Graham Swift's Waterland: Families Fractured

Zoe Ripple '05, English 156, Brown University, 2004

The ending of Graham Swift's Waterland comes to be about endings themselves: babies, relationships, children and mothers all die away as the novel concludes. The ending of the novel suggests that everything, even the entirety of history, "might amount to nothing" (269). Like Wide Sargasso Sea, Waterland focuses on the ways people damage each other and split apart, and on various forms of human madness, as well as how women are destroyed, and the destruction of lives and loves rather than their creation, unlike the focus of the building of love and lives in the Victorian endings. Describing s series of deaths, Swift comes to illuminate madness and the destruction of the domestic in Fen country.

Like Wide Sargasso Sea, Waterland's nonlinear structure and fractured sentence structure contributes to the its feeling of desolation and madness: as a nonlinear narrative, Waterland weaves back and forth through history and characters' stories, creating a sense of dislocation and an ability to firmly ground oneself at any point in the novel, similar to the way Mary is unable to ground herself in any reality at the end of the novel. As the novel ends, Waterland weaves from the scenes of Tom and Mary as they deal with the child Mary has stolen for herself, but we are never far away from Tom's omnipotent internal dialogues and narrations about himself and the nature of history, as well as memories of his childhood and his brother Dick. Further, sentences are often incomplete, single words become statements and thoughts drift into ellipses and are never finished. With thoughts and structure like "But they're killers. Pike. Fresh-water wolves . . . The teeth rake backwards towards the gullet, so what goes in, can't -- Killers," (Swift, 316) and "Lash-fluttering consent: It's all right, go ahead. You see, I can't -- Never could" (321) or "There'll come no answering, gurgling, rescue-me cry. He's on his way. Obeying instinct. Returning. The Ouse flows to the sea . . . " (357), the reader feels that they have entered into a world of lunacy, dislocation and agitated intensity which indeed defines the characters and ending of the novel.

Rather than the optimism and birth of new, solid relationships and beginnings that mark the endings of Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, Waterland ends with the "coming of things to their limits, this invasion by Nothing of the fragile islands of life" (341). There is no need for human beings to change or evolve as there is in the Victorian novels, because the concept of a meaningful future is in limbo. Meaning is sucked out of life rather than infused into it: life is invaded by death, the undoing of people and families, leaving no room for anything else. Good fortune is impossible and "miracles don't happen" (341) as they seem to in the Victorian texts. "Nothing" first invades Mary's life, as Tom looks back to the past and remembers their baby's death, an event describes as a thing "which happens outside dreams which should only happen in them" (308). As the baby is aborted, so begins Mary's psychosis that will last for the remainder of her life, culminating when she steals a baby from a Safeways grocery store in an attempt to recreate her child. Mary, traumatized by the abortion she underwent as a young girl, is delusional and desperate, and insists that God has told her to take the child, and that insists the baby is hers (268). Like Antoinette and Rochester, this tragic figure presents us with another portrait of modern madness, as well as another way to imagine the coming apart of family and normalcy. As Mary sees it, the baby is a kind of Jesus, "sent by God. Who will save us all" (329). To modern ears, this sounds decidedly like the rant of a crazy woman. In Wide Sargasso Sea Mary blames God for telling her and allowing her to kidnap the child: rather than God (and religion itself) being salvific, as He is in Jane Eyre, God becomes equated with modern madness.

The death of Tom's mother allows the reader to further examine the elements of nihilism and nothingness that pervade Waterland. When she dies, his mother becomes a Gone woman and Tom, Dick and their father enter into their "terrible January dawn." (283) With no mother, no wife -- with the destruction of the pinnacle of the domestic sphere -- the family comes apart: the culmination of their fracture will be Dick's death. Their mother's absence is never explained, her death never confirmed: she is in limbo as Gone, leaving her sons to consider that she might someday return to them. Whether Gone or Dead, the mother's death leaves all the "men" in her life in limbo as well, wondering if she just might return home: as Tom tries to absorb the spirit of his dead mother while his father stands about the graveyard(286), their fractured family exists only in a state of futile wonder and pathetic half hope.

The final death in Waterland -- the final ending of the ending -- occurs at the place where the book begins, on the graceful and mysterious Fens. Dick, somewhat mad and able to communicate more effectively with his motorcycle than with his father or brother, drowns himself in the Fens. From Dick, "There'll come no answering, no gurgling, rescue-me cry. He's on his way. Obeying instinct. Returning. The Ouse flows to the sea . . . " (357). His death is finite, as he returns to the waters which are perhaps the only constant in the book. Dick "punctures the water . . . And is gone. Gone . . . " (357). Like his mother, he becomes another person lost in the book, the final Gone person. Crying for Dick is an "empty" endeavor, like life itself, as is his father's desperate "hailing" (365). As the book concludes, Swift confirms that human action against death, against Nothingness, is entirely useless: nothingness ultimately pervades and conquers. Yet another pieces of the family is lost. The deaths in Waterland are the micro examples of the overarching the notion of perpetual nothingness, and of the inability of people or the world to truly progress. Inevitably, the world slips away (336) from itself, as life slips away from people with madness and death. Portraying a family with marked by tragedies that include death, incest and abortion, Swift shows how a family's history, and history itself, repeat with only tragedy as their trademarks. There is no gift of light for Tom or his father, no scenes of nature symbolizing renewal, no rebuilding of the family, as happens in the Victorian texts. Whereas its Victorian counterpart "looks uphill," Waterland looks decidedly downwards.


The endings of Jane Eyre and Great Expectations establish the world as a steady place, one ripe with possibilities and new beginnings. Their modern day rewritings, however, establish the world as a void, a place in which lives are undone rather than (re)built. As love and families are established, Brontë and Dickens use religion, natural symbolism and highly idealized language and scenes in which characters' proverbial stars align perfectly in order to end their novels with the promise that fortuitous futures exist for their respective characters, and that the world itself is an ultimately benevolent place. Rhys and Swift, however, are not so sanguine. By portraying the undoing of wives (and in the case of Waterland children) -- both signifiers of the domestic and domestic bliss -- through death and/or madness, Swift and Rhys show how else in life unravels as well. Generally, with their tone and language each modern author creates a world where catastrophe reigns. The family, domesticity and indeed the perpetuation of life become impossible. While the Victorian texts are ultimately about human beings' ability to move onwards and upwards, and about the possibilities of love, their modern re-workings contradict such hope, portraying life as an ultimately doom-filled endeavor. Each set of books takes the crucial, omnipotent concepts of love and family, indeed the meaning of life itself, and come to very different conclusions about the possibility and point of living at all: for Brontë and Dickens, endings become beginnings, marking the point when life truly blooms, while for Rhys and Swift, endings come to function as a way to illustrate the ways in which both body and soul inevitably wither and die.

The Endings of Victorian and Modern Works

United Kingdom

Last modified 20 May 2004