The Character of Mary: Sexuality and History: Opposing Forces?

Tommy Burns '06, English 156, Brown University, 2004

Graham Swifts's Waterland opens as the narrator, a history teacher, is in the process of being removed from his teaching position. This teacher's lectures to his students form the central narration of the novel. Tom Crick not only relates a personal history, but also a description of how his home came to develop in a certain way. Tom's relationship with Mary has fundamental implications through the book, whether it be her inability to conceive, Freddie Parr's death, and even Tom's own firing. Their involvement is often a catalyst for the major events described in the novel. Tom marks his wife as fundamentally different in her ability to transcend the need to look forward or back. Until her emotional unraveling proves otherwise, Tom sees his wife as a strong opposing force to his reliance upon past events. He erroneously believes in her ability to mark time and prove that happiness can be derived from simply living in the present. Mary will later kidnap a child and demonstrate that she too is affected by history:

But she made do (so he thought) with nothing. Not believing either in looking back or in looking forward, she learnt how to mark time. To withstand, behind all the stage-props of their marriage, the empty space of reality. So that whereas he could not do without his history classes and his schoolkids, she could readily dispense with her Old Folk‹witness that voluntary, indeed adamant decision. And where as he had to keep going back every day to school, there was always this grown-up woman to return to, who was stronger than him (he believed) at facing the way things must be‹whom he needed indeed, when it came to it, more than he needed all the wisdom and solace of history.

So that your history teacher's wife, children, may be said to have been the inspiration of all that he taught you . . .

Once upon a time there was a history teacher's wife who, for quite specific and historical reasons, couldn't have a child. Though her husband had lots: a river of children‹new lives, fresh starts‹flowed through his classroom. Who could have adopted a child (many time, in the early years, the husband warily‹hopefully-raised this subject); thought she never adopted a child, for the simple and intractable reason, so the husband supposed, that to adopt a child is not the real thing, and his wife was not a woman to resort to make-believe. [pp. 127-128]


What is history's relationship to "make-believe"? Mary's kidnapping of a child not only shows her own mental instability but signifies that she only resides in a world of make-believe. Is it possible to consider history as a character in the novel? Is it the hero or the enemy?

Mary is initially described as a very sexual character. While Tom is interested in exploring history, Mary looks to explore both her body and others. Does Mary's sexuality have any bearing upon her relationship with history? Her pregnancy determines much about her future, but is history seen as opposing the present pleasure of sex?

What is the significance that much of this story is being narrated to children? Mary works with older people? How do relationships with children versus elders have greater consequences in the novel?


Swift, Graham. Waterland. New York: Vintage, 1992.

United Kingdom Reading Questions

Last modified 8 March 2004