Crick Raises Questions of Objectivity, Superstition, and Sexuality

Sherry Lewkowicz '06, English 156, Brown University, 2004

Graham Swift's Waterland is a novel replete with not only references to the past but complete divulgings of histories, including those of the once-prosperous Atkinson family. Tom Crick, a recently dismissed teacher of history, narrates this story with his often confusing and over-blown language and long-winded sentences. Crick often follows his incredibly detailed histories/stories (for there seems to be no distinction between the two, or at least any Crick can discern) with whole paragraphs of questions. Clearly this novel is seeking explanation, not providing it, although Swift does seem to imply that there is some satisfaction, if not answer, to be found in the telling of the story. Swift's novel also constantly reckons with the past and the future, with claims such as "Because there must always be -- do not deny that there must always be -- a future" in answer to questions he has raised such as "children, why this seeking for omens? . . . Why must the zenith never be fixed?" (p. 70). In the following passage (which closely precedes the aforementioned questions and answers), Crick describes the failure of the townspeople of Gildsey to recognize trouble within the Atkinson family:

If they had not so revered the two brother, if the brothers' fortunes were not so inseparable from their own and if the brothers had not built such a fine tomb for their unhappy father, the people of Gildsey might have reflected on this state of affairs. They might have reflected upon the four-year period after marriage before, in the case of both couples, conception was achieved. They might have connected the brothers' habitual air of stern and implacable purpose with a certain frosty forlornness about both their otherwise charming wives; and connected this in turn with a certain fulsome affection they were wont to display, even in public, to their be-ribboned and be-crinolined daughters. They might have concluded that the nuptial squeaks and squeals that once old Tom and Sarah had raised at Kessling did not find an echo in the pious atmosphere of Cable House; and that this was how the Guardian Angel wrought her magic. In short, the brothers were inhibited by that woman up there in that upper room. In short, the townsfolk might have diagnosed, had they been acquainted with a form of magic not then invented, the classic symptoms of the Mother Fixation, not to say the Oedipal Syndrome. And was it not possible that the tireless industry of George and Alfred was nothing other than Sexual Energy (ah, you strenuous Victorians) which, like Fenland water, cannot be subdued but can be pumped into new channels? [p. 66]


1. Crick comments on the villagers' unawareness of the abnormality in the relationships between Atkinson family members. What can we interpret his opinion of this ignorance to be and how does his opinion of this awareness (or lack thereof) relate to his own understanding of himself as a teacher of history, one to be trusted with the relating of a story? How does Crick's observances of the villagers raise questions as to the value or validity of the subjective versus the objective?

2. How does Crick grapple with the contradiction between a superstitious view of the mind's workings ("magic") and a scientific understanding of its machinations ("the Mother Fixation")? Why does Crick bring Freud into his analysis of the brothers' relationship to their mother? From this passage, what opinion of these two opposing methods can we understand Crick to hold?

3. How does this passage, as well as the entire novel, comment on sexuality? How does Crick view the appropriateness of sex as a topic to discuss with children? What can we make of the fact that this story, which deals with issues of sex and sexuality, is being told to his class? Also, how does Crick himself feel about sex? What do his descriptions of the relations between Tom and Sarah, the brothers and their wives, and earlier, between he and Mary, tell us about Crick's understandings of sex? Why the reference to "strenuous Victorians" when Crick describes what he sees as the "tireless industry of George and Alfred" which "like Fenland water, cannot be subdued but can be pumped into new channels", also what is the significance of this metaphor?

4. What is the importance of the questions (and answers) which follow this passage (p.70, quoted above)? Does Crick explain why "must the zenith never be fixed"? What does he mean by "zenith", considering its definition as "the point of the celestial sphere that is directly over the observer and 90 degrees from all points on that person's horizon" (Microsoft Word dictionary)? How does this word relate to Crick's comments on objectivity?


Swift, Graham. Waterland. New York: Washington Square Press Publication of Pocket Books, 1983.

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Last modified 8 March 2004