The Ebb and Flow of Setting and Plot in Waterland

Rana Cho ('95)

History is that impossible thing: the attempt to give an account...the past gets in the vat, it tips us up, bogs us down; it complicates, makes difficult.... Because it's the inexplicable that keeps him jabbering on nineteen-to-the-dozen like this and scurrying further and further into the past (94).

The setting and plot of Waterland serve not to confuse the reader, but to apply an encompassing and varying view to the novel. "Indecisive setting" is an oxymoronic term, describing precisely the technical aspects applied by Graham Swift in Waterland. Since Page 2 and Page 299 (near the end) both address the "children" in Tom Crick's history class, the entirety of the novel being a historical tale, it is told within the confines of a classroom. However, the location in which the story-telling takes place is the only absolute and static aspect of Waterland. The locales and times of Crick's tale roam the world. Crick tries to recognize the events leading up till his present dissolved life. It reaches into Natural History (the eels) and takes one into Artificial History (the Fens). As the Fens are drained artificially, history may also be treated artificially; one can attempt to drain it of explanations, but will never be able to avoid the impending Present. This takes the reader from the age when tectonic plates moved Angleterre off of Eurasia (p.124) to eels in the Balkans in mid-19th century (p.173) to Kessling Hall of the Atkinsons in the early 1900's.(p. 186)...

His style enhances the circular plot device of Waterland. The convolutions of setting in Waterland accommodates Crick's craving of relation and explanation. It does not steer the reader towards definitive views on ...anything. Its rhetorical style results in reflection; each leap in setting demands a Crick-ish bridge in between. The inconsistency in setting forces the reader to find unity within disunity, and comfort within the discomfort of never quite settling the Fens, nor never quite explaining history.

In the context of the entire novel, this passage reflects the narrator's idea the intangible individual histories are related to the physical and artificial histories of technology and landscape. It sets up a contrast between inexplicable man and explicable nature. By bringing the example of the inexplicable eel, the narrator creates a link of similarity between man and nature.

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