A Fairy Tale Story, A Fairy Tale life: Narrative in Graham Swift's Waterland

Amanda Cooper '97 (English 168, 1996)

Tom Crick, the narrator in Graham Swift's Waterland, tells his story to his history class to address Price's declaration that history is about to end: "I began, having recognized in my young but by no means carefree class the contagious symptoms of fear: 'Once upon a time...'" (7). Unable to find meaning in his own existence, Tom takes solace in narrative. As an explanation of his present crisis, he constructs a story out of events in his past that culminate in his wife stealing a baby. However, Tom believes that natural history, the history that controls "our love of life," always gets "the better of the artificial stuff" (205). If he believes his words that natural history "doesn't go anywhere," "cleaves to itself," and "perpetually travels back to where it came from," then how can stories enable Tom to live his life (205)? The question answers itself; Tom travels in circles but never progresses forward.

Whereas the narrator in Oscar and Lucinda creates reality from a story, Tom turns his reality into a fairy tale. Tom believes in history as a way of explaining the world, yet he uses stories to escape "far away from the wide world" (1). Although stories bring order to Tom's chaotic life, they keep him from confronting his reality. As Price points out, "explaining's a way of avoiding facts while you pretend to get near to them" (167). When remembering the scene of him pulling down his swimming trunks for Mary, Tom explains his childhood desire to escape from the moment through stories and his inability to deal with the here and now. After this story, he presents the problem that arises when narrative can not be separated from reality:

He escapes to story-books. Because he can still do that. Jump from one realm to the other, as if they shut each other out. He hasn't begun yet to put the two together. To live an amphibious life. He hasn't begun to ask yet where the stories end and reality begins. But he will, he will. (207-208)

Ironically, in this passage Tom speaks of himself in the third person; his reality becomes a story and he becomes a character in his story. Storytelling comforts Tom, but it also fractures his understanding of himself.

The reader does not question the validity of Tom's stories because they were either passed on to him through his mother or experienced by Tom as a child. The Atkinson family history has direct consequences to Tom's life, which makes the stories as meaningful to Tom as the French Revolution is to Europe. However, his story becomes problematic when the reader realizes that Tom never resolves the meaning within it. Indeed, stories do not replace an emptiness that everyone in Tom's history feels. "I know what you feel. Yes, the end of the world's on the cards again...But the feeling's not new....It's the old, old feeling, that everything might amount to nothing" (269). For Tom, history ends up supporting his belief that life has no meaning.

Swift resolves this conflict by placing meaning not in the story itself but in Tom's telling of the story. Telling stories allows Tom to assume control over the events, a control he does not have in shaping his life. Tom raises questions about how history forms our lives: "which way do we go? Forwards to go backwards? Backwards to go forwards" (94)? By clipping segments of the story and putting them together without chronological constraints, Tom shows that progress does not change human nature. For example, he connects Mary's natural curiosity for exploring sexuality with his students curiosity for his story. "Curiosity begets love. It weds us to the world. It's part of our perverse, madcap love for this impossible planet we inhabit...People have to find out. People have to know" (206). This realization allows Tom to cope with the outcome of his story, but it also negates the purpose of storytelling as a mode of progress. Indeed, his being fired as a history teacher signifies the modern suspicion of the past being meaningful in the present. Since meaning lies in the connections Tom makes between people living and dead, stories allow Tom to live an imitation of "the grand repertoire of history" (41).

Tom recognizes this fallacy of storytelling in his own struggle to find order but he fails to follow through with an answer: "What is a history teacher? ...He's a self-contradiction (since everyone knows that what you learn from history is that nobody-)" (235-236). The sentence cuts off, leaving the reader to finish Tom's thought. A possible ending lies embedded in Tom's story; consistently, characters in the narrative distort the truth to simplify explanation. When Dick starts the dredger, Tom says to the skipper, "'He's gone barmy. He got himself drunk and rode off on his bike. We d-don't know,' (ah, truthfulness at last)" (351). Dick easily falsifies the truth in order to move beyond the moment. However, sometimes these distortions have devastating effects that force Tom out of the safety of the story. Mary's lying to Dick about Freddie impregnating her alters the course of Tom's history. Storytelling controls not only the way people understand history but also history itself. Full of questions, Waterland weaves histories, stories, and people together without alleviating the fear that life is nothing but stories.

United Kingdom

Document last modified 20 December 2001