Inside Herself: Mary's Elusive Identity in Waterland

Claire Dunnington '05, English 156, Brown University, 2004

In Graham Swift's novel Waterland, Mary Metcalf/Crick's character is developed through two divergent devices: her actions and dialogue as a youth and an adult, and the voice and interpretations of her husband Tom. When Tom uses his position as high-school history teacher and his lessons on the French Revolution as vehicles with which to trace his own history, he also uses his account of his own history as a means of attempting to trace the trajectory of his wife's life and the person she has become. However, as Mary begins to withdraw from Tom and turn to religion, he has increasing difficulty understanding her actions. This culminates in the appropriately titled chapter "Unknown Country", when Tom returns home to discover that Mary has taken a baby from the local supermarket.

So one day, after teaching the French Revolution, I come home to find that my wife's committed a revolutionary -- a miraculous-act...

I turn the key in the lock. I hear what sounds like a baby's cry. I think: our golden retriever, Paddy, has some whine-inducing dog-malady. But I hear it again. I enter the living room. And there she is, sitting on the sofa, at half-past four on a Friday afternoon, waiting for me to arrive, with a child in her arms.

"I told you. Look, I told you, didn't I? There! I said I was going to have one."

And she's not wearing the looks of a villainous child-thief, she's not wearing the looks of a vicious criminal. She's wearing the looks of a young mother who's never been a mother before. Her face has shed a succession of masks (menopausal wife, ex-age-care officer, history teacher's life-long, long-suffering mate); she's all innocence and maidenhood. A Madonna-and child.

"Christ almighty-!"

Now tread carefully, history teacher. Maybe this isn't your province. Maybe this is where history dissolves, chronology goes backwards. That's your wife over there; you know, Mary, the one you thought you knew. But maybe this is unknown country [199].

1. When discussing the French Revolution with his history students, Crick does not state explicitly that he sympathizes or does not sympathize with the revolutionaries. Later, he compares Mary's act to the French Revolution. Does Crick, even in his shock and horror, find something beautiful in what his wife has done? How do her actions fit into the binary of History versus the Here-and-Now?

2. How does this Mary compare to the sixteen-year-old Mary Metcalf? Crick describes her "succession of masks" as if they had become her adult identity, but the phrase "she's wearing the looks..." undermines the absoluteness of "she's all innocence and maidenhood". Is the "innocence and maidenhood" a return to Mary's former self, or something else entirely?

3. What would Crick's possible options for dealing with "unknown country" be, based on his discussions of other new territories and unknown countries throughout history in general and in his own family's history?

4. Abortion also shapes the plot and history of Jack Maggs and Sophina in Jack Maggs. How does Maggs's experience compare to Crick's? In what ways could Crick be considered Price's benefactor?


Swift, Graham. Waterland. New York: Washington Square, 1983.

United Kingdom Reading Questions

Last modified 8 March 2004