Once Upon a Time: The Presence of the Past in Graham Swift's Waterland

Felicity Rose '06, English 156, Brown University, 2004

Once upon a time a History teacher retired early, a body came floating down a river, a woman stole a baby from a supermarket, a man told his story. Waterland by Graham Swift is a sweeping fairy-tale, the autobiography of a man obsessed with the past. Ostensibly a collection of stories told by the narrator, Tom Crick, to his students, the structure of Waterland is actually much more complex, shifting voices, moving like the stoppable water of the Ouse River between past and present, history and philosophy, distance and intense immediacy. In Swift's novel, the past is a tangible element, another character to be discovered. In the telling of his own past, Swift's narrator Tom moves between first person accounts and of his life tinged with presence of his adult self and stories/explanations of his own life and those of his family, friends and community. By blurring the lines between truth and fiction -- History and mere fairy-tales -- Tom Crick is attempting to make sense of his own suddenly unbelievable life.

In this passage, Tom Crick tells his own story from a linguistic distance (in the third person) and with the distance of foreknowledge of how the story of his marriage will end:

Once upon a time there was a future history teacher and a future history teacher's wife for whom things went wrong, so -- since you cannot dispose of the past, since things must be -- they had to make do.

And he made do precisely by making a profession out of the past, out of this thing which cannot be eradicated, which accumulates and impinges -- whose action, indeed, was imitated by the growing numbers of books which filled the first-floor room of the Greenwich house which the history teacher made his study, and spilled out on to the landing and staircase. He made a living -- a life's work -- out of the past, for which his justification was the children to whom he offered daily the lessons that the past affords. To them he presented the equivocal gift of history -- burdensome yet instructive -- to carry into their futures. And thus the history teacher -- though his relation with his young charges echoes first the paternal, then the grand-paternal, though he sees in their faces (but he does not admit it) less and less the image of the future, more and more that of something he is trying to retrieve, something he has lost -- could always say (he acquires a penchant for paradox) that he looked back in order to look forward.

But she made do (so he thought) with nothing. Not believing either in looking back or in looking forward, she learnt how to mark time. To withstand, behind all the stage-props of their marriage, the empty space of reality. [126]


1. How does Tom Crick's self-conscious style of autobiography echo Pip's in Great Expectations? Is there a way in which Tom's ironic comments on his own narrative mirror the irony in the early scenes of Great Expectations? How, if at all, are the levels of narration different in these two works -- is Swift present in Waterland as Dickens is in Great Expectations?

2. How does the past function in this passage and in the novel in relation to specific characters? Is there a sense that people are wholly a product of their pasts, or is there some room for inherent character? What about someone like Mary who does not believe in "looking back?" Is her failure to acknowledge the effects of her past on the present what ultimately drives her crazy?

3. In this passage the past is represented as a tangible gathering of objects, specifically books. In contrast, "reality" or the present is "empty space." What is the purpose/effect of this juxtaposition?

4. The idea of looking back in order to look forward is present throughout the novel. Is this way of dealing with the world accepted as necessary or ultimately rejected by the narrator and/or the novelist? What is Tom Crick's purpose for telling his students/the reader not only his own history but the history of the Fens? Is he searching for a future in that past, or is he simply lost in it?


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

United Kingdom Reading Questions

Last modified 8 March 2004