Eels in the Waterland

Tatiana Kuzmowycz '06, English 156, Brown University, 2004

The figure of the eel is a clearly sexual representation used throughout Graham Swift's Waterland. Freddie Parr hides the eel in Mary's knickers, and she puts on her knickers to the slithering, slimy feel of the eel between her legs. Mary does not scream out in terror, shock, or indicate violation. Rather, she finds this incident hilarious. A sexual explorer, Mary is not bothered by Freddie's joke, seeing the incident as a sign of flirtation. This moment of flirtation exudes sexuality, much like the eels unexplainable reproduction and sexuality. The eels sexual tendencies and habits cannot be described by even the most intellectual scientists: its reproductive organs cannot be found, thus the rumor the eels reproduce by Immaculate Conception. The eel serves not only as a figure of sexuality, but also as a figure of curiosity. Mary clearly embodies some of these eel characters in her promiscuous behavior, willingly revealing her developing sexual parts to several boys at a time. The eel relies on the mysterious, and embodies that which cannot always be determined or understood. The likeness of the eel is associated to other characters in the novel, though perhaps less explicitly than with Mary. Dick Crick, an admirer of Mary, represents the eel in various ways.

no longer wriggling and writhing but curled up passively round the bottom of the pail in a state of semi-shock, this eel is no an unhandsome creature. It's sleek and smooth-skinned. It has little glimmering amber eyes which, for all one knows, could be the windows of a tiny eel-soul. It has little panting gills and, behind them, delicate whirring pectoral fins not unreminiscent of Dick's whirring eyelashes. [253]

Not only do his eyelashes resemble the physical appearance of the eel, but Dick can swim exceptionally well. Mentally disabled, Dick's swimming ability is superior to that of the other boys. When challenged in a swimming match against the boys for the prize of exploring Mary's body, Dick wins easily, able to swim considerably farther than the rest of the boys with one solitary breath. This ability is similarly described in an earlier passage:

to make for some particular watery dwelling thousands of miles from its place of birth, so the adult eel, moved by a force which outweighs vast distances and the crushing pressure of the ocean, is compelled to take again to the sea and before it dies and leaves the world to its spawn, to return whence it came. [204]


What does Mary's perception of the eel's appearance reveal about her attitude towards Dick? What is the importance of Dick's whirring eyelashes? In what ways does Dick's character relate directly to the behaviors of the eel? What force compels Dick to swim so far?

Do the eel and the serpent seen in the story of Adam and Eve serve similar functions? What role does the idea of immaculate conception play in the novel? Mary, sharing the same name as the Virgin Mary, is suggested to have immaculately conceived. Why is sex explicit and mysterious at the same time? Is Mary innocent, or promiscuous? Why is her sexuality confused?

Dick is directly related to the image of the eel, an animal who lives amongst nature. However, throughout Waterland, the image of a machinery is associated with Dick. Dick's final appearance in the novel includes the motorcycle, and he is also a capable apprentice with a dredging company. What is the significance of this dichotomy between machinery and nature? If the eel is an image of sexuality and curiosity, what do the motorcycle and dredger signify?

The image of the eel surpasses its simple symbol of sexuality and curiosity when Dick's father remembers his mother. The ambiguous nature of eels is directly related to death. Death, an unexplainable and often difficult experience, cannot be understood by even the most intelligent of people.

There must be something special about this murky confluence of drain and river, something special for both eels and for Dad. Because it's here, in that spring and summer after Mother's decampment that Dad takes to coming after sunset, changing his eel-fishing routine to a nocturnal vigil lit by the moon or a hurricane lamp, and measure out by cigarettes. [244]

This moment reflects the difficulty of understanding. Mr. Crick uses the word "gone" to describe death to his sons. Both the eels and Mr. Crick need the murky, vague waters of the river in order to survive. Why is this ambiguity necessary for both Mr. Crick and the eels? Is it serving to protect them both from reality? The eel's birth is unknown, and in this instance, death is unknown and complicated. What is Swift saying about the life cycle as a whole?


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

United Kingdom Reading Questions

Last modified 8 March 2004