and she was an “ocean of largesse,” eager and “expectant as a garden receives rain.”

Symbolically, therefore, the Edenic garden at Bull Banks—Alan’s commodious, country estate—is an appropriate backdrop for his bride, an Eve-like sprite with an inherent appetite for love, luxury, and ease. An ephemeral paradise, the garden affords an idyllic retreat, seemingly safe from the painful past and the rude realities of a mundane world. Its luxuriant growth, central tree, and shallow pool emerge as provocative symbols and effect an Edenic landscape for the spiritual superimposition of Käthe’s presence:I was not startled when I saw Käthe. She was sitting naked in the swing. . . . Her breasts and shoulders, glistening with drops of water, were shaded by her wide, green-ribboned straw hat, but her belly and thighs, as the swing moved, were flame-coloured by the sunset gleaming between the cob-nut trees. I went towards her. . . . I might have fled, for I was very much afraid: or I might have knelt before her; but she grasped my hand. “You know now? . . . Who I am?” “You are not to be named. You have many names.” “And yet I have need of you, my subject, my lord.”

Ironically, subsequent to their lovemaking in the garden, Alan dreams of drowning—a dream reverberating throughout the text. Similar dreams suggest an embryonic timelessness for which Alan aspires and they serve, perhaps, as a regenerative source of his sexual desire. In this instance, however, the dream seemingly foreshadows the startling denouement: the infanticide, “appearance” of her lifeless child, and ultimate source of Käthe’s guilt. Similarly, it forecasts Alan’s final epiphany, his acceptance of Käthe’s death and the sublimation of his bereavement. Having loved, lost, and passed the rites de passage by his suffering, he—like the “dissolved” men in his dream—shall be “reborn to bless others by his grief.”

Thus, the dream motif together with recurrent water and garden imagery serve to unify disparate themes and subplots, such as: alienation and self-discovery, conjugal love and the quest for infinite perfection in a finite world, guilt and the relentless rhythm of moral judgment and restitution. Deftly, the author weaves mundane, moral, and mythical elements into the warp and woof of his work. Masterfully, as well, he varies syntactical rhythms and manipulates moods, juxtaposing the philosophical and serene with suspenseful moments of foreboding and fear. Much in the manner of Poe, he frequently alters the physical landscape to incite terror and tension and thereby evokes an emotional as well as intellectual response to impending events. Consequently, as Alan’s Edenic garden assumes an eerie aspect, both protagonist and reader are preoccupied by the prescience of sinister or supernatural experience; and, superficially at least, this spell is sustained throughout the tale. Occasionally, however, didactic discourses between Alan’s wife and the local minister seem to impede the fast-paced narrative rhythm and to impose a moral upon the text. Moreover, Käthe’s argumentative incursions into Christian concepts of sin, guilt, and Christ’s atonement appear incongruous with her symbolic role as Ashtoreth—fertility goddess of pagan myth.

Nevertheless, despite the inconsistencies created by the minister’s moralizing and Käthe’s philosophical sparring, The Girl in a Swing is an apparent success. It is sufficiently Gothic to ride the current tide of Gothic interest, and it is seemingly authentic in its scenic and ceramic detail to appease the closest scrutiny of the modern critic. Finally, of course, The Girl in a Swing is an erotic book—scintillating, titillating—yet, eminently sensitive and inoffensive. “The sex novel,” Adam reflects, “has gone all wrong. It has to be a much more finely tuned instrument to describe how delicate and beautiful physical sex is.” Avoiding “sensationalized” sex in his own work, therefore, he has apparently put his critical perspective into practice.

In summary, The Girl in a Swing seems to be a book for all seasons, a spelbinding blend of morality, magic, and myth, as psychologically penetrating and provocative as any evinced by James or Poe. The appropriateness of narrative structure, setting, and characterization is well enhanced by richness of imagery, symbolism, and style resulting in an artistic entity sure to please a broad spectrum of audience interests and literary tastes.

In assessing the rapid course of his career, Adams views each novel as a separate achievement and is modestly uncertain of success. A novel, he avers, never seems quite complete: “It’s like helping your mother to make jam in the kitchen when you are a child; you keep on stirring a little, but how do you judge the precise moment when it has the correct consistency?” With his latest novel, ostensibly, Richard Adams did judge the “precise moment” and has attained the “correct consistency” to insure an immediate success.

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