The March of History: Advances, Retreats and Returns in Graham Swift's Waterland

Alexa Van Brunt '04, English 156, Brown University, 2004

In Graham Swift's Waterland, the protagonist Tom Crick traces his personal history as well as the more overarching history of his family, homeland and natural evolution itself, by means of a convoluted narrative that ebbs, flows, and retraces itself in an often ambiguous tautological manner. Tom Crick finds solace in the stories that compose his notion of the historical process and but he simultaneously questions the veracity and usefulness of the linear, narrative structure that epitomizes traditional notions of history. It is this latter view that is indicative of the post-modern rejection of "progressive history", or the definitively modernist perspective that understands history as a series of events progressing toward enlightenment, understanding and the end of human conflict. Jean Baudrillard, in his work Simulacra and Simulation, espouses this post-modernist stance concerning the "myth of history". "History is our lost referential, that is to say our myth . . . Whereas so many generations, and particularly the last, lived in the march of history, in the euphoric or catastrophic expectation of revolution -- today one has the impression that history has retreated, leaving behind it an indifferent nebula, traversed by currents, but emptied of references. It is into this void that the phantasms of a past history recede." Crick, too, casts off this reliance upon the march of history and instead embeds in his students' minds an alternative lesson based upon the cyclical nature of historical development, replete with descriptions of the many retreats human beings have made in the face of supposed progress throughout this history.

It goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards as it goes forwards. It loops. It takes detours. Do not fall into the illusion that history is a well-disciplined and unflagging column marching unswervingly into the future. [135]

Crick follows this water-ridden analogy of history with a more bitterly-personal reflection on the misplaced comforts of linear historical narrative.

So how do we know -- lost in the desert -- that it is to the oasis of the yet-to-come we should be traveling anyway, and not to some other green Elysium that, a long while ago, we left behind? And how do we know that this mountain of baggage called History, which we are obliged to lug with us -- which slows our pace to a crawl and makes us stagger off course -- is really hindering us from advancing or retreating? Which way does salvation lie?

No wonder we move in circles. [136]

But though Tom Crick does posit some post-modern notions relaying the false conception of historical progress and the unstable nature of time and development, the protagonist inevitably maintains an enduring reliance upon the ability of stories -- a type of history in themselves -- to comfort, console and make clear the unfathomable. Tom maintains this reliance upon the story, his own story and history, to disentangle and mediate the tragic events that led to the tragic present-day circumstances in which he resides.

Children, only animals live entirely in the Here and Now. Only Nature knows neither memory nor history. But man -- let me offer you a definition -- is the story telling animal. Wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories, he has to keep on making them up. As long as there's a story, it's all right. Even in the last moment, it's said, in the split second of a fatal fall -- or when he's about to drown -- he sees, passing rapidly before him, the story of his whole life. [63]


What is the nature of Tom Crick's seemingly contradictory attitude toward history throughout the book? Does Waterland represent the post-modernist perspective of historical development? How does Tom Crick perceive history and the worth of history by the end of the novel?

What is the relation between nature and the story-telling narrative in the novel?

How is the Ouse indicative of history, in reference both to Tom's specific story/history and history in general? Is the river emblematic of a certain perspective of historical development?

How do the notions of narrative and history in Waterland deviate from these conceptions in Victorian novels such as Great Expectations and Jane Eyre?


Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation (orig. 1981). trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994.

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

United Kingdom Reading Questions

Last modified 8 March 2004