Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Through a Sheet of Glass: The Ethics of Reading in Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

Through a Sheet of Glass: The Ethics of Reading in Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda

Article excerpt


This article explores the epistemological implications of one of the most striking features in Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda ([1988]1997): its systematic frustration of the expectations of its readers. Through an examination of its use of narratorial deception and its skilful deployment of irony, the article argues that the novel prevents readers from occupying a detached position in relation to it and its themes. Particular attention is given to its concern with the provisional nature of human ways of seeing, exemplified by the metaphor of glass that is developed throughout the novel. Oscar and Lucinda compels readers to reflect on the subject position they take up in relation to it, and, in so doing, on their implication in cultural systems of knowledge that seek to contain and eradicate what is deemed unruly. The article suggests, ultimately, that the ethical project in Oscar and Lucinda is performative in nature, and that its success relies on the extent to which it is able to alert readers to the limitations of their ways of knowing, and, consequently, the importance of respecting the otherness of others.


Hierdie artikel verken die epistemologiese implikasies van een van die treffendste kenmerke van Peter Carey se Oscar and Lucinda ([1988]1997): die sistematiese manier waarop die roman die lesers se verwagtinge in die wiele ry. Deur middel van 'n ondersoek na die gebruik van narratologiese misleiding en die kundige gebruik van ironie, word daar aangevoer dat die roman verhoed dat die lesers 'n afsydige houding inneem jeens die roman en die temas daarvan. Daar word veral aandag geskenk aan die roman se bemoeienis met die voorwaardelike aard van menslike maniere om waar te neem, wat beliggaam word deur die metafoor van glas wat regdeur die roman ontwikkel word. Oscar and Lucinda dwing die lesers om te besin oor die subjekposisie wat hulle teenoor die roman inneem, en sodoende oor die implikasie daarvan in kulturele kennisstelsels wat poog om dit wat as wild en onhebbelik beskou word, in te perk en uit die weg te ruim. Daar word te kenne gegee dat die etiese projek in Oscar and Lucinda performatief van aard is en dat die sukses daarvan afhang van die mate waartoe dit lesers bewus kan maak van die beperkings van hul kenwyses en derhalwe van die belangrikheid daarvan om die andersheid van ander mense te respekteer.


Not surprisingly, a fair amount of critical attention has been devoted to the way in which Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda undermines reader expectation--this, after all, is one of this work's most striking structural features. Sue Ryan-Fazilleau, for instance, reflects at some length on Carey's systematic frustration of his readers" expectations of the text. Through this strategy, she concludes, the novel seeks to "provoke awareness of the distress of the subject who is marginalised by imperialist discourse" by placing its reader in a marginal position that is analogous to the one occupied "by Aboriginal Australians whose oppression by the white settlers was written out of Australia's Eurocentric official history" (2005: 12, 24). Presumably, Ryan-Fazilleau would concur with Graham Huggan's contention that Carey's writing produces "incriminated readers", that is, readers who find that the texts implicate them in their cultural critique (1996: 487).

In this article, we seek to extend this argument by examining the broader epistemological implications of Carey's sabotage of the interpretive act in Oscar and Lucinda. If, as Huggan proposes, Carey subverts the reader's safely detached position relative to the text's critical concerns, it should follow that his or her existing knowledge structures are challenged, that he or she is confronted with the inadequacy of his or her culture's systems of knowledge. It is, of course, always possible that such a reader could ignore this challenge by arguing, like Tom Wilhelmus, that Oscar and Lucinda's disruptive techniques are simply instances of bad writing, and that the text's ending, for example, gratuitously offends "the lines of plot development the reader has been presented with up to that point" (1988: 552). …

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