How do the characters of Oscar and Lucinda react against—or conform to—their “type” or “set place” in the world? How is that set place constructed or determined? By class, gender, race, nationality, vocation, of more than one social category?
Rebellion is a characteristic that is admired as much as it is despised. While we often remember the tantrums and tribulations that a sibling or a child has put us through, we also worry that this same quality may cause him or her to be a misfit in society as they must reconcile and learn to live with compromise in the real world. Only a very few can live life on their own terms- and for that to happen, one must be charismatic or exceedingly lucky. Peter Carey’s tale of Oscar and Lucinda is a fascinating masterpiece in which chance, gambling and a willingness to rebel against social norms play a major role in getting the characters together. Both are rebels to the society that created them, opting to live out their own lives in a spirit of carefree abandon that knows not what the future will bring- but carrying on nevertheless, determined to live life in all its vicissitudes.
Set in the mid-nineteenth century, ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ is about the lives of two characters who rebel against their families at every turn. For Oscar Hopkins, an Oxford student, his father’s inflexibility makes him rebel against the faith that his family practices and he prefers to venture into the Anglican Church. Like the mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, he prefers to think of the possible existence of God as a chance event too. Providence is but the hand of God in our everyday lives. A crude exercise in divination makes him feel that his father believes in a false god. While at Oxford, chance intervenes again in the matter of Wardley-Fish mistaking him for another student, but Oscar more than matches expectations while betting on horses or anything else for that matter. The fact that Oscar has a particular gift for gambling is confirmed by his feats at Newbury, Newmarket, Catterick and Sandown Park (Carey, 37). Millions of miles away in Australia, the feminist and young glass industry heiress Lucinda Leplastrier is an equally adamant character with a mind of her own. Even while dining with friends, she manages to involve them in games of chance. Though their paths could have crossed earlier, as Lucinda comes to London in search of a husband, fate has them meet on a ship headed to New South Wales. Their first meeting is almost comical- Lucinda wants to make a confession to Oscar, now a fully ordained Anglican priest (Carey, 157). It is only a matter of time before they share their passion for gambling in long drawn out sessions together, much to the shock of society. A young heiress and a gambling priest are a scandalous combination. In reflecting on certain other characters in the novel, Lucinda comments, “They, at least, had precedents in her world. They were ‘types’ and even if they were irritating, they also had a set place in the menagerie of life” (Carey, 208). Yes, understandably there are moments where Oscar and Lucinda do have fleeting instances of remorse about the carefree lives they are living, while others have settled into life’s patterns, marrying, raising kids or whatever.
Lucinda is rebelling not only against her social class but against her gender as well- for a female gambler was a rarity. And what of Oscar- a gambling priest. Could there be anything more blasphemous? Yet the readers of Oscar and Lucinda will sympathize with these characters- one an obsessive gambler and the other compulsive. They were soul-mates destined to meet. In the end, Oscar’s bet to create a glass church at the edge of the river works out and as the narrator states- is a prime factor in his existence. It is the final binding that ties the knot between these two lovers and gamblers.
Carey, Peter. Oscar and Lucinda. 1st Vintage Edition, 2011.