Graham Swift: Parents, Real and Perceived

Barry J. Fishman '89

In Waterland, Dick Crick is the product of incest between his mother and his "grandfather" Ernest Atkinson. Henry Crick, who does not learn that Dick is not his real son until the end of Dick's life, believes that the perceived bond is more important than the actual one: "Dick -- my poor Dick -- Dick!" (Waterland p.246) But for the simple-minded Dick, the layers of subtlety are impossible to comprehend -- he knows only what he is told. For Tom Crick, Henry's true son, the question of fatherhood is also one of reality and Ernest Atkinson is too obscure a figure to deserve the title of "Father." Attempting to convince Dick that Henry can still be considered his "Father" Tom says, "But don't shun him Dick. Don't shun your own . . . Your protector, your guardian." (p. 244)

History in Waterland is circular, and the events that haunted Dick and Henry Crick will return in similar form to haunt Tom years later when his demented wife Mary, for years a pillar of stability, believes that she hears God speaking to her and steals a baby from a Safeways supermarket. To Mary there is no question about it, the child is her child. For Tom, who knows the truth, there are many questions, and the answers require Mary to be placed in a mental institution. These events are in turn brought on by something that changed the course of events many years in the past -- the adolescent sexual exploration of the much younger Tom and Mary. Mary's subsequent pregnancy forces her to seek an abortion that makes her sterile. The childhood husband and wife relationship that Tom and Mary share foreshadows and dooms their adult one. Their fated unhappiness is caused by the sexual taboos that they have broken from early adolescence. The same fate befalls many of Swift's characters.

In the short story "The Hypochondriac," husband and wife suffer the double burden of mismatched age (see below) and an extramarital affair. There is uncertainty, at least in the father's eyes, as to the parentage of the newborn baby. "It's his child, it's his child. I know it." (LtS p.71) says the wife. The husband responds, "I wish it had been my child." Wife: "It would have been worse if it was your child." The double tragedy is too much for this relationship, and the birth of a son by adultery tears their relationship apart. The husband, like Henry Crick, wants to overlook the affair, to assume the role of father and go on living. The wife is unable to do so, and turns against her husband.

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