The Bildungsroman Genre: Waterland

Suzanne Hader (English 168, 1996)

Like Great Expectations, Waterland is an entirely retrospective narrative. Looking back over the events of his life, Pip recounts the story of his enlightenment. For Tom Crick, on the other hand, the process of telling his story enlightens him. History (his story) is an attempt at reclamation, 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." (Waterland, 235) Although Pip can cleanly construct a linear account of his progress, Crick must jump back and forth through narrative time, unable to reconstruct a grand metamorphosis of history for himself, only to piece together a story which might be meaningful, if not necessarily simple or clear.

So I began to demand of history an Explanation...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 vaccuums, the dispeller of fears in the dark?
(Waterland, 62)

Yet there is no such thing, as Price says, "Explaining's a way of avoiding the facts while you pretend to get near to them..." (Waterland, 126) These thoughts challenge the idea of growth in a Bildungsroman: the postmodern world has become too complex to pretend that we can seriously progress. As with Dick's dredger, the Rosa II, we are successful if we can perform the work of staying even. ("History and the `Here and Now,'" 87)

For Tom, the feeling of slippage and the work of staying even begins with the death of his mother, which pushes him out of the realm of familial comfort. He remembers her as the spiritual root of their family, she is the one who first tells him stories, and when she dies the narrative of his lineage is abruptly extinguished. His father is crushed, left only with his memories and her illegitimate, potato-headed child. The lives of the three men separate, never referred to again as a family. Furthermore, on the night she dies, she also bequeaths the mysterious chest to Dick, declaring him the savior of the world.

Those feelings of abandonment resonate when Tom becomes acquainted with Price. The fear and disorientation that Price feels as a result of nuclear threat are the same that Tom felt when Mary became pregnant. Both have a sense of being dragged into history, but unlike Napoleon, they have no defined place in it. Tom has an idea that he can somehow express his empathy to his students, the Anti-Armageddon league, as opposed to just teaching facts, but the wish to make his story into History gets him fired. Unlike in other Bildungsroman stories, the events in Tom's life happen suddenly, get reacted to suddenly, and are more properly termed "disasters" rather than "epiphanies." Dick commits suicide, Tom learns of Mary's pregnancy only as she is jumping off a wall trying to make herself miscarry, and although he has an inkling that she is drifting away from him, he is certainly not prepared for her to steal a baby from the supermarket. Especially not because God told her to.

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. (46)

Other Bildungsroman characters have a safe life (Pip at the forge, Aurora through marriage) but seek to replace it with something better. Tom Crick, on the other hand, is disintegrating: his story can be thought of as "life reclamation." Even Price, who could be engaged in his own development, feels as though he has no future life to hope for, for fear of nuclear war.

The final punctuation of the development of Tom Crick, oddly enough, happens roughly in the middle of the time encompassed by the narrative. Dick's suicide represents the conclusion of Tom's story; all the events of his life, pieced together over the course of the novel, have led to this event. Yet the event is not the suicide itself, but rather the telling of it. The narrative thus far has circled in on a few incidents, yet never quite touched them. As the headmaster offers his final farewells, the Holocaust Club comes to Tom's rescue, shouting "No cuts! Keep Crick!" This small victory enables Tom to confess to the reader about Mary's abortion, about the death of his father, and about the circumstances surrounding Dick's murder and suicide. ("Unconfessed Confessions," 189) In speaking of these matters clearly, Tom conquers his digressive style and, in turn, his fears of life slipping away from him.

United Kingdom