The Movement of History in Waterland

Brooke Steiger'94 (English 32, 1992)

It goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards as it goes forwards. It loops. It takes detours. Do not fall into the illusion that history is a well disciplined and unflagging column marching unswervingly into the future. Do you remember, I asked you--a riddle--how does a man move? One step forward, one step back (and sometimes one step to the side). Is this absurd? No. Because if he never took that step forward-- Or--another of my classroom maxims: There are no compasses for journeying in time. As far as our sense ofdirection in this unchartable dimension is concerned, we are like lost travellers in a desert. We believe we are going forward, towards the oasis of Utopia. But how do we know--only some imaginary figure looking down from the sky (let's call him God) can know--that we are not moving in a great circle? (p. 117)

Throughout Graham Swift's novel, Waterland, several attempts are made to define the movement of history, as well as to identify mankind's position in the past, present and future. This passage not only addresses both these issues, but can, on another level, also be used to explain the structure and writing style Swift uses in his book.

According to Tom Crick, the story-telling, central character in the novel, History, both natural and artificial, moves through time in a great, unchartable circle. While mankind may continually struggle to put reins on the movement of natural history through the use of science and technology, little progress is ever made. Again and again, the powerful cycles of history turn their struggles into futile attempts. The best illustration of these attempts can be found in the Fenlanders' struggle to drain the water from the Fens and reclaim their land and livelihood. In this continual struggle, men are forever taking "one step forward, one step back". In Crick's opinion, the best for which they can hope is never to miss a step foreward and fall too far behind.

When analyzed, Swift's method of writing in Waterland often mimics the description of history contained in the book. There is no set chronological order to the novel, no "well disciplined and unflagging column marching unswervingly into the future." Instead, Swift's scenes, both historical and fictional, appear in no particular order, interrupting and weaving in and out of each other. Even Swift's sentences do not follow all man-made literary artifices. They twist and fragment and repeat patterns throughout the story often reminding the reader of the water that eats away at the Fens. This structural and stylistic reiteration of the content is an excellent device that Swift employs to add strength to the theories explored in his book.

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