Author logo Graham Swift: Chemistry - study guide

About the author
What happens in Chemistry?
The themes of this story
The characters in the story
Graham Swift's technique
Readers and reading
Passages for comment
Responding to the story
Printing the guide
Introduction to prose Fiction
Poetry in the Anthology


This guide is written for students and teachers who are preparing for GCSE exams in English literature. It contains a detailed study of Graham Swift's Chemistry, one of the prose texts in the AQA Anthology, which is a set text for the AQA's GCSE syllabuses for English and English Literature Specification A, from the 2004 exam onwards.

On this page I use bold red type for emphasis. Brown type is used where italics would appear in print (in this screen font, italic looks like this, and is unkind on most readers). Headings have their own hierarchical logic, too:

Main section headings look like this

Sub-section headings look like this
Minor headings within sub-sections look like this

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About the author

Graham Swift was born in London in 1949. He studied at Cambridge University. Swift began writing stories in his teens and taught English literature at various colleges until he became a full-time writer in 1983.

Graham Swift's novels have won various awards and been translated into many languages. His most famous novels, Waterland (1983) and Last Orders (1996) have been adapted as feature films. Chemistry comes from Learning to Swim (1982).

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What happens in Chemistry?

This is one of the more complex narratives in the Anthology. In outline it goes something like this. A widower lives with his daughter, also widowed, and their son. His daughter starts a relationship with another man, and eventually this man quarrels with her father. He retreats to his garden shed where he spends time in his hobbies of chemical experiments and model making, and where his grandson joins him. The grandson dreams of his dead father. The old man swallows Prussic acid, which kills him. After the funeral, the grandson thinks he sees his grandfather in a park where they had once sailed a motorized model boat.

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The themes of this story

Relationships and different generations | Loyalty and betrayal | "Things don't end" | Hidden and invisible things

This story is very much about relationships - especially within families and across the generations. It is also about loyalty and its opposite - betrayal. Another theme is suggested by the narrator's comment that "things don't end". You may like to look more closely at these ideas.

Relationships and different generations
  • How does the story depict the relationships of the main characters at different points: before the death of the narrator's father; after his mother is widowed; after Ralph moves in, and after the death of the old man?
  • What does the narrator mean, in your opinion, when he calls the relationship a "sad symmetry"?
  • What do you think the narrator means by the "sort of equation" that he keeps in his head?
  • How far does the narrator suggest the idea that his mother is responsible for events in his and her life?
  • Are there other ideas about relationships in the story?
  • How does the story present the way that different generations get on, or fail to?

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Loyalty and betrayal
  • How far do the narrator and the grandfather show loyalty to others?
  • How does the story show the mother's choice between loyalty to her immediate family and her new commitment to her boyfriend?
  • Does the narrator see his mother as disloyal? Does the reader agree with the narrator's view, or do we have more sympathy for the mother?

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"Things don't end"
  • In what way does the story show how "things don't end"?
  • How does the visit of the boy's dead father support this idea?
  • Does the writer offer any explanation for the visit of the dead man (for example, saying that it was a dream)?
  • What is your idea of the meaning of the grandfather's appearance at the end of the story?
  • How does the comment that "things don't end" help explain the earlier statement about the boy's being "wrong" if he believed that his father was "gone for ever"? What did you think this meant when you first read it?

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Hidden and invisible things

The story looks at the difference between appearance and reality - in terms of things that are seen and unseen. The boy sees things others do not, and is aware of things that are out of sight or invisible. Here are some examples:

  • Invisible things: the line that joins the boy and his mother to his grandfather; the invitation on the green door to the shed.
  • Hidden things: the aeroplane at the bottom of the sea; the model boat and the acid bottle in the pond.
  • Things only the boy can see: his father, dripping with sea-water; his dead grandfather by the pond.

Can you think of other themes? You might want to think of how far this story is a mystery or has supernatural elements. The narrator sees two people who have died. Yet he does not say these are visits by ghosts. Nor are they dismissed as only dreams. It is left for the reader to determine the kind of reality these experiences have. What is your view of them?

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The characters in the story

The narrator | The grandfather | The mother | Ralph

Although this is quite a short story, the characters are all quite well developed, with the possible exception of the boyfriend, Ralph. Unlike the others, he is not a member of the narrator's family, and the narrator has no interest in him except as regards how he affects his mother and the general atmosphere in the home.

The narrator

The boy who tells the story is both an observer and an actor in the events of the narrative. Perhaps he is the only one who sees all that goes on - though he notices that, because he is so young (only ten) the police, encouraged by his mother, do not ask him about the grandfather's death.

The boy is seven when his father dies and ten when his grandfather dies. But the story is written as if by an older person, looking back - the child's observation is mixed with more adult description and comment.

We see some evidence of a child's understanding - as when he thinks that his grandmother must be literally in the same place as his father's body, where his mother means to suggest something about death. (On the other hand, she does not say where it is that either has gone, so the boy's confusion makes a kind of sense.)

The narrator suggests at the start of the story the possibility that he can make a plan and influence events. But he is not able to answer his mother's request for advice - and it seems that his plans do not change things for other people, only in terms of what he sees.

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The grandfather

The grandfather is a constant character. He misses his wife, but consoles himself with the company of his child and grandchild - seeming (as the narrator notes) to see the features of his wife in both. He treats his daughter in some ways as he would a wife - he buys her jewellery, and expects her to cook meals, while he supports her financially.

He shows loyalty and expects it in return. When his daughter chooses to side with Ralph, he does not exploit his ownership of the house, but retreats to his shed. There is a hint that he may be planning some scheme to reclaim what he has lost, but it seems he is planning only his own exit.

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The mother

The mother is the most ambiguous and dynamic character - she changes, where her father and son remain loyal. It is her actions that disturb the "symmetry" of which the narrator thinks, and the "equation" that he works out in his head. There is a sense, though, that she is not wholly in control of her own decisions, that they are not really choices. While later she thinks her son too young to speak to the police, at one point she asks him to help her decide how to act: "What am I going to do?" The narrator is starting to form a plan, but he does not answer his mother, and she makes her own decision, to go to Ralph.

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Ralph is never formally introduced - which may indicate the way the narrator thinks of him and the stealthy way in which he enters, then dominates and finally disrupts the life of the family unit. He first appears in a parenthesis, to establish the date when the model boat sinks. This has nothing to do with Ralph, yet the reader may see the coincidence as ominous. The next reference to Ralph contains another parenthesis (his being a regular weekend guest) along with the statement of his verbal attack on the grandfather.

Ralph represents this as sticking up for his girlfriend, the narrator's mother. But to the reader it is one of many ambiguous incidents. Does it show his concern to protect her or his wish to assert a claim to her - is Ralph defending the mother from a bullying parent or making a claim to some kind of possession?

Ralph is not shown as a particularly bad man, but his presence has harmful consequences for the old man and his grandson.

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The suggestion that his anger is caused by his appetite is given as a kind of defence - but to the reader may be a hint at how coarse and selfish he is, unable to wait for an old man to finish.

His drinking seems more sinister - as if this is a way to weaken the resistance of his girlfriend and her remaining attachment to her father, the narrator's grandfather.

A new relationship for a widow could be seen as moving on. Does the narrative present the relationship of Ralph and the narrator's mother in this way? Can you find any hints of joy or romance or anything positive in the way this relationship appears in the story?

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Graham Swift's technique

The narrative viewpoint | Is this a mystery story or a ghost story? | Metaphor | Alliteration | Comparison | Implied meaning

The narrative viewpoint

Perhaps the most obvious feature of the writer's technique is the way he tells the story in the words of the narrator. He was ten at the time of the events in the story, but now seems to have an adult's ability to look back on it and explain what has happened.

Do you agree that Swift shows a mix of the adult's and the child's viewpoints? What effect does this have on the way we read the story?

The narrator tries to explain things. We cannot tell how sure he is about these explanations. For example, he suggests at one point that "some outside force" is directing his mother. (Line 59)

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Is this a mystery story or a ghost story?

The story has some things in common with both of these. For example:

  • The narrator says, of his belief that his father has gone forever, "I was wrong" (line 68) but we have to read on to find out how and why.
  • The writer sees two dead people, his father and his grandfather. But we are not sure quite what really happens in either case.
  • At the end of the story we are offered a kind of explanation - that things change but are not destroyed (282). This echoes the grandfather's statement that the forms of things change "But the elements don't change" (line 188)

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Chemistry | The invisible cord | The motif of water

The writer uses many images in the story - sometimes of things that are really there (like water), but also have a symbolic meaning (they represent or stand for some idea or other thing), sometimes of things that serve only as metaphor (like an invisible cord). Here are a few examples. You should look out for others.


Chemistry is commonly used today to refer to personal relationships. In this story chemical change is present both as reality and as symbol. The grandfather really experiments with chemistry - but when the boy asks (line 183) "People change too, don't they", his answer makes the comparison clear. There is chemistry in natural objects and also in or between people.

The invisible cord

In the opening paragraph the narrator suggests (lines 14 and 15) that there is "an actual existing line" between him with his mother and his grandfather on the other side of the pond, as if the old man "were pulling us toward him on some invisible cord".

What does this mean? Does the conclusion of the story support this idea of the invisible cord that joins people or not, in your view?

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The motif of water

The story uses water as a thematic image. Here are some of the ways in which it appears.

  • The story opens and closes with a scene on a pond.
  • In the opening the narrator likens the pond to a sea (line 2).
  • The boy's father is lost in the Irish Sea. Later he returns, dripping with seawater.
  • The grandfather has a special kind of water - laurel water or prussic acid - in his shed; and this kills him.

On a first reading one might think that the story shows that water takes things away. But the narrator claims that things are not lost, only changed - this is the fundamental idea in the science of chemistry. The boy's father and grandfather are changed (by death, by the sea) - and so is his mother. He knows that the model boat and the bottle of nitric acid are still at the bottom of the pond, as his father's aeroplane is at the bottom of the sea.

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This is a common technique in poetry - but we meet it here. Look for example at the repetition of consonant sounds in:

"For about a year we lived quietly, calmly, even contentedly within the scope of this sad symmetry." (Lines 77 and 78)

Can you find other examples of alliteration or other sound effects? How do they work in the story?

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It is easy to make comparisons in the story. We are led to make comparisons between these things, among others:

  • ideas of before and after - such as things before and after they change, the family before and after Ralph's arrival
  • attitudes of the boy and of his mother
  • different kinds of water - water in the pond, sea water, laurel water
  • the living and the dead

Can you think of any others? You can also, of course, compare this story with others that have a similar theme - stories about growing up, gaining independence and leaving home.

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Implied meaning

Are there any things in the story that are not what they at first seem? Are there situations that are gradually revealed to be other than what first appears?

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Readers and reading

Reading the text | Reading the author | Reading the Reading

Reading the text

Say what you think the story means in a literal sense and in terms of theme, character and setting. Look at details of imagery, language and symbolism.

Reading the author

Try to explain what, in your view, Graham Swift wants us to think at various points. In doing this you should refer to his narrative methods.

Reading the reading

Be prepared briefly to explain your own understanding of the story, and how this changes while you are reading it for the first time, and also on subsequent readings, where you notice more details.

Selected passages for comment

Here are some lines from the story. Use them to help focus your ideas. For each one, try to see what it means in the context where it appears, what it tells you about characters and ideas, and how it shows Graham Swift's technique:

  • He said very gravely: "You must accept it - you can't get it back - it's the only way"...(Lines 24 and 25)
  • if some outside force were all the time directing her...(Line 59)
  • We forgot we were three generations. (Line 85)
  • I remember keeping a kind of equation in my head... (Line 104)
  • "What am I going to do?" (Line 116)
  • It seemed that this invitation, his loneliness were written in a form only I could read on the dark green door. (Lines 140 and 141)
  • "...You don't make things in chemistry - you change them. Anything can change." (Lines 162 and 163)
  • looked as if it was all gold - but it wasn't. (Lines 178 and 179)
  • But she never did explain. (Line 255)
  • "He's only ten, what can he know?" (Lines 270 and 271)
  • ...though things change, they aren't destroyed. (Line 282)

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Responding to the story

Retelling the story | Original writing

Retelling the story

This story could be retold in other ways. Here are some suggestions:

  • Write the coroner's report of which we have the verdict in line 247 - giving an explanation of the death of the grandfather.
  • Write a series of monologues, giving the story as it appears through the eyes of the other characters: the boy's mother, Ralph, and his grandfather (and, if you like, the ghosts of the father and grandfather).

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Original writing

As well as being a subject that we study at school, science can be a symbol or metaphor for things that happen in our lives or to us in important ways. Write your own poem(s), story or play, using one of the subjects on the list below as a title, and an important theme or symbol:

  • alchemy
  • algebra
  • arithmetic
  • astronomy
  • biology
  • geography
  • physics

If you want to use another branch of science or mathematics, then that is fine.

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Can I print this guide and photocopy it?

This guide is free for individual users - for example, teachers or students working from home - in any part of the world. You can print out the guide, but it is not ideal for printing and photocopying, and may run to many more pages than you expect.

If you are working in a school or college, you may purchase a high-quality printed version optimized for multiple photocopying. The cost of the printed version includes permission for unlimited reproduction within your institution - if you expect to make multiple copies, this will probably save on your bulk photocopying and printing costs. To obtain the printed guide, contact:

  • ZigZag Education and Computing Centre Publications
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  • Tel: +44 (0)117 950 3199

Click on the link to go to the ZigZag Education Web site:

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