Iphigeneia Revalued: Graham Swift's Fathers and Daughters

Article excerpt

GRAHAM SWIFT HAS a secure place in contemporary English fiction. He is author of seven novels since 1980, each distinguished for pursuing issues significant to English cultural history in nineteenth- and twentieth-century settings, plus a collection of short stories. A former university teacher in London colleges, with a doctorate in the nineteenth-century novel, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, he exercises an intelligent mind and is a creative and polished craftsman. Even at the start of his career, his 1983 Waterland was nominated for the prestigious Booker prize, which he finally gained for his Last Orders in 1996, recipient also of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Although each Graham Swift novel is an original imaginative feat, readers also recognize in his books a distinctive fictional style. Through his characters' reflections, Swift invariably interweaves the past with the present, on the reasonable assumption that we cannot escape the imprint of our pasts. His plots typically entail a surprising revelation near their end (close readers might have seen it coming). Although, in postmodernist fashion, he often questions the truth of history and many truths of Western civilization, he always takes a narrower, sustained interest in domestic relations, usually unhappily marital or conflicted between parent and child, especially for sons unwilling to follow in the paternal footsteps. In some ways, such as his penchant for devising problem sons, he even seems so predictable that, reviewing Last Orders for The Guardian, Adrian Poole can speak of "the fraught male figure on whom Swift's novels have always been centred, the failed son who is even more of a failing father" (n.p.). No one has yet remarked, though, how much of Swift's fiction actually concerns relations between fathers and daughters; Last Orders in fact happens to include four father-daughter relationships, one of which is crucial.

That kind of relationship, however, has not elicited much critical inquiry into serious contemporary writers, especially male ones, partly because, as Sue Sharpe tactfully says in Fathers and Daughters, "Sexuality overlays this subject with an uneasiness that is generally missed from mother-daughter relationships" (3). "Feminist ethics," philosopher Emily Zakin complains in "Beyond the Father's Law," "has had much to say about mothers and daughters, about the promise of this maternal relation. But little has been said about fathers and daughters, the promise that this relation might contain quite apart from its seductions" (326). Something may usefully be said, thus, about how a male writer has repeatedly not only seen the fictional possibilities of fathers and daughters, but increasingly assigned value to daughters. It is particularly useful to say so for Swift because the direction of Swift criticism has been outward to large theoretical issues at the expense of the mimetic and dramatic effects of his characterizations as if he had written essays rather than novels. A ease in point is Wendy Wheeler's "Melancholic Modernity and Contemporary Grief" that sees Swift's fathers as increasingly allegorical father-failures, who "function as signs of the failure of cultural and historical continuity, ... but also as figures of a divine Father who no longer 'works'" (66). Though Swift's characters certainly inhabit a universe without universals, given the quiet but firm emphasis Swift has maintained on father-daughter relations, he may just as well, without allegorizing, be increasingly showing up the flaws in patriarchy, which are not only a modern failing but, as Agamemnon demonstrated, a persistent one.

Father and daughter relationships have important functions in five of Swift's seven novels. In two of those five, moreover, the problematic relationship of parent and female child is the focus of the plot. It is the central concern of his first novel, The Sweet Shop Owner, and might be said to climax in the more recent Last Orders, which not only makes an issue of relations between several fathers and their daughters but allows one such relationship to control the major domestic story. …