British novelist Graham Swift's Waterland (London, 1983; New York, 1984) is a complex tale set in eastern England's low-lying fens region. It is narrated by Tom Crick, a middle-aged history teacher. Tom is facing a personal crisis, since he is about to be laid off from his job and his wife has been admitted to a mental hospital. He is a man who is keenly interested in ideas about the nature and purpose of history. Faced with a class of bored and rebellious students, he scraps the traditional history curriculum and tells them stories of the fens instead. These stories form the substance of the novel, which takes place mainly in two time frames: the present, and the year 1943, when Tom Crick is fifteen years old. The traumatic events of his adolescence reach forward in time to influence the present. The structure of the novel, which frequently moves back and forth in time, also suggests the fluidity of the interaction between past and present.
Tom's tale of the fens is sometimes lurid. It includes a family history going back to the eighteenth century and such lurid topics as murder, suicide, abortion, incest, and madness. These events are set against a background of some of the great events in history, such as World War I and World War II. The novel also includes digressions on such off-beat topics as the sex life of the eel, the history of land reclamation, the history of the River Ouse, and the nature of phlegm. At once a philosophical meditation on the meaning of history and a gothic family saga, Waterland is a tightly interwoven novel that entertains as it provokes.
Graham (Colin) Swift was born May 4, 1949, in London, England, the son of Allan Stanley and Sheila Irene (Bourne) Swift. His father was a civil servant. Swift attended Dulwich College, in South London, from 1960 to 1967. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1970 from Queens' College, Cambridge, and a master of arts degree in 1975 from the same school. From 1974 to 1983 he worked part-time as a teacher of English.
Swift's first novel, The Sweet-Shop Owner, was published in 1980 and records the memories of a dying shopkeeper. It was followed by Shuttlecock (1981), which is also an analytical story about the past. A collection of Swift's short stories, Learning to Swim and Other Stories was published in 1982.
In 1983 Swift had a literary breakthrough with his novel Waterland. A commercial and critical success, it was nominated for the Booker Mc-Connell Prize and was awarded the Guardian Fiction Prize (1983), the Winifred Holtby Prize from the Royal Society of Literature (1984), and Italy's Premio Grinzane Cavour (1987). Waterland was adapted for film by Peter Prince and released by Palace Pictures in 1992. The novel was also a success in the United States, and since its publication, Swift's earlier books have also been published in America.
Swift's third novel, Out of This World (1988), was followed a few years later by Ever After (1992). Like Waterland, each of these novels examines the interplay between the past and the present. Ever After was awarded France's Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger in 1994. Swift's novel Last Orders (1996) won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for best novel and the Booker Prize, both in 1996. Last Orders was adapted for film by Sony Pictures Classics in 2001, directed by Fred Schepisi and starring Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins. In 2003 Swift's novel The Light of Day is due to be published.
Waterland begins with the narrator Tom Crick describing his childhood growing up in the low-lying fens area of eastern England. His father is a lock-keeper, and they live in a cottage by the River Leem. One day in July 1943, the drowned body of a local boy, Freddie Parr, floats down the river.
The story flashes forward to the present. Tom, having spent thirty-two years as a history teacher, is leaving his job because the school is eliminating the history department. The other reason he is leaving is because of a scandal involving his wife, who apparently has stolen a baby. No more details are given.
Crick abandons the history syllabus he is supposed to teach, deciding to tell his class stories of the fens instead. He describes the history of the fens and the persistent efforts over the centuries to drain the land. He also describes his ancestors, going back to Jacob Crick, who operated a windmill in the fens in the eighteenth century. His mother's ancestors were the Atkinsons, originally farmers from Norfolk.
After a scene in which the headmaster of the school, Lewis Scott, discusses Tom's dismissal with Tom, the narrative returns to 1943 and the discovery of the drowned body. Tom notices a bruise on the body, finds a telltale beer bottle in the rushes, and Tom's girlfriend Mary insists Freddie was killed by Dick, Tom's mentally retarded brother.
The narrator then embarks on one of his many explorations of the nature of history, before flashing back to a time in 1942 when Tom and Mary, both fifteen years old, first begin to explore each other sexually. They are careful to meet at times when they will not be discovered either by Freddie or Dick. After the death of Freddie, it transpires that Mary is pregnant, and Tom is unsure whether the baby is his or Dick's.
The narrative then returns to the distant past, as Tom relates the history of the Atkinson family and how they built their fortune through land-reclamation projects and a brewery business. One of the most significant events occurs in 1820, when Thomas Atkinson strikes his wife Sarah in a fit of unreasonable jealousy. She loses her mind as a result of the attack but lives another fifty-four years to become something of a local legend. The Atkinsons continue to prosper as the leading local family, the height of respectability and power. Arthur Atkinson is elected to Parliament in 1874, the same year that a great flood causes devastation throughout the area.
The story line goes back to 1943, and Freddie's death is ruled an accident. Freddie's father, unable to deal with his grief, attempts suicide but fails, thanks to the intervention of his wife. Mary goes into seclusion at her father's house for three years. It appears she never had her baby. Tom joins the army in 1945 and is stationed in Europe. In 1947 he returns home and he and Mary marry. They move to London, where he becomes a history teacher. For several decades they live a comfortable middle-class life. As the story reaches the present, Tom notices that his wife is becoming secretive. She has also become very religious. Then she announces, at the age of fifty-two, that she is going to have a baby. God has told her so.
Tom then launches another inquiry into the nature of history ("De la Révolution"), discussing the French Revolution. He debates the issues with his class, which includes a boy named Price, who questions everything Tom says.
After a digression about the attempts of man to divert the course of the River Ouse in the fens, the narrative returns briefly to the present, and then back again to describe the life of Tom's father, a World War I veteran who married the nurse who brought him back to health.
In the present day, Tom attempts a debate with Lewis Scott over the usefulness of history as a subject of instruction. They cannot agree on an answer.
Tom describes the life of his grandfather, Earnest Richard Atkinson, who perfected a special kind of ale and lived in seclusion after a failed bid to win a parliamentary seat. After another round of present-day disputation with Price, the narrative returns to 1911 and Atkinson's remarkable brew. In the celebrations for the coronation of George V, the whole town seems to become intoxicated. But there is a fire at the New Atkinson Brewery, and it burns to the ground.
The narrative returns to 1940 and the exploratory sexual games played by Tom, Mary, and their friends, including Freddie. Dick wins an underwater swimming contest, and there is sexual tension between him and Mary. Freddie puts an eel in Mary's panties, which prompts Tom, as narrator, to devote a chapter to the riddle of the birth and sex life of an eel.
In 1943, Tom puts the beer bottle he suspects was used by Dick to strike Freddie in Dick's room. He wants to see what Dick will do. Dick secretly returns the bottle to a mysterious locked chest in the attic.
Returning to the history of the Atkinsons, Tom describes how Earnest Atkinson becomes a recluse, falls in love with his daughter Helen, and lives with her as husband and wife. Helen becomes a nurse and wants to marry a wounded soldier, Henry Crick (Tom's father). Earnest Atkinson wants a child by Helen, and she agrees to his request on the condition that she can raise the child as if it is Henry's. The child, Dick, turns out to be mentally retarded. Earnest leaves a letter for Dick, hidden in the chest in the attic, to be opened on Dick's eighteenth birthday. The letter explains that Earnest is Dick's real father. After leaving the letter, Earnest shoots himself. Back in the present, Tom takes his argumentative pupil Price to a pub for a drink, where they discuss history and teaching.
- Waterland was adapted for film by Peter Prince and released by Palace Pictures in 1992. The film was directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal and stars Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack.
The narrative now starts to swing more and more rapidly between time periods. In the early 1940s, Mary takes it upon herself to educate Dick about sexual matters. Tom believes it may be Dick who got Mary pregnant. Mary denies it and tells
Dick it is Freddie's baby, in order to protect Tom from what she fears might be Dick's jealousy.
In the present-day narrative, Tom returns from school to find his wife has snatched a baby from a supermarket. Back in the past, Tom's mother dies in the 1930s, when he is nine years old. In 1943 Mary tries unsuccessfully to abort her own baby, and then she and Tom go to a local woman, Martha Clay, who has a reputation as a witch. Martha performs a grisly abortion.
Present-day Tom insists to his wife that they return the stolen baby. They drive back to the supermarket and hand it back. They are both interviewed by the police. Back in 1943, Dick and Tom open their grandfather's chest. Tom reads Earnest Atkinson's letter and tries to explain to Dick his incestuous origin. Dick goes off on his motorcycle, heading for a dredger on the river.
Tom visits his wife in the mental institution. He is distressed and unable to sleep. At a school assembly, the headmaster makes a speech about Tom's departure. The narrative then describes the death of Tom's father in 1947. Finally, the story returns to 1943. Tom and his father chase after Dick. With two American servicemen, they take a boat out to the dredger but cannot stop Dick from leaping over the side to his death.
Alfred Atkinson is Thomas Atkinson's younger son. In 1832 he marries Eliza Harriet Bell, the daughter of a farmer. He and his brother George are extremely successful businessmen. They found the Atkinson Water Transport Company and build the New Atkinson Brewery. Alfred becomes mayor of Gildsey in 1848. In his later years, with his brother, he builds Kessling Hall, a rural family retreat.
Arthur George Atkinson
Arthur George Atkinson is the son of George Atkinson. In 1874 he becomes a member of Parliament for Gildsey.
Earnest Richard Atkinson
Earnest Richard Atkinson is the son of Arthur Atkinson. Born in 1874, he is Tom Crick's grandfather. Earnest experiments with the process of making beer and comes up with a recipe for a new ale, which he begins manufacturing in 1906. A craze for the potent new beer spreads far and wide. Earnest stands for Parliament in 1909 for the Liberal Party but fails to win election. After the Atkinson brewery burns down in a fire in 1911, he goes into seclusion. He falls in love with his daughter Helen, who bears a child by him, Dick Crick.
George Atkinson is Thomas Atkinson's elder son. In 1830 he marries Catherine Anne Goodchild, the daughter of a banker. He becomes mayor of Gildsey in 1864. Like his brother Alfred, with whom he partners, he is a highly successful businessman who brings industrial progress to the entire region.
Josiah Atkinson is Tom Crick's eighteenth-century ancestor. He is the first to establish the Atkinson business of selling beer.
Sarah Atkinson is the beautiful young wife of Thomas Atkinson. She is the daughter of a brewer, Matthew Turnbull. When she is thirty-seven, her husband strikes her in the face, and as she falls, she hits her head against a writing table. Although she lives for over fifty more years, her mind is completely gone as a result of the attack. During the long period of her insanity, local legends build up around her, including the idea that she has the gift to see and shape the future. She dies in 1874 at the age of ninety-two.
Thomas Atkinson is William Atkinson's son. He becomes rich from land-reclamation projects, during which time the Cricks first come to work for the Atkinsons. Thomas builds a malting house and furthers the family beer business. He is also a farmer who opens up the River Leem, formerly a swamp, for transportation of his produce. He becomes a prominent citizen known for his good works. He marries Sarah Turnbull, who is much younger than he, but in his later years he develops feelings of jealousy over her, although Sarah did nothing to justify them. In 1820, Thomas strikes Sarah in the face. As a result of an injury sustained in the attack, she loses her mind. Thomas spends the rest of his days in remorse. He dies in 1825.
William Atkinson is Josiah Atkinson's son. An astute businessman, he further develops the family brewery business.
Bill Clay is an old man who is about eighty in the early 1940s. He has lived in the fens all his life. In the winter, he makes a living by shooting ducks; in summer, he catches birds in snares and sells them locally but illegally, since he does not have a license.
Martha Clay is the wife of Bill Clay. She is known locally as a witch. She lives in a rundown cottage in the fens. Mary and Tom go to her when Mary is pregnant, and Martha performs a crude abortion.
Dick Crick is raised as the elder son of Henry Crick. He is born in 1923 and is mentally retarded. He receives only a minimum of education; he cannot read or write, or speak in coherent sentences. His job is to work on a dredger that removes silt from the bottom of the River Ouse. He is a diligent worker, tall and physically strong. He also has a knack with machinery; his hobby is working on his motorcycle. Dick becomes jealous of Freddie Parr because Mary tells him that Freddie is the father of her baby. Dick kills Freddie by hitting him on the head with a bottle and pushing him into the river. Dick later learns he is the product of an incestuous union between Earnest Atkinson and his mother, Earnest's daughter Helen. Henry Crick is not really his father. Distressed and confused by this information, he commits suicide by leaping from the dredger into the river.
Helen Crick is the daughter of Earnest Atkinson. She trains as a nurse and nurses Henry Crick back to health after World War I. She marries Henry but cannot free herself from the incestuous attentions of her father, a relationship that produces the retarded Dick Crick, who is raised by Helen and Henry as the son of Henry Crick. Tom Crick is Helen and Henry's legitimate son. Helen dies of influenza in 1937, when Tom is nine years old.
Henry Crick is Tom's father. He is a lockkeeper in the fens. He is also a superstitious man with a knack for telling stories. Henry was wounded in World War I and nursed back to health by Helen, whom he married in 1922. He does not know until Dick is eighteen that Dick is not really his son. Henry dies in 1947.
Jacob Crick is Tom Crick's eighteenth-century ancestor who operated two windmills in the fens.
Mary Crick is the daughter of Harold Metcalfe. Her father has high hopes for her and sends her to a convent school. As a teenager, Mary is curious and sexually adventurous. She tries to educate Dick about sex and becomes pregnant by Tom. She tries to abort the baby herself and then goes to Martha Clay for an abortion. The abortion causes an injury that renders her unable to bear children. After some years of being married to Tom, she takes a job in a local government office concerned with the care of the elderly. She leaves her job during a troubled menopause and then becomes very religious, telling Tom that God has told her she is to have a baby. She eventually snatches a baby from a supermarket, and after Tom insists that they return it, she is committed to a mental institution.
Tom Crick is the narrator of the novel. Born in 1927, he is the son of Henry and Helen Crick and the younger brother of Dick Crick. Unlike Dick, Tom is highly intelligent, and wins a scholarship to Gildsey Grammar School, where he first becomes interested in history. As an adolescent he later describes himself as timid and shy but still manages to get his girlfriend Mary pregnant in 1943, at the age of fifteen. In that same year, he discovers that the drowned Freddie Parr was murdered by Dick. For a while he is scared of his own brother. In 1945 Tom serves with the British Army on the Rhine, after the war has ended. He returns home in 1947, the year his father dies, to marry Mary. They move to London, and he teaches history in a school. The couple lives an uneventful, conventional life, although Mary, because of a botched abortion in 1943, cannot have children. But around 1979, Tom's life changes. Mary becomes mentally unstable and snatches a baby from a supermarket, and Tom's school terminates his employment because history is being phased out of the curriculum. Tom has not done his standing any good by abandoning the regular history syllabus and telling his class stories of the fens instead. Tom continually searches for the meaning of history, seeking to understand how the past impinges on the present. His present unhappy circumstances make this a necessary quest for him. He has a curious, questioning nature, always asking why things happened as they did.
Harold Metcalfe is Mary's father. He is a farmer, reserved and hardheaded. His wife dies less than two years after he marries her. Harold is devastated by Mary's teenage abortion and keeps her in seclusion for three years, only reluctantly giving her permission to marry Tom in 1947.
Freddie Parr is the son of Jack Parr and a friend of Tom Crick when they are teenagers. He is known as a gossip and is often drunk on whisky stolen from his father. He is also lecherous and has designs on Mary. Freddie dies at the age of sixteen when he is knocked on the head and pushed into the river by Dick. He cannot swim.
Jack Parr is Freddie Parr's father. He is a signalman and guardian of the Hockwell level-crossing. He is known as a heavy drinker and exploits the wartime black market solely for the purpose of procuring alcohol.
Price is a sixteen-year-old student in Tom Crick's history class. He questions the value of studying history.
Lewis Scott is the headmaster of the school where Tom Crick teaches. He and Tom do not see eye to eye. Lewis, who used to teach physics and chemistry, regards the teaching of history as of little value. He thinks education should be about the future, not the past.
The Nature of History
Tom Crick is obsessed with exploring the meaning and value of history, but the view he presents is not a comforting one. He rejects the naïve notion that we study history in order to learn from our mistakes and improve the present. He prefers instead a cyclical view of history that denies the idea of progress. Each step forward is followed by a step backward; there is no achievement without loss: "It [history] goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards as it goes forwards. It loops. It takes detours." Similarly, every benefit that has ever been granted to human society has been accompanied by a corresponding regression. The invention of the printing press, for example, led not only to the dissemination of knowledge, but also the dissemination of propaganda and strife. All in all, Tom does not know whether the conditions of human life are any better now than they were the year zero.
History, in the view of Tom Crick, is an attempt to fight off the nothingness of existence, the essential meaninglessness of life. The idea of "nothing" continually recurs in the novel. Tom speculates that the feeling that everything in life really amounts to nothing haunted Tom's father in the World War I battlefield at Ypres; it also haunted his grandfather, Earnest Atkinson, which was why Earnest started drinking. The whole of civilization that looks so solid and immutable is in fact only a veil held across the face of nothing, and it easily collapses. But it is no less essential for its insubstantiality. It is essential, as is all of history, because it imposes an intelligible story on bare existence. Whether the story is true or not is less important than the fact that it exists. It is a way of making the emptiness seem full. "As long as there's a story, it's all right," says Tom. It is a way of driving out fear, and this is why all humans have the instincts of storytellers, whether they are professional historians or spinners of fairy tales.
Everything Tom says of the global history that forms the background of the novel (the French Revolution, the two world wars, the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War) is true also of personal life, at least in Tom's view. For example, he regards the day-to-day details of his marriage to Mary as mere "stage-props," behind which lies "the empty space of reality." In Tom's view of life, children will grow up to be just like their parents, and in that sense there can be no such thing as progress.
But Tom does not abandon the study of history or the search for explanations. The reason he tells his class about the history of the fens is because he desperately needs to come to terms with his own present unhappiness. This has been prompted by the imminent loss of his job and his wife's insanity. In spite of his skepticism about traditional approaches to history, he knows he cannot understand his present situation except by delving into the past. In personal and in societal life, the past always fluidly interacts with the present. It is never buried, even when it appears to be; it lies in wait, ready to cast its pall over the present. This point is conveyed by Tom's 1943 discovery of the beer bottle in the river. His brother Dick threw the bottle away, but it did not vanish. It resurfaced, ready to tell its tale to anyone who would ask the relevant questions. The river in this example symbolizes the stream of the past and perhaps also the personal unconscious mind.
Asking questions is essential for the study of history, and it also happens to be, in Tom's view, one of the most fundamental human traits, related to innate curiosity. However, the question "Why?" that reverberates throughout the novel can never be finally answered. In the family saga of the Cricks and the Atkinsons there are plenty of alternative explanations bandied around regarding the interpretation of key events, just as there are always conflicting versions of history; no one can know with certainty the absolute, definitive truth of an event that lies in the past. Tom confesses that his investigation into the history of the fens yielded only "more mysteries, more fantasticalities, more wonders and grounds for astonishment than I started with." He concludes, "history is a yarn."
Be that as it may, history cannot be escaped. In the novel, the most dramatic moment that shows the past intersecting with the present comes almost immediately after the grim account of the abortion Mary had as a teenager. After a brief digression comes the sentence, "We take the baby to the car." For a brief moment the reader, having just read of the disposal of an aborted fetus, is unsure what is happening. Then it becomes clear that the narrative has returned to the present, to the baby who fifty-two-year-old Mary has just snatched from a supermarket, not the baby who was aborted nearly forty years earlier. This incident in itself seems to explain the necessity of history, whether personal or societal, since there is no other way of understanding Mary's bizarre action except in terms of what happened to her as a teenager, since the botched abortion prevented her from ever having children of her own.
A metaphor is an implied comparison in which one item symbolizes a dissimilar item. For example, the process of land reclamation in the fens is a metaphor of the process of human history. Humans continually try to create substance and order (land) on the amorphous, slippery nature of life (the marshes and the water). Humans are always building dykes (histories, stories of all kinds) to keep the emptiness and nothingness of existence (the essential nature of water) at bay. And telling coherent stories that satisfactorily explain the past is as difficult as the engineering projects that attempted to drain and stabilize the fens. Water is always striking back. It can never be fully defeated, just as behind the mask of history lies the terrifying prospect of naked existence, without story or explanation and so without comfort. The vast expanse and flat, featureless nature of the fens suggests such emptiness, which is why, according to Tom Crick, the people who dwell there are excellent storytellers. They need their stories to beat back the emptiness.
Topics for Further Study
- What aspects of human life have improved over the last one hundred years? What has stayed the same, and what if anything has got worse? Do you think that the sum total of human happiness today is more or less than it was in the past? Support your answers with details from your research.
- What, in your opinion, is the purpose of studying history? What value is there in learning about the history of one's nation or culture?
- Watch the 1992 movie version of Waterland and note whether it stays true to the story line of the novel. Does the novel easily lend itself to adaptation as a film? In the movie version, the location for the present-day sections is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with flashbacks to the fens in England. What, if anything, is lost in such a switch?
- In what sense can a myth be as true as a historical narrative that sticks to known facts? Do myths teach us as much as history does? In what sense?
The eels that are so plentiful in the fens act as another metaphor. In the chapter "About the Eel," the narrator describes not only the mysterious sex life of the eel (for centuries no one knew how eels reproduced) but also the cyclical nature of the eels' lives. Apparently, the adult European eel, which spends years of its life in the fresh waters and estuaries of Europe and North Africa, eventually journeys back to the sea for the sole purpose of spawning before it dies. In other words, it returns to where it came from; it journeys in reverse. Crick calls this "Natural History … Which doesn't go anywhere. Which cleaves to itself. Which perpetually travels back to where it came from." The implication in the novel is that human history may also, despite the frequent belief to the contrary, travel in a cyclical pattern. The very word "revolution," for example, implies the completion of a cycle, and the desire for progress is often accompanied by a desire for a return to a golden age that existed in a mythical past.
The English Fens
For centuries the fens of eastern England were vast desolate marsh areas. Patches of firm ground were interspersed with rivers, pools, and reed-beds. The rivers could be navigated only by shallow-bottomed boats. The fens harbored abundant bird life and sea life, especially eels (as Waterland makes clear).
The first attempts to drain the fens were made by the ancient Romans. In the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth I also wished to undertake the project to improve the region's agricultural yields. But it was not until the seventeenth century that drainage of the fens took place on a large scale. This was a massive engineering project that caused enormous ecological changes in the region and took several decades to accomplish. The impetus came from the Duke of Bedford and wealthy investors in London who wished to increase the value of the land they owned, which they could then sell at a profit.
Compare & Contrast
- 1943: Abortion is illegal in Britain, and illegal abortions are performed by untrained people. Many women are seriously injured and about thirty die each year.
1983: Abortion is legal if performed in the first twenty-eight weeks of pregnancy. This law was established by the 1967 Abortion Act.
Today: Abortion in Britain is legal if performed in the first twenty-four weeks of pregnancy. The written permission of two doctors is required. In 2001 in England and Wales, 175,952 abortions are performed, with an additional 12,000 in Scotland.
- 1943: The Allies begin to turn the tide against Nazi Germany in World War II.
1983: The Cold War between two nucleararmed superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, means that the world lives under the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Today: One of the main global security problems is the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the threat of biological and chemical weapons. The fear that such nations as North Korea, Iraq, and Iran are close to producing or have produced nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction is perceived as a threat to Western nations such as the United States and Britain.
- 1943: The teaching of history focuses mostly on political history.
1983: The teaching of history has broadened and now includes the history of people and topics formerly ignored, such as women and minorities. There is a fierce debate in the history profession about methods of studying history.
Today: Oral history has become an important part of the historian's arsenal. Oral history is the use of eyewitness accounts and oral narratives in the writing and presentation of history.
The most important figure involved in the drainage project was Dutch hydraulic engineer Cornelius Vermuyden (1595–1683). Vermuyden became involved in drainage projects in England in the 1620s and had the confidence of King Charles I. During the 1640s, Vermuyden was the chief engineer when 40,000 acres of fen were drained. Vermuyden's methods included ditches (known as cuts), dykes, sluices, and windmills. The effect was to reclaim the rich peat soil that lay beneath the water. As the novel makes clear, however, not all the drainage projects were successful in the longterm. The fens were often resistant to the changes imposed on them. However, the initial intention of the drainers, to produce good summer grazing land, was fulfilled.
This success was in spite of the fact that the project was vigorously opposed by the local people, who had lived in the area for centuries and who feared the loss of their traditional hunting and fishing rights. They also resented the Dutch workers Vermuyden employed. (The narrator in Waterland mentions how the local fen dwellers cut the throats of the Dutch workers and threw their bodies into the very water they had been employed to drain.) Local opposition forced the authorities to agree to compensation for the native fen dwellers and also to employ only English workers.
The fens are flat and low-lying, and much of the area lies below sea level. The landscape is monotonous, "bare and empty," as Swift notes in Waterland, and observers often remark on the sense of isolation it produces. The nineteenth-century English poet John Clare wrote a descriptive poem called "The Fens" which contains the following lines:
Oer treeless fens of many miles
Spring comes and goes and comes again
And all is nakedness and fen.
The poem concludes with a picture of the fens in winter:
But all is level cold and dull
And osier swamps with water full
The modern fens fall into four main categories: the settled fens, also known as the townlands, which include the long-established cities of Kings Lynn and Boston; the Peaty Fens or Black Fens, which were drained from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries; the fens of southeastern Lincolnshire, which were originally one of Britain's richest wildlife habitats and were the last to be drained (little of the wildlife remains there in the twenty-first century); and the band of Wash Marshes, which were reclaimed from the Wash by the building of sea wall defenses.
Waterland was shortlisted for Britain's most prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize. It received
generous praise from critics. Peter S. Prescott, in Newsweek, is one of a number of reviewers who compare Swift to William Faulkner. Prescott praises the intricate design of the narrative, pointing out that it moves "as water in the fens does: a current flowing one way encounters eddies circling in others."
Alan Hollinghurst in the Times Literary Supplement notes the way Swift combines various literary traditions: the "family saga, the business saga, the novel of provincial life," including also "social history and adolescent love." Hollinghurst praises the novel's "vigorous and complex metaphorical life," by which he meant Swift's use of the constant process of land reclamation in the fens as a parallel to the attempts of humans to make sense of their past. Hollinghurst finds the novel's vision "appallingly bleak," noting it emphasizes the "circularity and repetitiousness of history" and creates through the central character of Tom Crick a "portrait of a man who is deeply disturbed, and who is vainly attempting to build a structure … which will protect him from his childlessness, from his failure to create the future."
Few critics have anything but praise for the novel, although Michael Gorra in the Nation, while acknowledging the novel is "intellectually bold, provocative and challenging" finds fault with Swift's style. According to Gorra, the novel's "passion is all for history itself and not for the people who are affected by it."
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses the nature and purpose of history as presented in the novel.
Underlying the sometimes lurid story of murder, suicide, abortion, insanity, incest, and mental retardation are some central questions about the nature of history. What is history? What is the point of studying it? Can the past really be known? How does the past affect the present? As a schoolteacher, Tom Crick, the narrator, has a professional interest in history, and it is no coincidence that the present-day sections of the novel are set in 1979, during a time of great upheaval in the methods applied to the scholarly study of history. Tom Crick also faces an academic climate in which the study of history is considered expendable (his school is phasing out its history department). And he must deal with a troublesome though highly intelligent student named Price, who thinks history is a waste of time, a view shared by Lewis Scott, the school headmaster, who refers to history as "a rag bag of pointless information."
For a man of Crick's generation, the method of studying history that he would have learned in the 1940s and 1950s was very different from what it would later become and what it is today. Fifty years ago, history usually meant political history, the story of governments and their relations, of wars, international treaties, parliamentary legislation, and the like. The lives of ordinary people, including women, were not considered worthy of study, since ordinary people appeared not to exercise any power over historical events. In addition to the narrowness of historical study, the emphasis of historians was on what was called an empirical/analytic method. The facts were assembled, the historian studied them objectively and dispassionately, and wrote a narrative that purported to explain those facts. The explanation became history, and when practiced by the leading scholars in the field, it was generally considered a true account of what had happened in the past.
The voice of the traditional historian can be heard in Crick's mocking admonition, evoking "good, dry, textbook history":
History, being an accredited sub-science, only wants to know the facts. History, if it is to keep on constructing its road into the future, must do so on solid ground. At all costs let us avoid mystery-making and speculation, secrets and idle gossip.
Of course, Crick himself does not believe any of this. Even when he was a child and first began to be bewitched by history, it was the myths and stories, the "fabulous aura" of history that attracted him, not the parade of facts. As a mature history teacher, he rejects the idea that history is studied in order to learn from the mistakes of the past, since if that were the case, history would be the record of inexorable progress, which it clearly is not. Nor does history reveal the meaning of the events it records and purports to explain. History in Crick's view is nothing more than a "lucky dip of meanings," even though this does not stop humans from perpetually searching for meaning.
Crick has clearly been influenced by the debate over the nature of history that swept through the intellectual community of historians during the 1960s and 1970s. Much of this was due to the influence of the movement known as postmodernism, which cast doubt on the reliability of the rational empirical method to interpret the meaning of the past. Historians began to ask questions such as, Is the meaning that the historian finds in history something that genuinely is inherent in the past, or is it something that the historian imposes on it? How does language shape meaning? Is there only one correct meaning in history, or might there be several competing interpretations and meanings, each with its own validity?
As history expanded with the study of women, minorities, gays, and cultures all taking their place alongside—and also challenging—old-style political history, the conclusion postmodernism pointed to was that there is really no such thing as objectivity. Just as a novelist or poet gives expression, knowingly or not, to a certain ideology often dictated by class or gender, so too does the historian. The interpretation of the facts before the historian is inevitably colored by his or her own subjectivity, biases, and cultural and intellectual assumptions. The historian is, in a sense, a partner with the past in an act of co-creation, rather than an objective chronicler of something entirely separate from him- or herself. This is why historians today often speak of "doing" history rather than "studying" it, of "constructing" a historical narrative rather than merely writing it. The newer terms help to convey the active role of the historian in shaping his or her material. Some radical postmodernists even express the view that it is impossible to "do" history at all, since what is known as history is in fact no more objectively true than a fairy tale. This is not unlike the view once expressed by the French philosopher and satirist Voltaire, who remarked in a letter that "History is after all nothing but a pack of tricks which we play upon the dead" (quoted in Durant's The Story of Philosophy).
In Waterland, Crick is clearly in sympathy with the postmodernist approach to history. Not only is history a "lucky dip" as far as meaning is concerned, it is also inherently and unavoidably incomplete, "the attempt to give an account, with incomplete knowledge, of actions themselves undertaken with incomplete knowledge." Crick's scrapping of the traditional curriculum and his decision to tell his students stories of the fens instead is also a radical attempt to revise what history is or should be. When challenged by Lewis Scott as to the value of this approach, Crick says, "Perhaps history is just story-telling," the implication being that the listener or reader can take whatever meaning he or she needs and wants from it. Certainly as Crick tells the family saga of the Atkinsons, he does not restrict himself merely to the facts that can be known. He also gives expression to local superstition and legend, of which the fens has much; they too are a part of the fabric of history, a history that Crick reconstructs more like a novelist than a historian. History, it seems, is more art than science, and like a great symphony or a great novel, it can afford many interpretations, none of which has a definitive claim on truth. The virtue is not so much in uncovering the facts, which are going to be colored anyway by how the historian thinks and writes about them, but in continuing to ask the questions. Questioning, always seeking if not always finding explanations, is humanity's saving grace, according to Crick. Curiosity is the quality that connects human beings to the web of life. When curiosity dies, then life (and history) dies with it.
There is one other way that history dies, and that is when people manage to live in what Crick calls the Here and Now, which he contrasts with living with an awareness of history. Normally, people live their lives enmeshed in and weighed down by the burden of history, both personal and societal, which increases over time. As Crick tells his class:
And because history accumulates, because it gets always heavier and the frustration greater, so the attempts to throw it off … become more violent and drastic…. As history becomes inevitably more massive, more pressing and hard to support, man … finds himself involved in bigger and bigger catastrophes.
It is this sense of the crushing weight of history that produces the tone of melancholy that pervades Waterland. It seems there is an inevitable paradox in human life, at least according to Crick. Humanity creates history, its collection of stories and explanations, in order to escape the grim, featureless face of naked existence, and yet that very construct that humans build serves only to burden them further, for the present cannot escape the weight of the past.
Unless, that is, humans can live in the Here and Now. This term carries several meanings in the novel. At one level, it simply refers to the urgent issues of the present day—whatever wars or other disturbances happen to be currently raging. The view advocated by Price, Crick's rebellious student, is that it is more important to tackle the Here and Now than to study the tortured upheavals of previous generations.
But Crick also means by the term the Here and Now, the times when an individual lives fully in the present moment, fully alive to the sensual reality of life and focused only on what the moment needs in terms of action and response. Thus in 1943, when he and Mary make love for the first time, they are in the Here and Now. The Here and Now is not necessarily a pleasurable experience, however, as when Tom, in the Here and Now, feels terror when he sees blood emerging from the drowned Freddie Parr's temple. The experience of the Here and Now, according to Crick, is a comparatively rare experience; only animals live fully and constantly in it; we humans are most often somewhere else, hoping for a future or pondering the past.
It is the concept of the Here and Now that underlies the curious passage in which Earnest Atkinson insists that his offspring by his daughter Helen will be the "saviour of the world." When the offspring turns out to be mentally retarded (Dick), the title his father bestowed on him appears absurd and ironic. And yet there is no irony in the following passage, which occurs as Dick goes through his last moments on board the dredger. The year is 1943, and the world is immersed in World War II:
He's here. He knows his place. He knows his station. He keeps the ladder turning, the buckets scooping. The noise of the churning machinery drowns the fleeting aerial clamour of global strife. He hears no bombers, sees no bombers. And the smell of silt is the smell of sanctuary, is the smell of amnesia. He's here, he's now. Not there or then. No past, no future. He's the mate of the Rosa II.
And he's the saviour of the world …
At this point, Dick is so focused on what he is doing in the Here and Now that history, either his own or the world's, does not touch him. In a curious way he is free, certainly freer than Tom Crick is ever to be. And there is a certitude and purposefulness about his actions that give him a kind of tragic dignity that he did not possess before. This can be seen in the description of his suicidal, self-sacrificial dive into the river, which takes place, significantly, in the glow of the setting sun behind him. As he dives "in a long, reaching, powerful arc," Tom observes his body "form a single, taut and seemingly limbless continuum, so that an expert on diving might have judged that here indeed was a natural, here indeed was a fish of a man."
In that moment Dick attains a kind of apotheosis that eludes every other character in the novel. Perhaps for a moment he is the savior of the world, at least the small world of the Cricks, since with his death the tragic folly of Earnest Atkinson is finally laid to rest.
Other aspects of the past, of course, are not so easily dispensed with. If the world can be, metaphorically speaking, saved only in the occasional moments when it is forgotten in the Here and Now, the Here and Now cannot keep history at bay for long, for when it passes from here and now to there and then, history claims it as its prize. Then the eternal question "Why?" rises up once more to beguile and haunt humans and to draw them back into the myths and stories of the past, where truth may or may not lie.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Waterland, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2003.
In the following essay, Cameros discusses Swift's work and the authorial intent that lies behind his novels.
"Can it be a kindness not to tell what you see? And a blessing to be blind? And the best aid to human happiness that has ever been invented is a blanket of soft, white lies?" asks one of the characters in Out of This World. These questions sound the central theme of Graham Swift's six novels: does human happiness depend on understanding or on feeling? While the question is asked as if for the first time in each novel, Swift's answer remains, with one exception, the same: "soft, white lies" are necessary to human happiness. In keeping with his belief that feelings matter more than understanding, Swift also adheres to a model of authorship that prioritizes self-expression above communication with readers.
The Sweet Shop Owner spans a single hot summer's day, the last day of the life of widowed shopkeeper Willy Chapman. Throughout much of the day Willy carries on an internal dialogue with his estranged daughter. He remembers his marriage to an unloving wife, Irene, who attempted to compensate by bearing him the child: "You were her gift." His scholarly daughter has forsaken her father, and, according to Mrs. Cooper, won't return. Refusing to accept this, Willy quietly kills himself in the hope of finally reuniting with his daughter. "Don't you see, you're no freer than before, no freer than I am? And the only thing that can dissolve history now is if, by a miracle, you come."
A single suspicion brings about the climax of Shuttlecock. Immobilized by the heroic figure of his war spy father, Prentis, a Dead Crimes Investigator, bullies his wife and two sons. The suspicion that his father may have been a traitor has multiple effects. It frees Prentis: "Something had collapsed around me; so I couldn't help, in the middle of the ruins, this strange feeling of release. I had escaped; I was free." The threat of the publicity of this suspicion also may have driven his father mad. The suspicion illustrates to Prentis the power—and the danger—of knowledge: "I stared again at the file. I thought of the number of times I'd opened the cover of Shuttlecock hoping Dad would come out; hoping to hear his voice. Was I afraid that the allegations might be true—or that they might be false? And supposing, in some extraordinary way, that everything Quinn told me was concocted, was an elaborate hoax—if I never looked in the file, I would never know. I read the code letters over and over again. C9/E…. And then suddenly I knew Iwanted to be uncertain, I wanted to be in the dark." Rather than confirmation or denial of his father's betrayal, it is the suspicion—the "soft, white lies"—that ultimately proves more valuable because it preserves the possibility of a heroic man.
Like Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, Waterland is a bildungsroman about a young boy from the Fens of East Anglia. Unlike other Swiftian characters, Tom Crick, the history teacher protagonist, is drawn to face the truth of his family's tortured history: "I'm the one who had to ask questions, who had to dig up the truth (my recipe for emergencies: explain your way out)." But the price Tom pays for his knowledge is high. His wife abducts a child. His half-brother commits suicide.
The split between understanding and feelings structures Out of This World, which is narrated through the alternating monologues of photographer, Harry Beech, and his estranged daughter, Sophie. The latter has forbidden cameras (a metaphor for realist understanding) in her house. We learn that Sophie glimpsed Harry photographing the wreck of the car bombing of his own father: "I saw him first, then he saw me. He was like a man caught sleep-walking, not knowing how he could be doing what he was doing, as if it were all part of some deep, ingrained reflex. But just for a moment I saw this look on his face of deadly concentration. He hadn't seen me first because he'd been looking elsewhere, and his eyes had been jammed up against a camera." Appalled by her father's detachment, she has refused to speak to him for 10 years. At first Harry resists Sophie's point. Ultimately, Harry acknowledges that a lie reunited him with his estranged father. His father's lie, which shielded Harry from his wife's infidelity, demonstrated his father's love. Harry reciprocated by reaching out to his father: "We strolled to the end of the terrace. As we turned, I wanted to do that simple but rare thing and take his arm…. He said,'I've never told you, have I?'"
The split between understanding and feelings also structures Ever After, which is narrated through the alternating monologues of Victorian Darwinist Matthew Pearce and widowed English professor Billy Unwin. Whereas the Victorian Pearce sacrificed his wife and family to remain faithful to his Darwinist beliefs, Unwin would sacrifice the few beliefs he holds to bring back his deceased wife. "I would believe or not believe anything, swallow any old make-belief, in order to have Ruth back. Whereas Matthew—Whereas this Pearce guy—" After a seduction plot momentarily tempts Unwin to forget the memory of his wife, life no longer appears to be worth living to the professor, who attempts suicide. His revival leads him to the discovery that it is the "soft, white lie" of the memories of his wife that gives him a reason for living.
Like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, the polyphonic Last Orders is narrated through the friends and family of a recently deceased man on the burial journey. Londoners Ray Johnson, Lenny Tate, Vic Tucker, Vince Dodds, and Amy Dodds are bound to the recently deceased Jack Dodds through decades of love, friendship, and secrets. Vince is Jack's adopted son, who ran away as a teenager. Ray fought with Jack in World War II, and has been in love with Jack's wife, Amy, for as many years. Amy remembers the foundering of her marriage as Jack refused to acknowledge their mentally retarded daughter: "He won't mention June so I won't mention Ray. Fair dos. What you don't know can't hurt." Here the lies sometimes serve not only to protect, but also to create a better community. "So when Vince Pritchett, but forget the Pritchett, dropped into my lap, into our lap," says Amy, "I ought to have known it wouldn't help a bit, it wouldn't win him back. You can't make a real thing out of pretending hard." Regardless of her denial, it is through "pretending hard" that Amy has created a family: After years of resentment, Vince has reunited with his adopted parents.
The importance of "soft, white lies" is apparent in Swift's attitude towards authorship. Some authors write to communicate with their readers a
necessary piece of social criticism, a rationale which has its roots in the Realist tradition of social responsibility. Other authors write to express themselves, a rationale which has its roots in the Romantic tradition of self-expression. A quote from Swift expresses the Romantic tenet that deep feeling is the essential ingredient of art: "I am absolutely not a formalist, because what does matter to me are things as felt, and feeling seems at least to stand in opposition to form: form is to do with control and discipline, and feeling is to do with liberation…."
While expressing himself may be Swift's intention as an author, it's suspect that this self-expression is "liberation." After all, what kind of "liberation" can obsessively rewriting the same plot be called? Immobilized by the excessive expectations of her parents, Irene in The Sweet Shop Owner could neither fully reject, nor fully participate in her family life. Immobilized by the heroic figure of his father, Prentis in Shuttlecock is freed by the revelation that his father may have been a traitor to the English. Immobilized by the expectations of her father to become like her sanctified mother, Mary in Waterland goes mad. Sense a pattern here? Regardless of which book by Swift one chooses, one meets the same plot: an adult frozen in childhood must free him- or herself from the overpowering example of an idealized parent. The repetition of a single plot suggests that Swift has supported a rationale of writing as self-expression from necessity rather than from choice. Even if Swift had wanted to write for his audience, one wonders whether he could do so. As Swift has said, "I write a lot by sheer instinct, groping around in the dark."
Expressing himself may have been Swift's foremost aim, but communicating with his readers is a necessary aim of any author. Swift fails—as several reviewers' comments indicate—to communicate with his readers. Too many perspectives, none of which are authorized by the obfuscating narrator has been the frequent charge of reviewers. "Mr. Swift is so committed to seeing around perspectives, undermining his own assertions, squeezing the narrator between the pincers of the past and present, being ironic at the expense of what somebody didn't know but somebody now does, that the effect he creates is rather like a three-ring circus," a New York Times Book Review critic said of Waterland. "One yearns for a whiff of directness…."Stephen Wall of the London Review of Books also protested that the multiple perspectives in Ever After were not resolved: "Despite its manifestly humane intentions, the different areas of narrative interest in Ever After disperse, rather than concentrate attention. Although its varying strands are conscientiously knitted together … they don't seem significantly to cohere." In failing to organize the multiple viewpoints, Swift violates the assumption that the author will provide a "hierarchical organization of details." Instead, the reader is left alone to make meanings; a job she could have done without the reading of any of Swift's novels.
Why this refusal to guide his readers? An answer lies in Swift's admiration of "vulnerability." Swift's characters are often proud to say, "I don't know." In Shuttlecock, Prentis says: "'I don't know' … It seemed to me that this was an answer I would give, boldly, over and over again for the rest of my life." According to Swift, when an author shows the reader his vulnerability, he gains the reader's trust: "An author ought to have authority… It makes sure the reader trusts the writer … Often that stems from the realization that the writer is prepared to show that vulnerability." When Swift has shown vulnerability, however, his reviewers have not trusted him. Just the opposite. Swift has said, "I am desperate to avoid a sense of power derived from form." His fear of authority is indeed evident in his novels.
Source: Cynthia Cameros, "Swift, Graham," in Contemporary Novelists, 7th ed., edited by Neil Schlager and Josh Lauer, St. James Press, 2001, pp. 959–61.
George P. Landow
In the following essay, Landow identifies Waterland as a "self-reflexive text," focusing on the novel's treatment of the nature of storytelling, history, and the novel's relation to works by Dickens and Faulkner.
Children [are those] to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell restless thoughts; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales, of listening ears on which to unload, bequeath those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives.
Graham Swift's Waterland (1983), a novel cast in the form of a fictional autobiography, has much to tell us about the fate, even the possibility, of autobiography, in the late twentieth century. Although Waterland does not confuse personal with public history, it intertwines them, making each part of the other, for as Tom Crick, the secondary school teacher of history who is Swift's protagonist, seeks an explanation of how his life has turned out, he tells his story, but as he does so, he finds that he must also tell the stories of the fens and of his ancestors who lived there. In the course of telling his story, their story, he questions why we tell stories to ourselves and our children, how the stories we tell relate to those found in literature and history, and what these stories tell us about selves, ourselves.
Waterland meditates on human fate, responsibility, and historical narrative by pursuing a mystery; so the book is in part a detective story. It is also the story of two families, of an entire region in England, of England from the industrial revolution to the present, of technology and its effects, and it is, finally, a meditation on stories and story-telling—a fictional inquiry into fiction, a book that winds back upon itself and asks why we tell stories.
As a novel that questions the interrelated notions of self and story in Dickens's Great Expectations and Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! at the same time that it draws upon them, Waterland appears a late-twentieth-century postmodernist rewriting of each. In attempting to relate his own story, Tom Crick begins by questioning the purpose, truthfulness, and limitations of stories while at the same time making clear that he believes history to be a form of story-telling. These questionings of narrative within its narrative make Waterland a self-reflexive text.
The novel has as protagonist a history teacher who is about to be fired because history (his stories) are no longer considered of sufficient cultural value. He ruminates upon history in terms of the events of his own life, and he quickly runs up against the young, those without interest in the past, those who quite properly want to know why? why pay attention to what's over and done with? "You ask," the narrator tells his students, "as all history classes ask, as all history classes should ask, What is the point of history." They want to know, as we do, two things: What is the point of history as a subject; that is, why study the past? and what is the point of history itself, that is, does history, man's existence in public time, have any meaning, any pattern, any purpose?
This resistance to both notions of history by the young, who wish to live in the here and now, is embodied in Price, Tom Crick's student, who voices all the usual objections to paying attention to what has gone by. "Your thesis," Tom responds, "is that history, as such, is a red-herring; the past is irrelevant. The present alone is vital." Some of Tom's own statements about history and historiography suggest that Price might have a point. "When introduced to history as an object of Study… it was still the fabulous aura of history that lured me, and I believed, perhaps like you, that history was a myth." Tom Crick confesses that he retained such pleasing, soothing notions of history
Until a series of encounters with the Here and Now gave a sudden urgency to my studies. Until the Here and Now, gripping me by the arm, slapping my face and telling me to take a good look at the mess I was in, informed me that history was no invention but indeed existed—and I had become a part of it.
Concerned with saving the world from nuclear war, concerned that there may not be a future, Price thinks history is bunk: "I want a future … And you—you can stuff your past." As it turns out, Price's use of the second-person pronoun is correct, for this past, this history, that he rejects is precisely his—Tom's—past.
Price also makes a second appealing attack on history and historiography, namely, that it is a means of avoidance: "You know what your trouble is, sir? You're hooked on explanation. Explain, explain. Everything's got to have an explanation … Explaining's a way of avoiding facts while you pretend to get near to them." To be against history is thus for Price anti-explanation, because according to him, both history and explanation evade life in the present—an attitude based on the assumption that the present is pleasant, nurturing, and not deadly.
Near the close of the novel Swift's protagonist answers the charge that people resort to history only as a means of evasion with the counter claim that curiosity and the explanations to which it leads are necessary and inevitable. They do not subvert life, claims Crick, nor do they bear responsibility for keeping us from engaging in important events like revolutions.
Supposing it's the other way round. Supposing it's revolutions which divert and impede the course of our inborn curiosity. Supposing it's curiosity—which inspires our sexual explorations and feeds our desires to hear and tell stories—which is our natural and fundamental state of mind. Supposing it's our insatiable and feverish desire to know about things, to know about each other, always to be sniff-sniffing things out, which is the true and rightful subverter and defeats even our impulse for historical progression.
Trying to understand why—trying to understand, that is, what has happened to him and his life—Crick retells the story of his life. By relating the events of his life in some sort of an order he makes it into a story. He constructs history—his story. He constructs himself, and in the course of doing so he recognizes that "Perhaps history is just story-telling": "History itself, the Grand Narrative, the filler of vacuums, the dispeller of fears of the dark." And he has examples of this in the historical legends told to him by his mother.
Before the murder of Freddie Parr, he and Mary lived outside of time and history, outside that stream of events he is trying to teach to his class. But with the discovery of Freddie's body floating in the canal lock, and with the discovery of a beer bottle, Tom and Mary fall into time and history. Previously, "Mary was fifteen, and so was I … in prehistorical, pubescent times, when we drifted instinctively." As Tom explains, "it is precisely these surprise attacks of the Here and Now which, far from launching us into the present tense, which they do, it is true, for a brief and giddy interval, announce that time has taken us prisoner."
This view accords with that of those philosophical anthropologists—Mircea Eliade and others—who emphasize that until human beings leave tribal, agricultural existence, they live in an eternal present in which time follows a cyclical pattern of days and seasons. Emphasizing that "from the point of view of a historical peoples or classes 'suffering' is equivalent to 'history,'" Eliade claims that archaic humanity has no interest in history or in the individuation it creates. Interest in the novel, the unique, the irreversible, appeared only comparatively recently. Tom Crick's whole existence in the novel instantiates Eliade's point that the "crucial difference" between tribal humanity and its descendants lie in the value "modern, historical man" gives to historical events—to the "'novelties'" that once represented only failure and infraction. In tribal society, one becomes individual, one becomes an individual, only by botching a ritual or otherwise departing from some universal pattern. In such societies, one differentiates oneself, becoming an individual, only by sin and failure. The individual therefore is the man or woman who got wrong the planting or fertility ritual, the hunting pattern. Which is why the narrator explains: "What is a history teacher? He's someone who teaches mistakes. While others say, Here's how to do it, he says, And here's what goes wrong."
Therefore, writing history, like writing autobiography, only comes after a fall, for autobiography and other forms of history respond to the question "why," and people only ask that question after something has gone wrong. "And what does this question Why imply?" Crick asks his students. "It implies—as it surely implies when you throw it at me rebelliously in the midst of our history lessons—dissatisfaction, disquiet, a sense that all is not well. In a state of perfect contentment there would be no need or room for this irritant little word. History begins only at the point where things go wrong; history is born only with trouble, with perplexity, with regret." But, of course, were it not for trouble, perplexity, and regret we would not have autobiographies, and as the history of Victorian autobiography demonstrates, periods of trouble and perplexity, if not regret, produce self-histories galore, for in such circumstances autobiographers traditionally have offered their experiences, their survival, as exemplary.
Tom Crick's autobiographical project therefore centers on what went wrong. This whole novel, in fact, is an attempt to explain what went wrong—what went wrong with his own life and Mary's, with the lives of his parents, and with the lives of both their families, who represent the peasant and wealthy entrepreneurial classes of Britain from the seventeenth century to the present. Waterland begins, therefore, with the discovery of Freddie Parr's body in midsummer 1943, a discovery that comes all the more shockingly, unexpectedly, because Swift presents it within a fairy-tale landscape, for it was "a fairy-tale land, after all," in part because both his mother and father had a gift for making it such with their hand-me-down tales.
Waterland, in other words, to a large extent embodies the conventional Romantic pattern best known, perhaps, from "Tintern Abbey." Like the idealized Wordsworth who is the speaker of that poem, Tom Crick returns (though only in imagination) to the landscape of thoughtless youth, and like the poet, he concerns himself with the losses of innocence and with the corollary fall into time, self-consciousness, and social existence—into, that is, the world of adulthood, into "trouble … perplexity… regret." Finally, like Wordsworth in "Tintern Abbey," Crick relates his meditations on his own life and its patterns in the presence of a younger audience, and like the poem's speaker, Crick also acts in the manner of a ventriloquist, obviously placing words in the mouths of that younger audience. The obvious difference between the two works, of course, appears in the fact that, unlike "Tintern Abbey," Waterland bravely refuses to find solace in some Romantic revision of Milton's Fortunate Fall.
Tom does, however, come to believe that all such explanatory narratives, function, however provisionally, as means of ordering our lives and thereby protecting us from chaos and disorder. And Swift's array of characters surely need such shelter, for some are victims of progress, technology, and the anti-natural (the Cricks of earlier generations lost their way of life as swamp people when the swamps were drained), and others victims of what the adult narrator considers purely natural (as are Mary, Tom, Dick, and Freddie, who were only following natural sexual urges); and yet others were victims of World War I (like Tom's father and uncle), or victims (like Tom's mother) of natural unnatural love, of the incest that produces Dick, his idiot half-brother. Story-telling, and history, and books like Waterland are these people's prime defences against fear: "It's all a struggle to make things not seem meaningless. It's all a fight against fear," Tom Crick tells his class. "What do you think all my stories are for … I don't care what you call it—explaining, evading the facts, making up meanings, taking a larger view, putting things in perspective, dodging the here and now, education, history, fairy-tales—it helps to eliminate fear."
In fact, Tom Crick argues, story-telling comes with time, with living in time, and story-telling, which distinguishes us from animals, comes with being human.
Children, only animals live entirely in the Here and Now. Only nature knows neither memory nor history. Man man—let me offer you a definition—is the story-telling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories. He has to keep on making them up. As long as there's a story, it's all right.
The problem, as this entire novel goes to show, is that the material of stories often refuses to be shaped by them, just as nature, unmediated nature, refuses to be shaped by the convenient story of progress within which Victorians tried to place it. (And, one must note in passing, this fact might cast into doubt all story-telling, particularly that of this novel, since narrative always involves some kind of progress.) Thus, Graham Swift's emphasis throughout the novel on two matters—the Fens and sexuality—that resist all ideological, narrative control, that refuse to be shaped by stories we tell. Putting together the two opposed forces that drive much of his tale, Tom claims "Children, there's something which revolutionaries and prophets of new worlds and even humble champions of Progress (think of those poor Atkinsons … ) can't abide. Natural history, human nature." As Tom makes us realize, natural history is a paradox and an oxymoron—that is, a jarring placement together of contraries—because it is history of the antihistorical which has no order or is cyclical (nonhistorical) without individuating markers.
This whole novel, in other words, sets out to examine these ages—and their literary as well as religious and philosophical foundations—and finds them wanting. It examines various theories of history, such as that proposed by religion, progress, and hubris, and canvasses a wide range of subjects for history, such as political events from the Roman conquerors of Britain to the Bastille and World War I and II, the history of technology, including draining the Fens, the history of places, the history of families, the history of individual people, especially the narrator and Mary, and the history of a beer bottle.
Waterland, which is cast in the form of a fictional autobiography, probes the role of narrative and in so doing raises questions about the means and methods of autobiography. Like much recent theory and criticism, the novel looks skeptically at two aspects of narrative. First, it expresses suspicion of the way human beings gravitate towards folktales, myths, and other well-shaped narratives that falsify experience and keep us from encountering the world. Swift's narrator himself admits that his "earliest acquaintance with history was thus, in a form issuing from my mother's lips, inseparable from her other bedtime make-believe—how Alfred burnt the cakes, how Canute commanded the waves, now King Charles hid in an oak tree—as if history were a pleasing invention." Recent studies of nineteenth-century autobiography have pointed out the extent to which authors depend upon such conventional narrative patterns to create what Avrom Fleishman has termed a "personal myth" by which to tell their lives. As Linda H. Peterson has pointed out, however, conventional narratives, such as those drawn from scripture, create major problems for many would-be self-historians, particularly women, who find that these narratives distort their stories or do not permit them to tell their stories at all.
Second, Swift's novel takes its skepticism about narrative further, for it not only points, like recent critics, to the falsifications created by particular stories, it is suspicious of all story-telling. Waterland questions all narrative based on sequence, and in this it agrees with other novels of its decade. Like Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger (1987), another novel in the form of the autobiography of an invented character, Swift's novel has a historian, Tom Crick, as his protagonist, and like Lively's character, Swift's relates the events of a single life to the major currents of contemporary history.
Using much the same method for autobiography as for history, Swift's protagonist would agree with Lively's Claudia Hampton, whose deep suspicion of chronology and sequence explicitly derive from her experience of simultaneity. Thinking over the possibility of writing a history of the world, Lively's heroine rejects sequence and linear history as inauthentic and false to her experience:
The question is, shall it or shall it not be linear history? I've always thought a kaleidoscopic view might be an interesting heresy. Shake the tube and see what comes out. Chronology irritates me. There is no chronology inside my head. I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water. The pack of cards I carry around is forever shuffled and reshuffled; there is no sequence, everything happens at once.
Like Proust's Marcel, she finds that a simple sensation brings the past back flush upon the present, making a mockery of separation and sequence. Returning to Cairo in her late sixties, Claudia finds it both changed and unchanged. "The place," she explains, "didn't look the same but it felt the same; sensations clutched and transformed me." Standing near a modern concrete and plate-glass building, she picks a "handful of eucalyptus leaves from a branch, crushed them in my hand, smelt, and tears came to my eyes. Sixty-seven-yearold Claudia … crying not in grief but in wonder that nothing is ever lost, that everything can be retrieved, that a lifetime is not linear but instant." Her lesson for autobiography is that "inside the head, everything happens at once." Like Claudia, Tom Crick takes historical, autobiographical narratives whose essence is sequence and spreads them out or weaves them in a nonsequential way.
Lively and Swift are hardly the first to suggest that narrative sequence falsifies autobiographical truth. Tennyson's In Memoriam, one of the most influential as well as most technically daring poems of the nineteenth century, embodies this postmodernist suspicion of narrative as falsifying. Arthur Henry Hallam's death in 1833 forced Tennyson to question his faith in nature, God, and poetry. In Memoriam reveals that the poet, who found that brief lyrics best embodied the transitory emotions that buffeted him after his loss, rejected conventional elegy and narrative because both falsify the experience of grief and recovery by mechanically driving the reader through too unified—and hence too simplified—a version of these experiences. Creating a poetry of fragments, Tennyson leads the reader of In Memoriam from grief and despair through doubt to hope and faith, but at each step stubborn, contrary emotions intrude, and readers encounter doubt in the midst of faith, pain in the midst of resolution. Instead of the elegaic plot of "Lycidas," "Adonais," and "Thrysis," In Memoriam offers 133 fragments interlaced by dozens of images and motifs and informed by an equal number of minor and major resolutions, the most famous of which is section ninety-five's representation of Tennyson's climactic, if wonderfully ambiguous, mystical experience of contact with Hallam's spirit.
Like Tennyson and most other nineteenth-century autobiographers, Tom Crick tells his story as a means of explaining his conversion to a particular belief and way of life. Unlike the great Victorian autobiographers, real and fictional, he does not relate the significant details about his life from the vantage point of relative tranquility or even complacency. Mill, Ruskin, and Newman, like the Pip of Great Expectations or the heroine of Jane Eyre, all tell the stories of their lives after everything interesting as already happened to them and they have at last reached some safe haven. Similarly, however tortured Tennyson's mind and spirit had been after the death of Hallam, and however little conventional narratives were suited to communicating that experience, by the close of In Memoriam the reader encounters an autobiographical speaker or narrator who stands on safe, secure, unchanging ground. In contrast, Tom Crick, unlike Pip and Jane, writes from within a time of crisis, for Tom, like his age, exists in a condition of catastrophe.
Such writing from within an ongoing crisis may well be the postmodernist contribution to autobiography, for whether or not one chooses to see such a narrative position as a pretentious pose—after all, people have always lived within crisis; the Victorians certainly believed they did—this vantage point inevitably undercuts the traditional autobiographer's project, which entails showing himself and his survived crises as exemplary. Even though Newman, Mill, Ruskin, and Tennyson present themselves and their experiences as essentially unique, they nonetheless emphasize the representativeness and therefore relevance of their lives to their readers. They present themselves as living lessons for the rest of us. The approach to autobiography undertaken by Tom Crick, on the other hand, essentially deconstructs the potentially hopeful aspects of his narrative. By refusing the autobiographer's traditionally secure closing position, in other words, Swift's protagonist casts into doubt the world of the autobiographer, his autobiography, and narrative in general.
Waterland, as we have seen, is a book that winds back upon other books, for it is a descendent, an echo, and a qualification of both Dickens's Great Expectations and Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! Swift's novel begins, for example, with an epigraph from Great Expectations, another work that opens in the fens, and it shares with Dickens's novel many elements other than their opening scenes of death and guilt. Both works, which combine autobiography and atonement, begin with the intrusion of a fearful reality into a young person's consciousness. Both, furthermore, tell of their protagonists' climb up the social ladder from working class to some form of shabby gentility, and both, for these reasons and others, could equally well bear the titles Great Expectations and Expectations Disappointed, for both end with far sadder, somewhat wiser narrators. Both novels relate the dark results of an adolescent passion, and both are haunted by the presence of an abused older woman, as Sarah Atkinson echoes and completes Miss Havisham—as do the breweries and flames that associate with each.
Waterland stands in a similar relation to a twentieth-century canonical work—Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! Brian McHale's contrast of modernist and postmodernist fiction helps us place both Waterland's attitudes toward narrative and its relation to Faulkner's novel. According to McHale, whereas epistemological concerns define the novels that embody modernism, ontological concerns characterize postmodernist fiction.
That is, modernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions such as … "How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? … What is there to be known? Who knows it?; How do they know it, and with what degree of certainty?; How is knowledge transmitted from one knower to another, and with what degree of certainty?" … Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! has been designed to raise just such epistemological questions. Its logic is that of a detective story, the epistemological genre par excellence.
In contrast to modernist fiction, which thus centers on questions of knowledge, postmodernist work is informed by ontological questions such as "What is a world?, … What happens when different kinds of world are placed in confrontation, or when boundaries between worlds are violated?; What is the mode of existence of a text, and what is the mode of existence of the world (or worlds) it projects?"
Although Waterland shares little of postmodernist fiction's aggressive, explicit destabilizing of the world and the self, the novel's intertextual relations with Faulkner differentiates it from both his work and from literary modernism. The clear parallels between Waterland and Absalom, Absalom! that reviewers have observed in fact serve to point up the differences between the two fictional worlds. As one anonymous review pointed out, "The Fens of east England serve novelist Graham Swift as Yoknapatawpha County served William Faulkner: less as a geographical setting than as an active force shaping people's lives … Mysteries ramify but ultimately lead, as in all Gothic novels (including Faulkner's) to a secret at the center of the family house." The two novels share other similarities as well: both take the form of family tragedies in which a male ancestor's hubris leads to terrible disaster, both emphasize violations of the family bond, and both employ as backgrounds cataclysmic wars that change their nations forever. Like Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, and like Dickens's Great Expectations (which the British reviewers don't mention), Waterland meditates on human fate, responsibility, and historical narrative by pursuing a mystery; so the book, like these others, is in part a detective story.
There is, however, one important difference: In true modernist fashion Quentin Compson and his Harvard roommate attempt to solve a mystery by detection and by imaginative re-creation. In true postmodernist fashion Tom Crick, who knew the identity of the murderer years before he began the story-telling that constitutes Waterland, creates a mystery (for us) where none exists.
In addition to Waterland's very different, self-conscious use of mystery, its discussions of narrativity and narratology make it a late-twentieth century retelling of the works of both Faulkner and Dickens as do its postmodernist grotesqueries, playfulness, emphasis upon the erotic, and convoluted style that continually draws attention to itself. Another aspect of postmodernist fiction with particular significance for autobiography appears in Swift's creation of a textualized, intertextualized self.
Presenting Tom Crick as intertwined with so many other tales and selves, Swift presents the self in the manner of many poststructuralist critics and postmodernist novelists as an entity both composed of many texts and dispersed into them. In Waterland Swift textualizes the self, and that self matches the description of text that Roland Barthes advances in S/Z when he points out that entering a text is "entrance into a network with a thousand entrances; to take this entrance is to aim, ultimately… at a perspective (of fragments, of voices from other texts, other codes), whose vanishing point is nonetheless ceaselessly pushed back, mysteriously opened." Tom Crick's textualized self fulfills Barthes's description of the "ideal text" whose "networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; … it has no beginning; it is reversible." Therefore, we can say of the self-construction that Tom Crick offers us to read, that "we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one; the codes it mobilizes extend as far as the eye can reach, they are indeterminable." And that is why to record part of himself, Tom must also record so many other histories, for they all intertwine, echo, and reverbrate; causes, responsibilities, limits become difficult to locate.
In other words, as soon as Crick begins to tell his story he finds necessary expanding that story beyond his biological beginnings. On the one hand, Waterland seems a rigorously historicist presentation of selfhood; on the other, its self-conscious examination of the history that historicizes this self makes it appear that these narratives, like the historicism they support, are patently constructed, purely subjective patterns.
Tom Crick's autobiographical acts, in other words, turn out to be fictional analogues of the land reclamation whose presence dominates the novel. Provisional, essential, limited as they may be, telling stories can never adequately control reality or nature or what's out there or what Tom calls the Here and Now. Like the Fen waters, like the natural force it is, Mary's and Tom's and Dick's and, alas, Freddie's sexuality refuse to be contained by the canal walls and dams of human fairy stories and, instead, lead to Freddie's murder, Dick's suicide, Mary's abortion, and ultimately to her kidnapping an infant in a supermarket and subsequent commitment to a mental institution. That is why the Fen lands and Fen waters, which the Atkinsons and other commercial leaders of the Industrial Revolution try to fit into a human story, play such an important part in this novel. And that is why Tom, who explicitly takes draining the Fens to exemplify progressive theories of history, speaks in his imagination to his wife of their "Sunday walks, with which we trod and measured out the tenuous, reclaimed land of our marriage." Fen lands and waters represent the reality that won't fit into our stories (one can't call it nature or the natural because those terms refer to a reality that already has been placed in a story). "For the chief fact about the Fens," Crick emphasizes when he introduced them as the setting of his life history, "is that they are reclaimed land, land that was once water, and which, even today, is not quite solid."
Waterland examines and finds wanting the Neoclassical view of nature that takes it to be divine order, the Romantic one that takes it to be essentially benign and accommodated to our needs, and the Victorian one that takes it to be, however hostile or neutral, something we can shape to our needs and use for the material of a tale of progress.
Like John McPhee's The Control of Nature, Waterland takes land reclamation and man's battle against water as a heroic, absurd, all too human project that particularly characterizes modern Western civilization's approach to man, nature, and fate. Swift's novel presents both land reclamation and telling one's story as game, even heroic, attempts to shape the chaotic setting of human existence: marriage, nature, water, past time, memory, other literature. Within such a conception of things, telling one's own story takes the form of a similarly heroic, if absurd, reclamation from the destructions of nature and time, for autobiography, like land reclamation, takes the purely natural and after great self-conscious exertions makes it human. Of course, autobiography and history, like draining the fens, can never achieve more than temporary victories against the natural, for the simple reason that people carry out both these projects within time, and eventually, sooner or later, time wins. Time wears channels in the dykes, rusts machinery, makes a particular autobiographical act obsolete or irrelevant. None of these facts, of course, argue against reclaiming land nor do they argue against undertaking to write history and autobiography. But, as Tom Crick recognizes, they do cut such projects down to size. Suspicious of the idea of progress, Crick warns us that the world does not really head toward any goal, and therefore "It's progress if you can stop the world from slipping away. My humble model for progress is the reclamation of land. Which is repeatedly, neverendingly retrieving what is lost. A dogged and vigilant business. A dull yet valuable business. A hard, inglorious business. But you shouldn't go mistaking the reclamation of land for the building of empires." Similarly, autobiographical acts (and fictional versions of them) provide brief, temporary, provisional living spaces for human beings.
Autobiographical acts, then, follow from a basic human need for order and meaning that relates intimately to the need to escape chaos and fear. Telling stories about ourselves, like telling stories about people of earlier times and about the natural world, derives from curiosity, that force that, according to Swift's narrator, weds us to both world and word—a force that drives sexuality, science, and story-telling. Swift raises the problem of the erotics of the text in the context of explaining his wife's curiosity as a fifteen year old back in that halcyon year, 1943. "Mary itched," Tom Crick explains. "And this itch of Mary's was the itch of curiosity. In her fifteen-year-old body curiosity tickled and chafed, making her fidgety and rovingeyed. Curiosity drove her, beyond all restraint, to want to touch, witness, experience whatever was unknown and hidden from her." This intense curiosity, which, according to Crick, defines the human, "is an ingredient of love. It is a vital force. Curiosity, which bogs us down in arduous meditations and can lead to the writing of history books, will also, on occasion, as on that afternoon by the Hockwell Lode, reveal to us that which we seldom glimpse unscathed (for it appears more often—dead bodies, boat-hooks—dressed in terror): the Here and Now." Despite the occasional encounters with terror that curiosity begets—which Swift instantiates by prompting our readers' curiosity to lead us to Dick's incestuous origins and Mary's horrific abortion—in Waterland, curiosity, the force of narrative, appears in Aristotelian fashion as an essentially life-giving drive. "Curiosity begets love. It weds us to the world." To be human we have to be curious, and curiosity produces story-telling.
As impossible as getting right these stories may be, attempting to shape a narrative, one's narrative, one's own novel, is all we have, and we must therefore all be historians. Like autobiography, "History is that impossible thing: the attempt to give an account, with incomplete knowledge, of actions themselves undertaken with incomplete knowledge. So that it teaches us no short-cuts to Salvation, no recipe for a New World, only the dogged and patient art of making do."
By forever attempting to explain we come, not to an Explanation, but to a knowledge of the limits of our power to explain. Yes, yes, the past gets in the way; it trips us up, bogs us down; it complicates, makes difficult. But to ignore this is folly, because, above all, what history teaches us is to avoid illusion and make believe, to lay aside dreams, moonshine, cure-alls, wonder-workings, pie-in-the sky—to be realistic.
However provisional, however reduced, however its narratives are fractured or dispersed, autobiography in the world of Waterland therefore remains essential and inevitable. One basic justification for history, narrative, and autobiography lies in the fact that it is something we as humans must do. As Crick explains to the members of his class, their very questioning of history provides one of its basic justifications:
Your "Why?" gives the answer. Your demand for explanation provides an explanation. Isn't the seeking of reasons itself inevitably an historical process, since it must always work backwards from what came after to what came before? And so long as we have this itch for explanations, must we not always carry round with us this cumbersome but precious bag of clues called history? Another definition, children: Man, the animal which demands an explanation, the animal which asks Why.
Telling stories, particularly one's own story, turns out to be absurd and even comical when viewed by any cosmic scale, but for all that it is a necessary act, something that one does, as Carlyle put it, to keep our heads above water. Carlyle comes readily to mind when considering Tom Crick's willingness to face reality in reduced, bleak circumstances in part because, as Tom tells us, he read Carlyle's French Revolution during one crisis in his life and that work, which provides some of the narrator's facts and emphases, led to his vocation as a history teacher. But one thinks of Carlyle even more because Tom Crick also shares his general tone, his willingness to act in a bleak, barren world if only because that's all there is to do. Crick believes, finally, that
All the stories once were real. And all the events of history, the battles and costume-pieces, once really happened. All the stories were once a feeling in the guts … But when the world is about to end there'll be no more reality, only stories. All there'll be left to us will be stories. Stories will be our only reality. We'll sit down, in our shelter, and tell stories to some imaginary Prince Shahriyar, hoping it will never … [ellipsis in original].
Source: George P. Landow, "History, His Story, and Stories in Graham Swift's Waterland," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Fall 1990, pp. 197–211.
In the following essay excerpt, Wilt examines the concept of fatherhood in Waterland.
Waterland: The Stream Flows Backwards
Graham Swift's Waterland opens like a Gothic novel with a murdered body floating down the river that drains the English fenland. The narrator is a mysteriously spooked London history teacher whose fenland, paternal forbears were rural lock keepers and tale spinners, and whose maternal forbears were Victorian builders and brewers on the rise, in league with progress. Throughout the novel he addresses as his readers a class of adolescents who have suddenly rebelled against "the grand narrative"—history. The young people are spooked, too; they are pierced by nuclear fear, the recognition that the future, which is all that makes the past significant, may be fore-closed. Their challenge to the teacher, Tom Crick, culminates two other disasters. His headmaster, a nononsense technocrat with an airy faith in a future under the nuclear umbrella, has used the excuse of Thatcherite cuts in the budget to eliminate the history department and, by implication, Crick, too. And his wife, Mary, returning in her childless, early fifties to the Roman Catholic religion she had grown up in, began a "love-affair, a liaison … with God," whose issue was the kidnapping by the would-be, couldn'tbe mother of another woman's baby from the supermarket.
The narrative is carried back from these present errors in rushes, oozes, and broken crosscurrents of self-interrupted musing, explaining, and reasoning, to the three deaths which at some profound level stopped the lives, the stories, of Tom Crick and Mary Metcalf, his wife. For, Crick warns his students in the obscure early pages of his rambling, "there is such a thing as human drainage, too, such a thing as human pumping." And the subsequent "pumping" of Mary and Tom, sexually, socially, intellectually, produces energies which drain continually back to the murder of Freddie Parr, found floating in the lock of the Leem River in 1943, the suicide (if it was such) of the murderer, and the pregnancy/abortion that caused and was caused by these.
Of the three mysteries these deaths involve, the first introduced is the most easily explained and the first illuminated. The narrator's brother, the mentally retarded "potato head," Dick Crick, killed Freddie Parr by getting him drunk on a bottle of his grandfather's famous Coronation Ale, then hitting him on the head and pushing him into the river. He did it because he was, in his dim but intense way in "lu—lu—love" with Mary Metcalf and believed that desire alone was sufficient to make him the father of the child the sixteen-year-old Mary was carrying. This naive belief runs in the family: brother Tom believed that desire alone is sufficient (and necessary) to fill "that empty but fillable vessel, reality" of which a woman's womb is "a miniature model." Mary's protest, protecting Tom, the real father, that their friend Freddie Parr was the father, thus outraged not only Dick's manhood but his very reality. For Dick is (more than he or we know at the moment) the child of the maternal Atkinson ancestors, a child of "progress" for whom the things that happen, are done, are made, are reality. Tom, on the other hand, is a child of their Crick ancestors, rural philosophers like Faulkner's Bundrens for whom events, deeds, are mere hallucinations in the everlasting flatland of vacancy, for whom "reality is that nothing happens."
The Atkinson vision thus privileges paternity as the ultimate sign of reality: Atkinsons seek fatherhood, invest it with godhood, be unable to relinquish it. But the Cricks have been "water people" for hundreds of years, living on its animals, sustaining and repairing its ravages, receiving its draining cargoes, and taking to heart its message: "For what is water, children, which seeks to make all things level, which has no taste or colour of its own, but a liquid form of Nothing?" For the Cricks, fatherhood is what it was to primitive peoples, man's hallucination, his favorite fiction, poignant attempt to raise on the flats of reality, in the empty womb of it, "his own personal stage, his own props and scenery—for there are very few of us who can be, for any length of time, merely realistic." A Crick will not believe his own fatherhood nor insist upon it, nor, on the other hand, will he be destroyed by it or by its lack.
This is what Tom Crick claims to understand of his own vision as he looks back beyond and around the conception and abortion of his only child, a primal scene reluctantly uncovered by the skittering narrative as a series of nightmarish snapshots. It started with "curiosity," a "vital force," an "itch," which drove the fifteen-year-old Mary to explore her own and Tom's bodies, an itch "beyond all restraint" whose verbal form, "those spell-binding words which make the empty world seem full," is (as it was in Faulkner's novel) the repeated phrase drained of reality, "I love—I love—love, love." It begins in a "little game of tease and dare" between the aggressive Mary and two boys, Tom Crick and Freddie Parr, as to who will "show" what lies between the legs. Dick Crick, "potato head," several years older and more physically developed, suddenly makes himself a part of the game when Mary agrees to "show" to the boy who swims longest underwater. Experiencing an erection for the first time, Dick dives from the bridge and wins the game, the splash and swim itself serving as his act of intercourse with the river, with Mary, with the fillable vessel of reality. The whimsical and malignant Freddie Parr, seeing Dick, bewildered, fail to claim his trophy, initiates another game: he seizes an eel from the river trap and thrusts it into Mary's "knickers." And Dick, erection, dive, eel, and ejaculation combining in his rudimentary mind, begins a kind of courtship of Mary, bringing her an eel in an act which to him signifies his creativity, his fatherhood, his reality.
So the first fragment of mythic memory—Dick, ready, erect, on the bridge; Freddie in the water reaching for the eel; Mary, "impregnated"—contains all the elements of the second—Freddie, dead in the water from Dick's possessively paternal blow; and Mary, pregnant and, good Catholic girl that she is, "responsible," telling the terrified and shamed actual father, Tom, "I know what I'm going to do." Mary is frozen in guilt, "so inside herself she might never emerge again. And inside Mary who's sitting so inside herself, another little being is sitting there, too."
The abortion Mary plans is both her effort to emerge from herself, from her guilty self-imprisonment, and her effort to expiate one death with another, to punish in herself the sexual curiosity that led to Dick's murder of Freddie. It is a ritual of abasement and sacrifice which Swift's narrative connects with her Roman Catholicism: at the crisis of the abortion, "with a terrible involuntary persistence," comes the phrase from her school prayers, "Holy Mary Mother of God Holy Mary Mother of God Holy Mary Mother of—." Tom is excluded from this decision. It is Mary who first tries abortion by dislodgement: "She jumps. Her skirt billows; brown knees glisten. And she lands in what seems a perversely awkward posture, body still, legs apart, not seeming to cushion her fall but rather to resist it. Then, letting her body sink, she squats on the grass, clasps her arms round her stomach. Then gets up and repeats the whole process. And again. And again." Then, miscarriage begun but not completed, Mary makes the ultimate decision: "Little cramps—not so little cramps—in Mary's guts. And Mary says at last, because it's not working, it's not happening: 'We've got to go to Martha Clay's.'"
Martha Clay, fen dweller, "witch," living image along with her mate, Bill, of Tom's Crick ancestors, the water people, performs the abortion in a nightmarish evocation of the force that empties, drains, the vessel of reality:
A pipe—no, a piece of sedge, a length of hollow reed—is stuck into Mary's hole. The other end is in Martha's mouth. Crouching low, her head between Mary's gory knees, her eyes closed in concentration, Martha is sucking with all her might. Those cheeks—those blood-bag cheeks working like bellows….Martha appears to have just spat something into the pail…. In the pail is what the future is made of. Irush out again to be sick.
A figure from Tom's own kind of nightmare, Martha beckons him back into the circle, the decision from which Mary would have excluded him. After the long process of drainage, in the dawn, Martha orders him to empty the pail of "the future" into the water, the liquid form of nothing: "You gotta do it, bor. Only you. No one else. In the river, mind." So his seed is abandoned to the river, as was his brother Dick's in that first dive after his first erection. Tom Crick's vision of reality is sealed by that abortion, draining, flowing back, stopping. The whole superstructure of his subsequent life, love, and marriage with the abortioninjured and now barren Mary, the ever-filling "grand narrative" of history, the precarious "fatherhood" of the teacher with his students, is a gallant fiction extended over that fundamental fact. It collapses, paradoxically, when the fiction becomes intolerable for Mary and she opts for the madness of an alternate vision: that God has offered to her aged womb a child, like the patriarch of the Old Testament did to Sarah, the patriarch of the New Testament to Elizabeth. Though her husband forces her to return the stolen child, as Martha had forced him to look on the reality which is drainage, she will never, Tom knows as he visits her in the "temporary" criminal asylum, submit to emptiness, will always grieve for the baby she believes she bore at age fifty-two, "the baby they took away from her and won't give back. That baby who, as everyone knows, was sent by God. Who will save us all."
With that phrase the story of Tom Crick's aborted fatherhood is linked with the messianic madness, the driven Atkinson pride, that produced empire, fueled war, sired Dick Crick, the mysterious elder brother whose attempts at lu—lu—love were behind the whole tragedy. Behind the tragedy of Dick's mental retardation is the Atkinson lu—lu—love (poignant, neurotic, incestuous) which begot him—a love timed by the "great narrative of history" to coincide with the Great War in which the Victorian dream of progress, of the March of Mind, of the primacy of energy over matter and of event and deed over reality, circled back upon itself and blew itself up (to quote an American tale of incest and the Great War, Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night) "in a great gust of high explosive love."
The story of the "rise" of the Atkinson side of the narrator's family from Crick-like flatlanders and water people to hillside shepherds, barley farmers, then monopolist brewers, land reclaimers, transportation barons and heads of local government, is a story of "the tenacity of ideas" over/against "the obstinacy of water." It is also a story of powerful but blind patriarchs and haunted and haunting wives, of men who sought to control their women like their water. A blow struck out of psychotic jealousy by Thomas Atkinson in 1820 puts his beautiful wife, Sarah, in a waking coma for the next fifty-four years, and, despite his external activity, internally "history has stopped for him" at that moment, waters leveling once again the "unreclaimable internal land." And while his son and grandson maintain "the driving force of the Atkinson machine" through the century, the traumatized wife mutters or screeches three words, "smoke … fire … burning" at intervals, dives into the Ouse River "like a mermaid," according to local legend, just before her funeral, and, according to the same source, presides over the conflagration which destroys the Atkinson Brewery in the last moments of the long Edwardian summer, 1911.
Tom Crick possesses the journal of his grandfather (Sarah's great grandson), Ernest Atkinson, in whom the engine of progress finally strips its gears. The journals record Ernest's late Victorian doubts, financial and political failures. They follow his descent into a mysticism in which he brews a hallucinogenic, Coronation Ale, suffers and imposes an incestuous love upon his teenage daughter, Helen, and finally, despairing of humanity as his doubts and Sarah's ghostly prophecies have their culmination in World War, conceives the mad but tenacious idea that only beauty, a child of beauty, his own child begotten of his own Helen, can "become a Saviour of the World."
So Helen Atkinson, like Mary Metcalf thirty years later, becomes a ghostly emblem of Sarah Atkinson, "who, local lore has it, offers her companionship to those whose lives have stopped though they must go on living." Loving her father, seeing his diseased desire, Helen tried first to divert it. She helped him found an asylum for shell-shocked veterans: "Wasn't that a better plan? To rescue all these poor, sad cases, all of whom would be in a sense their wards, their children." But the father was adamant: both his Atkinson desire to control, possess, and materialize in his own deed, the idea, the "Saviour of the World," the son of beauty, and his counter-Atkinson despair at the secret failures of progress, drive him to this incest: "When fathers love daughters and daughters love fathers it's like tying up into a knot the thread that runs into the future, it's like a stream wanting to flow backwards."
The daughter's compromise, to marry the convalescing soldier Henry Crick but bear as his first child her father's projected saviour, frees her for a kind of future and triggers a last visit from the ghost of Sarah Atkinson as well as the suicide of the (next-to) last Atkinson: "Because on the same September evening that my father saw a will o' the wisp come twinkling down the Leem, Ernest Atkinson, whose great-grandfather brought the magic barley down from Norfolk, sat down with his back against a tree, put the muzzle of a loaded shotgun into his mouth and pulled the trigger."
The child of incest, "Saviour of the World," is Dick Crick, "potato head." This last Atkinson grows up like a Crick, deft handed, water drawn, apparently vacant brained. But as his brother, the narrator, noted, none of us, however apparently well-fitted for it, can be truly realistic—empty—all the time. In Dick's brain the disappearance (death) of his mother, Helen, becomes linked with his (putative) father's trips to the eel traps in the river, as well as with the substance (Ernest's last cache of Coronation Ale) in the bottles his grandfather (who was really his father) left him in the chest with the journals that he couldn't read, though his brother Tom could. Out of this draught of his heritage, together with the sexual play with Mary and the eel which he witnessed and then took part in, Dick constructs a myth, incestuous in its turn, Oedipal, of a mother who will "rise up, wriggling and jiggling, alive—alive—o, out of the river"; who may consummate his earliest desire if he dives with force into the river, refuses to relinquish that desire. When he goes to the river after Tom's guilty and desperate revelation of his incestuous origin he is, Tom speculates, partly feeling that counter-Atkinson despair at the botch, the emptiness he is. But his dive has the look not of self-immolation but of search, another Atkinson push toward the idea, another gallant, if futile, move into the future which is, in reality, governed by the backward flow of the liquid form of nothing. It is a dive which kills him.
Source: Judith Wilt, "Abortion and the Fears of the Fathers: Five Male Writers," in Abortion, Choice, and Contemporary Fiction: The Armageddon of the Maternal Instinct, The University of Chicago Press, 1990, pp. 101–31.
Del Ivan Janik
In the following essay, Janik explores the interaction between history and the Here and Now in Waterland.
On one level, Waterland is a series of history lessons, the lessons Crick teaches in the last few weeks before he is forced into early retirement after thirty-two years. As such, they are often wildly inappropriate: the nominal topic of his class is the French Revolution, but he alludes to it rarely, only to illustrate a point about the family and personal events that form most of the narrative's substance. On another level, Waterland is a manifestation of man's need to tell stories to keep reality under control, and Crick can be seen in much the same light as Prentis, a man telling his story in an attempt to cope with its implications.
The novel's structure is rambling and recursive, intermixing episodes from three major elements. The first of these elements is a history of the Fenland and of the prominent entrepreneurial Atkinson family and the obscure, plodding Crick family, from the seventeenth century to the marriage of the narrator's parents after World War I. The second consists of events of the 1940s: Mary Metcalf's adolescent sexual experimentation with Tom, Crick and his "potato-head" half brother Dick (who in his demented father/grandfather's eyes is the "Saviour of the World"), Dick's murder of Freddie Parr, Mary's abortion, Tom's revelation of Dick's incestuous conception and Dick's consequent suicide by drowning, Tom's return from the war and his marriage to Mary. The final element involves events of 1980, the narrative present: Mary's religious visions, her kidnapping of a baby (whom she calls a "child of God") from a super-market, her committal to a mental institution, and Tom's loss of his position as a history teacher. The structure is not chaotic, for each of these three major elements, as it comes to the forefront of the narrative, is treated more or less chronologically; but as a whole the novel conforms to Tom's characterization of history: "It goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards as it goes forwards. It loops. It takes detours" because "there are no compasses for journeying in time."
Tom Crick's stories, which would form a continuous narrative if they were rearranged chronologically, are also interrelated by a number of parallels that resemble in kind but far exceed in complexity the recurring images of confinement in Shuttlecock. One set of parallels involves the concept of history itself, with its emphasis on constructions like Rise and Fall or Revolution. Tom Crick occasionally returns, in his classes, to the subject of the French Revolution:
Children, do you remember … how I explained to you the implications of that word "revolution"? A turning round, a completing of a cycle. How I told you that though the popular notion of a revolution is that of categorical change, transformation—a progressive leap into the future—yet almost every revolution contains within it an opposite if less obvious tendency: the idea of a return. A redemption; a restoration. A reaffirmation of what is pure and fundamental against what is decadent and false. A return to a new beginning….
As Robespierre and Marat sought not a futurist utopia but a return to an idealized Rome, Crick's students demand his reinstatement when the headmaster acts out their spoken contempt for the subject of history; generations of Cricks devote themselves to reclamation of the land; the last Atkinson brewer seeks to reproduce the purity of his family's original ale; and Mary Metcalf tries in a Lewisham supermarket to regain the motherhood she had relinquished more than three decades before in a filthy Fenland cottage. The parallels are indirect and inexact, redolent not of literary contrivance but of Tom Crick's notion of history as a series of loops and detours in the journey through time.
The duality of History and the Here and Now that played an important role in Swift's first two novels comes to the forefront in Waterland, and virtually all of the elements of the novel contribute to Swift's exploration of this theme. Tom Crick's meditations lead him to define and redefine history, in ways that are sometimes contradictory but from which a pattern ultimately emerges. History is, in the first instance, an academic subject that is about to be retrenched at Crick's school because the headmaster considers it "a rag-bag of pointless information." While Crick admits that history is distinct from the usually much less eventful everyday reality, that it is "reality-obscuring drama," he nevertheless insists on its value in helping us to shape our responses to that reality: "even if we miss the grand repertoire of history, yet we imitate it in miniature and endorse, in miniature, its longing for presence, for feature, for purpose, for content."
Confronted by a rebellious class that doubts the value of history, that asks in effect "Why the past?," Crick at first resorts to the pat answer that the "Why?" itself is the reason for studying history, that man is "the animal which asks Why." But in the face of present reality—a job that is about to disappear, students who are convinced that history is about to end in nuclear holocaust, and a wife who has lost her sanity—he is less confident about history as explanation; perhaps it is only a matter of telling stories and hoping to find meaning through them. The study of history is also an attempt at reclamation, based on the desire to "discover how you've become what you are. If you're lucky you might find out why. If you're lucky—but it's impossible—you might get back to where you can begin again. Revolution." History is a matter of reflection, the attempt to retrieve or find or impose logic and order on what is neither logical nor orderly; it is the creation of public reality.
But as Tom Crick states early and keeps demonstrating, "history is a thin garment, easily punctured by a knife blade called Now." That other realm, the immediate life-transforming moment, the Here and Now, is history's mirror image: it is a matter of chance or impulse; its logic is the logic of madness or of nonsense; it is and creates the most intense kind of private reality. Price, the self-appointed leader of Crick's bored and rebellious students, introduces the term when he insists, "What matters is the here and now," setting Crick to wondering just what "this much-adduced Here and Now" really is:
How many times, children, do we enter the Here and Now? How many times does the Here and Now pay us visits? It comes so rarely that it is never what we imagine, and it is the Here and Now that turns out to be the fairy tale, not History, whose substance is at least forever determined and unchangeable. For the Here and Now has more than one face. It was the Here and Now which by the banks of the Hockwell Lode with Mary Metcalf unlocked for me realms of candor and rapture. But it was the Here and Now also which pinioned me with fear when livid-tinted blood, drawn by a boat-hook, appeared on Freddie Parr's right temple.
The Here and Now is not simply present daily life, as Price would have it; "life includes a lot of empty space. We are one-tenth living tissue, ninetenths water; life is one-tenth Here and Now, ninetenths a history lesson." The Here and Now comes in "surprise attacks" that "bring both joy and terror" and "for a brief and giddy interval announce that time has taken us prisoner."
History and the Here and Now thus are not opposites but polarities, two aspects of experience. Both emerge out of the empty space of daily life. Making history, like the Atkinsons, and telling stories about it, like the Cricks, are two different ways to outwit the emptiness we glimpse (and fear) at the heart of reality; to "assure ourselves that … things are happening." It was a series of surprise attacks of the Here and Now in the summer of 1943—Freddie's murder, Mary's pregnancy and her abortion, Dick's suicide—that seriously involved Tom Crick in the study of history, which had seemed only a set of fairy tales:
Until the Here and Now gave a sudden urgency to my studies. Until the Here and Now, gripping me by the arm, slapping my face and telling me to take a good look at the mess I was in, informed me that history was no invention but indeed existed—and I had become part of it.
The Here and Now—the moment of penetrating, inescapable reality in which one is poignantly alive and aware—thrusts one into history, the equally inescapable awareness that decisions are irrevocable and actions have consequences.
What Do I Read Next?
- In Graham Swift's novel Last Orders (1996), which won a Booker Prize, four working-class English friends go on a day trip to honor a friend's last request that his ashes be dropped off Margate Pier. The men use the opportunity to review their lives and reflect on life and death.
- British playwright Caryl Churchill's play Fen (one of four Churchill plays in Plays 2, 1990) is about the plight of the fen inhabitants, who are presented as living hard lives dominated by religion and the traditions of their community, while being exploited by greedy landowners and land-buying conglomerates.
- Master of Morholm: A Novel of the Fenland (1987), by Timothy Wilson, is set in the eighteenth century in the fens. Wilson creates a complex story of romantic attachments that sheds light on class differences and morality.
- East Anglia and the Fens (2000), by Rob Talbot (photographer) and Robin Whiteman, is a pleasant and well-illustrated guide to the region in England that provides the setting for Waterland.
History and the Here and Now have the same sources, the most potent of which is curiosity. It was Tom's curiosity about his forebears, the Atkinsons and Cricks, his need for an explanation, that led to the stories he tells in Waterland, and it was Mary's sexual curiosity that led to the series of events that touched off the need:
Curiosity which, with other things, distinguishes us from the animals, is an ingredient in love: It is a vital force. Curiosity, which bogs us down in arduous meditations and can lead to the writing of history books, will also, on occasion, as on that afternoon by the Hockwell Lode, reveal to us that which we seldom glimpse unscathed (for it appears more often—dead bodies, boat-hooks—dressed in terror): the Here and Now.
Curiosity is endangering, but it is also potentially redemptive. It is their lack of curiosity that most worries Crick about Price and his other students:
Children [he warns them,] be curious. Nothing is worse (I know it) than when curiosity stops. Nothing is more repressive than the repression of curiosity. Curiosity begets love. It weds us to the world. It's part of our perverse, madcap love for this impossible planet we inhabit. People die when curiosity goes. People have to find out, people have to know.
Curiosity in its manifestation as the study of history contributes to the preservation of life and its value. Tom Crick explains to Price that he became a teacher of history because of his discovery, in the rubble of postwar Germany, that civilization is precious: "an artifice—so easily knocked down—but precious." History does not promise endless progress, in fact it tends to teach that "the same old things will repeat themselves," and it thereby offers a model of worthwhile human endeavor. A person, a generation, a people have been successful if "they've tried and so prevented things slipping. If they haven't let the world get any worse." Crick expands on this idea when he addresses the school on the occasion of his forced retirement:
There's this thing called progress. But it doesn't progress. It doesn't go anywhere. Because as progress progresses the world can slip away. My humble model for progress is the reclamation of land. Which is repeatedly, never-endingly retrieving what is lost. A dogged and vigilant business. A dull yet valuable business. A hard, inglorious business. But you shouldn't go mistaking the reclamation of land for the building of empires.
The Rosa II, the silt-dredger where Dick Crick works and dies, is a reclaimer of land, performing the work of staying even, the unglamorous but essential business of "scooping up from the depths this remorseless stuff that time leaves behind." The student of history has the same task: to keep scooping up the detritus of time in the attempt, if not to get ahead, at least not to leave things worse than they were. In his last confused, drunken hours on the dredger Dick unconsciously acts out that imperative:
He's here. He knows his place. He knows his station. He keeps the ladder turning, the buckets scooping….And the smell of silt is the smell of sanctuary, is the smell of amnesia. He's here, he's now. Not there or then. No past, no future. He's the mate of the Rosa II.
And he's the saviour of the world….
Considering the nature of Dick's work, the valediction is only partially ironic. In two of Waterland's crucial event—Dick's death and the return of the child Mary kidnapped—the Here and Now and the principles of history meet and clash, with uncertain results. The "Saviour of the World" drowns himself, and the "child of God" is restored to his natural mother and an ordinary life. The world cannot afford saviors, cannot support them. The only salvation is in the continual task of reclamation of the land.
Source: Del Ivan Janik, "History and the 'Here and Now': The Novels of Graham Swift," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring 1989, pp. 74–88.
Clare, John, John Clare: Selected Poetry and Prose, edited by Merryn and Raymond Williams, Methuen, 1986, pp. 150–53.
Durant, Will, The Story of Philosophy, Simon & Schuster, 1926, p. 241.
Gorra, Michael, Review of Waterland, in Nation, March 31, 1984, p. 392.
Hollinghurst, Alan, "Of Time and the River," in Times Literary Supplement, October 7, 1983, p. 1073.
Prescott, Peter S., "Faulkner in the Fens," in Newsweek, April 30, 1984, pp. 74–75.
Higdon, David Leon, "Double Closures in Postmodern British Fiction: The Example of Graham Swift," in Critical Survey, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1991, pp. 88–95.
Higdon analyzes Swift's use of closure (that is, how he ends his novels) in Waterland and other works. He concludes that Swift synthesizes traditional endings with a postmodernist open-endedness.
Hutcheon, Linda, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, Routledge, 1988.
Hutcheon includes an analysis of Waterland, concluding that the narrative strategy of the novel is designed to question modern concepts of history and to explore the processes of historiography.
Janik, Del Ivan, "History and the 'Here and Now': The Novels of Graham Swift," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring 1989, pp. 74–88.
Janik discusses the relationship between history and the present in Swift's first three novels.
Landow, George P., "History, His Story, and Stories in Graham Swift's Waterland," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Fall 1990, pp. 197–211.
Landow discusses Swift's emphasis on history and storytelling in Waterland, classifying the novel as a late-twentieth-century example of fictional autobiography.