Chemistry was written in 1982 by London-born writer Graham Swift. It first appeared in the collection Learning to Swim and Other Stories. Swift has stated that he likes to “write about the moments of crisis in people’s lives.”
Chemistry tells the story of a boy who lives with his mother and grandfather. He describes the closeness he feels with his grandfather. This is demonstrated in their shared activity of sending a small motorboat across a pond to each other, which they both greatly enjoy.
The boy’s mother meets a new partner, Ralph, and he moves into the house. This causes a lot of tension as Ralph and the boy’s grandfather argue a lot. The grandfather spends more and more time in his shed conducting chemistry experiments. Inside the house, the boy’s mother and Ralph spend their evenings getting drunk.
The boy feels desperate to resolve the conflict in the family. He steals some acid from his grandfather’s shed, which he plans to throw in Ralph’s face the following day. However, when he wakes up the next day, he finds his grandfather dead, being carried away in an ambulance. The official verdict is suicide by drinking a toxic substance, but the boy blames his mother for driving him to suicide.
He goes to the pond where they used to sail the motorboat. There, he imagines that he sees his grandfather on the other side, showing how their bond is unbroken by death.
Aged 10 when the main action in the story happens, he is said to look like both his grandmother and his father. He is very close to his grandfather, and he feels responsible for helping him when he is forced out of the house, into his shed.
His solution, to throw acid in Ralph’s face, is childish and disturbing. He grieves deeply for his grandfather after his death and imagines him reappearing.
He is stubborn and refuses to move out of his house when his wife dies, and is happy when his daughter and grandson come to live with him. He has a passion for chemistry and carries out experiments in his shed.
The grandfather’s hands are deformed and scarred from an experiment that went wrong. He enters into a battle of wills with Ralph, but his daughter sides with her new partner over her father, so he is banished to the shed. His misery leads to him committing suicide.
She is still grieving for her husband who died when the small aircraft he was on crashed into the Irish Sea. She treats the boy more like an adult, pleading for his advice on the tension in the family. During disputes, she sides with Ralph, and she takes to drinking heavily with him every night.
The boy becomes convinced that she deliberately sunk the motorboat he and his grandfather had. After her father’s death, she seems happier and starts preparing to move to a new house.
The boy’s stepfather, Ralph, is a physically large man whom the boy fears and hates. He challenges the grandfather’s dominance in the household, forcing the older man to relocate to his shed. He drinks heavily and influences the mother to do the same.
Swift uses the symbol of the motorboat to show the connection that the boy feels with his mother and grandfather at the beginning of the story:
“As it moved, it seemed that it followed an actual existing line between Grandfather, myself and Mother, as if Grandfather were pulling us toward him on some invisible cord, and that he had to do this to prove we were not beyond his reach.”
When the boat sinks, this signals that the family tie between the three of them is broken. In a dream where he sees his father, the boy realises that his mother had put a hole in the boat to make it sink. Therefore, he blames his mother for the breakdown of their family, caused by her bringing Ralph into their home.
The story ends with him imagining his grandfather on the other side of the pond, waiting for the “unstoppable, unsinkable” boat. This symbolises how, even in death, the connection between the boy and his grandfather cannot be broken.
All three of the remaining family members grieve for the death of the boy’s father and grandmother. Even when unified in the story’s opening, they live together in a “sad symmetry.”
The boy then has to cope with the grief of losing his grandfather. This is made worse because he is angry towards his mother, whom he blames for his grandfather’s suicide. While he grieves, his mother looks happy, “as if she had recovered from an illness.”
Just before his grandfather dies, he has a dream about his father, which is disturbing as he appears as if pulled out of the ocean, with “seaweed hung from his shoulders.” However, the vision of his grandfather at the pond is much happier, helping him to cope with the devastating loss.
The boy experiences many changes throughout the short story:
He struggles to cope with all these changes in his life and wishes everything could be as it was before Ralph’s arrival. This prompts him to plan the drastic action of throwing acid in Ralph’s face. He has the misguided notion that this would make everything normal again.
The idea of change is symbolised through the grandfather’s love of chemistry. He explains, “Chemistry is the science of change… Anything can change.” This prompts the boy to think about people changing, in particular his mother, now that she is with Ralph.
By the end of the story, his growing up is shown by his acceptance of change, as he realises that “though things change they aren’t destroyed.” He understands that he can still remember his past and the people he has lost, even if they are no longer physically present with him.