The Ouse and the passage of Time and History in Graham Swift's Waterland

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

Waterland by Graham Swift, is a narrative that ultimately flows onwards as stories inevitably do: yet it does not always move linearly, but moves both backwards and forwards to tell the stories begotten in the beautiful, haunting Fens. As the book pushes lyrically forth, certain themes, families, events and landscapes and repeated and reexamined, albeit from different perspectives and vantages points. Waterlandis largely concerned with the passing and happening of history, how the history of a landscape or a people is created, how it is told, and how, although time moves forwards, history repeats itself. As the book goes on, it becomes exactly that which it examines: it becomes a teacher and teller of history, recounting Fen country and the people who developed it, nurtured it and suffered in it. And as the book moves forward, so does it repeat itself: the book examines and also becomes history. As such, Waterland examines its own nature and comes to question itself. Beyond the meaning and function of history, the book is also about what it means to know the earth, to know and work a landscape, what it is to be human, and the very nature of reality. One way that history is marked and shaped in this text is by the presence and movement of water: for example, water is the foundation for childhood memories both pleasant and sinister, a place of employment for Tom's father, and also a place of death. The following passage details the movement of the river Ouse, describing not only the river, but also, it seems, the nature of history as presented in Waterland, and therefore, the nature of the book itself.

The Ouse flows on, unconcerned with ambition, whether local or national. It flows not in more than one channel, its waters diverging, its strength divided, silt-prone, flood-prone. Yet it flows -- oozes -- on, as every river must, to the sea. And, as we all know, the sun and the wind suck up the water from the sea and disperse it on the land, perpetually refeeding the rivers. So that while the Ouse flows to the sea, it flows, in reality, like all rivers, only back to itself, to its own source; and that impression that a river moves only one way is an illusion. And it is also an illusion that what you throw (or push) into a river will be carried away, swallowed forever, and never return. Because it will return. And that remark first put about, two and a half thousand years ago, by Heraclitus of Ephesus, that we cannot step twice into the same river, is not to be trusted. Because we are always stepping into the same river.

It flows out of the heart of England to the Wash and the North Sea. It passes the sturdy English towns of Bedford, Huntington, St Ives, Ely, Gildsey and King's Lynn, whose inhabitants see the river which flows only one way -- downstream -- and not the river which flows in an eternal circle. Its name derives from the Sanskrit for "water." It is a hundred and fifty-six square miles long. Its catchment is 2,067 square miles. It has several tributaries, including the Ouzel, the Ivel, the Cam, the Little Ouse and the Leem. The Leem flows into the Ouse below Gildsey. The Leem flows into the Ouse, and the Ouse flows . . . flows to . . . And by the Leem, in the year 1943, lived a lock-keeper. [146]


How do these two concurrent passages describe, animate, illuminate or mimic the book Waterland?

What power do human beings have in this novel against the "tides" of life or of history? Against nature? What is nature that humans are not?

Are humans powerful or powerless in the face of time, history and/or other human beings?

How is the Ouse similar or different from the concept(s) of history presented in Waterland? How is the book similar or different from the concepts of history presented in the novel?


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

United Kingdom Reading Questions

Last modified 8 March 2004