Once Upon a Time: Retelling Time, Space, and Story in Graham Swift's Waterland

Sarah Eron '05, English 156, Brown University, 2004

Thus far in this course we have looked at the periods of Victorian and Modernist literature as separate eras whose works can be examined through a very straightforward and age-old method of comparison. Nevertheless, it is difficult to reduce Graham Swift's Waterland to a mere rewriting of Dickens' Great Expectations because in many ways Waterland is in general a novel about rewriting, about history, about storytelling and the cyclical nature of time; in many ways, it is a novel about everything which has been said before, only rendered a thousand times more elegant and a thousand times more tangible than the reader might have expected. As a novel which roots itself within the history of storytelling, Waterland adopts the narratives of myth, of the bible, of history and literature as a whole, all the while rearticulating these recognizable paradigms through the literary genres of parody, tragedy, romance, satire and rhetoric. One of the themes that Graham Swift, therefore, develops in his all-encompassing novel is that of the nature of history and time as cyclical phenomena which are forever converging and folding back upon themselves. In chapter 14, Tom Crick says of history that it "goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards as it goes forwards. It loops. It detours. . . And where history does not undermine and set traps for itself in . . . an openly perverse way, it creates this insidious longing to revert" (pp. 135-136). Such notions of time, space, and narrative of course arise straight out of a high modernist lingo that circulated through the fiction written several or more decades before Swift's own novel. Thus we can safely say that in presenting history and narrative as things which are borrowed and retold, Swift does not exclude his own Waterland from this inevitable tradition of storytelling.

Waterland, however, does not simply present the theme of recycling through its rewritings of past narratives, but also on a more microcosmic scale, the characters themselves undergo this process of constant return and progress in their own thoughts and experiences. In chapter 42, entitled "About the Witch," we see the sort of powerful randomness which time has over the agency of the novel's characters. Here Tom finds himself in an act of surrender in which time takes over, entangling his thoughts in an almost maniacal whirlwind of past, present, and perhaps even future. At the end of the chapter, as Tom slips into a series of chaotic delusions from the medicine administered to him, he finds himself completely outside the bounds of rationality and control, subject to the whim of time, space, and the story itself. Furthermore, in this moment Tom experiences the constant metamorphosis of form, in which objects of the present become images of the past, in which everything converges in the realm of contradiction. Here, everything is what it is not; ducks are hens; stars are geese; the night is moonless and yet full of stars; it is dark and sunny; day is night, and mother is a witch, and death is something like the beginning of life:

And so, while, inside, Martha Clay ministers, as only she can minister, to Mary, your future history teacher sits outside and begins dutifully to pluck a duck. It's a moonless August night. Shoals of stars, silver geese, swim through the sky. His head starts to spin. The duck he's holding in his hand isn't a duck, it's a hen. He's sitting in the sunny space between the chicken coop and the kitchen door, where Mother stands, in her apron. But the hen's not dead, it's still alive. It's wings start to flap and it starts to lay eggs (so it hadn't stopped laying after all). A copious, unending stream of eggs, so many that he has to collect them with the help of his mother and her apron. But Mother says they're not really eggs, they're fallen stars. And so they are, twinkling and winking on the ground. We carry the fallen stars into the chicken coop. Which isn't a chicken coop at all. It's the shell of the old wooden windmill by the Hockwell Lode. And Mary's inside lying naked with her knees up. Mother discreetly retires. And Mary starts to explain about her menstrual cycle and about the wonders inside her hole and how babies get to be born. She says, îI've got eggs, you know.' And he, ignorant but eager to learn, says "What, like hens?" And Mary laughs. And then she screams and then she says she's the mother of God --

Here the present is conflated with various scenes from the past such as Tom's first sexual experiences with Mary and his memories of tending to the chicken coop with his now dead mother. The passage reveals much of the novel's beliefs about the nature of time and form as being cyclical and chaotic. Nevertheless, it is difficult to say whether or not the memories which filter themselves into Tom's conscious thinking are surfacing at random or according to some kind of more structured pattern. There is a clear emphasis upon the convergence of life and death here mirrored in the very image of Mary's abortion. However, what do we make of the illusory metamorphosis of such things as eggs into stars? What kind of relationship, if any at all, does Swift create between microcosm and macrocosm, and do these strangely conjoined images implicate an actual, if not mysterious, universal order? On the other hand, does the passage implicate disorder rather than order, or is Swift illustrating a relationship between chaos and order that echoes a very Modernist aesthetic? And finally, does the passage suggest any hierarchy between past and present, history and reality (reality being as Tom calls it the "Here and Now"?

Furthermore, the passage has a number of allusions to the significance of motherhood. For example, Tom talks of Mary's sexuality lesson and later refers to Mary as a symbol for "the mother of God." At the same time, he remembers his own mother and he refers to the hen which itself can be seen as an emblem of fertility and motherhood. What does the passage seem to say about motherhood, and how does this representation of motherhood relate to or contrast with a Dickensian one?

Finally, Mary's abortion is a clear example of something dying even before it comes into being; it is represents a certain stasis in which death meets fruition. Often, in Waterland, objects or beings in the external world are simultaneously undergoing a process of growth and erasure. The land of the Fens itself is forever receding, and coming into being; it floods and drains, is destroyed and resurrected. This metamorphosis, however, seems to implicate the relationship between the will of humanity versus the will of nature. Does one of these forces have more power over the other, or does Swift see this tension in a tragic light as an inevitable part of human suffering? Obviously Swift uses the biblical and mythical paradigm of the flood as a way of recalling the human tendency to upset the balance of nature, but also he picks up on other natural and destructive forces which may originate in the narratives of the Old and New Testament (fire, wind ect . . .). How does nature become a form of prophesy in this text? Finally, how are these disasters rooted in the trends of Victorian narratives, and do they play the same role in novels such as Great Expectations and Jane Eyre as they do in Waterland?


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

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Last modified 8 March 2004