Rethinking the End of History: Graham Swift's Waterland

Timothy Farrell '97 (English 168, 1996)

In the second chapter of Graham Swift's Waterland, entitled "About the End of History," Tom Crick, the narrator, announces to his history class that he will no longer be teaching history. The headmaster of the school has told Crick that "We're being forced to economize. We're cutting back history" (5). One the one hand, the chapter's title refers to the literal end of history-teaching that will take place once Tom Crick leaves the school. On the other hand, the chapter's title makes reference to the possibility of a posthistorical time, a time without conflict or struggle. Whether history can, in fact, end, is an issue for Crick, who is trying to get his students to recognize the importance of history.

One student, Price, voices his concern that the present, and not the past, is what is really important. He dismisses the study of history by saying, "The only important thing about history, I think, sir, is that it's got to the point where it's probably about to end" (5). With this statement, Crick stops discussing the history of the French Revolution to discuss his story, the story of his family and the English fens. Crick's subordination of conventional history (i.e. the history of the French Revolution) to his personal history seemingly supports the claim that history has reached an end. I would like to argue, however, that Crick's personal narrative functions to subvert the notion of the end of history and to subvert ideologies which imagine mankind as following a "Grand Narrative," a narrative of progress.

What, precisely, does the end of history mean? John Schad reads Waterland as "an allegorical exploration of postmodern theories of the end of history" (911). Schad is referring to late twentieth-century thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama who claim that history has come to an end. Fukuyama, in his controversial essay "The End of History?" claims that the twentieth-century saw a battle of ideologies among Western liberalism, communism, fascism, and then, after WWII, a battle between capitalism and socialism. With the fall of communism in 1989, Fukuyama claims that Western liberalism has universally been accepted as the one true ideology (4). From this point of view, history seems to derive only from struggle. Once the struggle between political ideologies has ceased, history comes to an end.

The theory of the end of history is certainly not limited to postmodern thinkers, as Schad claims. Nineteenth-century intellectuals likewise imagined that one day, history will end. Karl Marx, as Fukuyama illustrates, "believed that the direction of historical development was a purposeful one determined by the interplay of material forces, and would come to an end only with the achievement of a communist utopia that would finally resolve all prior contradictions" (4). Marx ascribed to the "Grand Narrative," as Schad calls it, of progress. At the end of this narrative lies the utopia in which struggle and conflict are unheard of. Christian philosophy likewise ascribes to this narrative, in its imagining of a posthistorical Paradise in which the soul is freed from suffering and pain. In his Waterland, Swift draws on this nineteenth-century and Christian notion of the end of history only to subvert it. The story of Tom Crick resists teleological analysis. His story suggests that there is no "Grand Narrative" and that human history is not working toward some ultimate goal.

Tom Crick's personal history, as George P. Landow informs us, "centers on what went wrong. This whole novel, in fact, is an attempt to explain what went wrong" (200). Landow applies the theories of philosophical anthropologists to interpret Crick's ideas on history. The difference between tribal and modern societies, according to these anthropologists, is that tribal societies operate outside of history; for those societies, suffering produces history. "In a tribal society, one becomes individual, one becomes an individual, only by botching a ritual or otherwise departing from some universal pattern." (Landow 200) These mistakes are not significant for the ahistorical tribal culture; "interest in the novel, the unique, the irreversible, appeared only comparatively recently" (Landow 200). Thus, modern culture is marked by its interest in history, in figuring out precisely what went wrong and why. This interpretation of history leads Crick to define the history teacher in these terms: "What is a history teacher? He's someone who teaches mistakes. While others say, Here's how to do it, he says, And here's what goes wrong. While others tell you, This is the way, this is the path, he says, And here are a few bungles, botches, blunders and fiascos" (235).

Although thinkers such as Marx would agree that human suffering produces history, they would argue that human existence follows a trajectory towards some utopian state. In Marx's case, this would be a communist utopia, in which individual workers are no longer exploited by capitalism and by the state. Romantic thinkers, too, imagine this trajectory of progress. Landow has observed that Waterland is in dialogue with the Romantic pattern of thinking typified by Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey." The speakers of both texts imagine their youth as a prehistorical time of innocence. For Wordsworth, this is a time of "thoughtless youth," a time when nature means nothing more to the speaker than "the tall rock,/ The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood" (ll. 77-78). For Tom Crick, this is the time of his sexual experimentation with Mary, before Freddie Parr's death and before Mary's abortion. Both texts then deal with their speakers' loss of innocence. Landow writes that "the obvious difference between the two works, of course, appears in the fact that, unlike "Tintern Abbey," Waterland bravely refuses to find solace in some Romantic revision of Milton's Fortunate Fall" (201). By not subscribing to Wordworth's paradigm, Waterland is refusing the whole notion of progress. The speaker of "Tintern Abbey," although he has moved from a state of innocence to one of self-consciousness, acknowledges that this transformation has awarded him "abundant recompense," for he now has the ability to "see into the life of things." Wordsworth's model imagines the individual as progressing over time, moving ever closer to a state of sublimity. No such model of progress is found in Swift's text. Tom Crick's world is one in which things go wrong all the time, thereby making the very idea of progress problematic.

Tom Crick does not ascribe to Marx's or Wordsworth's view of progress; instead, his model for progress is the reclamation of land, one of the central metaphors of Waterland.

There's this thing called progress. But it doesn't progress, it doesn't go anywhere. Because as progress progresses the world can slip away. It's progress if you can stop the world slipping away. My humble model for progress is the reclamation of land. Which is repeatedly, never-endingly retrieving what is lost. [336]

According to this view of progress, the world is not moving toward a utopian state. Progress simply entails maintaining the world as it is and not letting things get any worse. History, therefore, is recursive, as different individuals and different ages have similar experiences as they try to prevent the world from slipping away. Both conventional history and Tom's personal history demonstrate this recursiveness. Crick informs his students that, "In July, 1940, Hitler contemplates--as in 1805 Napoleon had contemplated--the invasion of England. Only to put it off and go marching off to Russia. Just as Napoleon once did. Now who says history doesn't go in circles?" (180). Likewise, there is a repeatedness to Tom's own story. Del Ivan Janik points out that "the last Atkinson brewer seeks to reproduce the purity of his family's original ale; and Mary Metcalf tries in a Lewisham supermarket to regain the motherhood she had relinquished more than three decades before in a filthy Fenland cottage. The parallels are indirect and inexact, redolent not of literary contrivance but of Tom Crick's notion of history as a series of loops and detours in the journey through time" (84).

The recursiveness of Tom Crick's story, with its "loops and detours," functions to subvert the nineteenth-century notion that the world is on a trajectory towards some posthistorical utopia. If history is not moving in one direction and is not the story of progress, what is the value in teaching it? Tom Crick's answer to this question is that history, and stories in general, help individuals find meaning in their lives. He tells Price, "All right, so it's a struggle to preserve an artifice. It's all a struggle to make things not seem meaningless. All a fight against fear. . . I don't care what you call it--explaining, evading the facts, making up meanings, taking a larger view, putting things into perspective, dodging the here and now, education, history, fairy-tales--it helps to eliminate fear" (241). Crick recognizes that, although the narrative of progress is an artifice, it is still necessary as is functions to assure individuals that their existence is meaningful. Crick informs Price that this fear has been around since the beginning of history. "Yes, the end of the world's on the cards again--maybe this time it's for real. But the feeling's not new. Saxon hermits felt it. They felt it when they built the pyramids to try to prove it wasn't true. My father felt it in the mud at Ypres. My grandfather felt it and drowned it with suicidal beer. Mary felt it. . . It's the old, old feeling, that everything might amount to nothing" (269). What helps individuals endure, according to Crick's philosophy, is not the prospect of some future utopia, but the assurance that humans have endured for centuries with this anxiety and the world has still not slipped away.


Fukuyama, Francis. "The End of History?" The National Interest (Summer 1989): 3-18.

Janik, Del Ivan. "History and the 'Here and Now': The Novels of Graham Swift." Twentieth-Century Literature 35 (1989): 74-88.

Landow, George P. "History, His Story, and Stories in Graham Swift's Waterland." Studies in the Literary Imagination 23 (1990): 197-211.

Schad, John. "The End of the End of History: Graham Swift's Waterland." Modern Fiction Studies 38 (1992): 911-925.

Swift, Graham. Waterland. 1983. New York: Vintage International, 1992.

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Last Modified: 20 March, 2002