Before Time, After History: Ruminations in Graham Swift's Waterland

Lauren Smith MA '05, English 156, Brown University, 2004

Graham Swift's narrator in Waterland is haunted by history. Even as he narrates the story of the Cricks and the Atkinsons, he is constantly asking "why, why, why" certain events occur and, more broadly, why he is so invested in retelling the past. He often interrupts himself to question historiography and its seemingly reciprocal relationship with individual development and larger national "progress." In the passage below, Swift's narrator interweaves two different modes of nation formation, compelling us to disentangle and compare them as perhaps competing theories within the main narrative of the novel. He juxtaposes the imagined communities formed synthetically through social, political and cultural ideologies against the organic communities formed diastrophically through natural, osmotic processes. There seems to be a particular kind of anxiety running through this comparison, stringing together for closer analysis two disparate modes of not just nation formation but of history making itself.

The Fens prove an apt metaphor for the narrator's desired understanding of history as a narrative that follows the Aristotelian arch of beginning, middle, and end; he often implies that his story-telling is a way of revealing the order in what appear to be random or disjointed events. In this sense he agrees -- or wants to agree -- with Foucault's claims that, "the great biological image of a progressive maturation of science still underpins a good many historical analyses" (Truth and Power 54). However, the great Western fable of progress is, as Tom discovers, inevitably undercut by "the here and now." Ruptures in the placid face of the swampy Fens do occur in the forms of murders, abortions, domestic violence, and floods. That which appears most orderly and predictable in human nature is found to be as wild and unruly as nature itself. And the moment our fretful narrator thinks he has a hold on his material is precisely the moment it slips through his hands, not unlike an eel might slip through the bars of one of his father's water-logged traps. As he himself articulates on page 93, "Why must the zenith never be fixed? Because to fix the zenith is to contemplate decline. Because if you construct a stage then the show must go on. Because there must always be -- don't deny it -- a future."

And the Cricks come to work for Atkinson. They make their great journey across the Ouse, leaving old Jacob at his solitary outpost; and while one branch of the family goes north to dig the Eau Brink Cut, another goes south, to the village of Apton, where Thomas Atkinson's agents are recruiting labour.

And that is how, children, my ancestors came to live by the River Leem. That is how when the cauldron of revolution was simmering in Paris, so that you, one day, should have a subject for your lessons, they were busy, as usual, with their scouring, pumping and embanking. That is how, when foundations were being rocked in France, a land was being formed which would one day yield fifteen tons of potatoes or nineteen sacks of wheat an acre and on which your history teacher-to-be would one day have his home [16].

Discussion Questions

What modes of history-making does the narrator oscillate between? Why does he seem reluctant to abandon the "great biological image" of history, as Foucault might say? What is at stake in this kind of letting go?

How does the narrator present the relationship between people and the land? Do the characters in his story ever have control over their narrative in the same way they may (or may not) have control over the land? In what ways are these Fen-dwellers haunted by the reality that "something in nature wants to go back"? What does this mean?

In telling his story, the narrator often juxtaposes international events with local events (i.e. he reminds us that the French Revolution is underway on the other side of the channel whilst the Cricks are faithfully draining their beloved swamps). What is the purpose in conflating the local with the global in this narrative? Why might Swift employ this zooming effect throughout the novel?

In what ways is Swift using polyvocality (in a Bakhtinian sense) to destabilize authority in his novel? Is there an underlying attempt to "outwit reality" by including multiple storytellers, or, rather, by having a single narrator move godlike through the minds of multiple characters? What brand of historiography is being fashioned through this cacophony?

Why does Swift's narrator interject into his own narrative to contemplate his fiction-making process, in a way reminiscent of Peter Carey's self-reflexivity in Jack Maggs? What are the differences between Swift's and Carey's anxieties about their story-telling? How is self-reflexivity working in different ways across these two novels?


Foucault, Michel. "Truth and Power," from The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984. pp. 51-75.

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

United Kingdom Reading Questions

Last modified 8 March 2004