The Question of Why

Briel Steinberg '06, English 156, Brown University, 2004

As Tom Cricke narrates the multi-faceted story within Graham Swift's Waterland, many questions haunt his narration. As he sits and explains to his class of history students his own story, as well as the story of those who came before him, Tom's discontent and frustrations become more and more apparent. Though partially responding to a student's question regarding why history is important at all, and why one is not able to simply focus on the present and the future and leave the past behind, Tom's rambling answer is somewhat cryptic and obviously not merely meant for the benefit of the questioning student. He himself is continuously haunted by the questions of "Why" and "What if" within the novel. Tom, therefore, in attempting to discover the answers to such unanswerable questions, has dedicated his life to history and attempting to solve the mysteries it contains. In chapter 10 of Waterland Tom addresses this question of why that continues to haunt him throughout the novel:

And what does this question Why imply? It implies -- as it surely implies when you throw it at me rebelliously in the midst of our history lessons -- dissatisfaction, disquiet, a sense that all is not well. In a state of perfect contentment there would be no need or room for this irritant little word. History begins only at the point where things go wrong; history is born only with trouble, with perplexity, with regret. So that hard on the heels of the word Why comes the sly and wistful word If. If it had not been for . . . If only . . . Were it not. . . . Those useless Ifs of history. And, constantly impeding, deflecting, distracting the backward searchings of the question why, looms this other form of retrogression: If only we could have it back. A New Beginning . . . If only we could return. [106]


1. The question of Why seems to pervade this novel in many different instances. Does Tom ever truly receive an answer to his many questions? Does the study of history ever truly bring him what he desires? What is it that Tom truly desires in the first place?

2. How can this story and its questions of "Why" be related to Great Expectations? Consider how both Pip and Tom Cricke are affected by history and the impact it has on them when they are young. How do they respond to their situations similarly? Differently?

3. In the above passage Tom claims that "History begins only at the point where things go wrong." Does the rest of the narrative prove or argue this claim? As a devoted student of history, what does this view of history say about Tom and his mindset? Does his opinion of history change in the novel or remain the same throughout?


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

United Kingdom Reading Questions

Last modified 8 March 2004