The Contemporary Context of Swift's Story for England

Heidie Joo '93 (English 34, 1991)

...So I began to demand of history an Explanation. Only to uncover in this dedicated search more mysteries, more fantasticalities, more wonders and grounds for astonishment than I started with, only to conclude forty years later--not withstanding a devotion to the usefulness, to the educative power of my chosen discipline--that history is a yarn. And can I deny that what I wanted all along was not some golden nugget that history would at last yield up, but History itself, the Grand Narrative, the filler of vacuums, the dispeller of fears of the dark? (53)

With Waterland, Graham Swift chooses the right story, for the right people, at the right time. The British audience of 1983 needs to hear Tom Crick's story just as much as he needs to tell it. As Professor Landow points out in his lecture, "this is a novel explaining what went wrong". Indeed, Tom Crick finds himself in one of those rare "Here and Now" situations and wants to make sense of it all. Specifically, he wants to know why his wife would kidnap someone else's child; he wants to know what went wrong with his marriage. Tom's attempt to explain his present situation weaves his story in and out of the past. For you see, the past has come back to haunt Tom Crick. The reason why his wife kidnaps a child in the early '80s has to do with her abortion in the 40s. Thus, Swift points to the circular notion of time and the interconnections in history. Each action has consequences for another as the past has a way of resurfacing in the present.

In the early 1980's, the past comes back to haunt England as it does for Tom Crick. The country still pays the price for its days of colonization. Take, for instance, the situation in Northern Ireland. The violence in that region and also, terrorist attacks in England constantly remind the nation of its past colonial rule. In 1982, England and the People's Republic of China begin talks to grant Hong Kong its independence. In 1984, the two countries sign an agreement that will establish Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region in 1997. In 1982, England also clashes in a war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. The rights to this territory had been the source of dispute between the two nations since the eighteenth century. The 74 days of war claimed 256 British lives and 712 Argentinean lives. While Swift writes his novel, world events threaten the remains of England's colonial power. (Encyclopedia Americana Vol.10&14)

The cyclical idea of history again comes into play in the 1940s, the days from Tom Crick's past. Only 20 years after the Great War, 'the war to end all wars', the world again finds itself at war. As history books tell us, the Treaty of Versailles greatly influenced the onset of World War II. Perhaps World War II could have been avoided had the Allies been more gracious. But as Tom Crick says, "history is a yarn."(53) One event inevitably wraps itself around another.

Tom Crick speaks so extensively of the French Revolution, "that great watershed in history" (119) because it embodies the ideals of a revolution. Crick sees a revolution as "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."(119) The events in Tom Crick's life and English history share this idea of a return. But instead of the positive implications of a better future from a better past, Tom and England get only the prospects of a gloomy future from a gloomy past. In light of this pessimistic view, story-telling plays a most important role. Like Tom's ancestors, we all rely on story-telling to escape reality, but also, to make sense of reality. If "perhaps history is just story-telling,"(133) then Tom and England "demand of history an Explanation."(53) Thus Tom Crick tells his story to find that explanation. But at the same time, we can argue that Tom, in the process of story-telling, creates his own story and thereby, his own history. (Prof. Landow's opening lecture on Waterland;Intermedia) From Tom's history, Swift presents us, and England in particular, with an explanation to make sense of contemporary events. Then perhaps history best serves us as "the Grand Narrative, the filler of vacuums, the dispeller of fears in the dark."(53)

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