Waterland: An Introduction

[Added by George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University]

Waterland well begins our course because it concerns itself with so many literary and non-literary issues that appear throughout our reading list. As the bookjacket asserts, "Waterland is a moving meditation on history, on procreation, on destruction, and on our struggles to shore up our small worlds against the onrushing forces of time and nature." Like Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, a book that obviously had major influence upon it, and like Dickens's Great Expectations, Waterland meditates on these matters by pursuing a mystery; so the book, like these others, is in part a detective story. It is also the story of two families, of an entire region in England, of England from the industrial revolution to the present, and it is, finally, a meditation on stories and story-telling -- a fictional inquiry into fiction, a book that winds back upon itself and asks why we tell stories.

Waterland leads off our survey of English literature, and it teaches us to ask questions. This novel, which begins with a history teacher who is about to be fired, ruminating upon history and his story in terms of the events of his own life, and he quickly runs up against the young, those without interest in the past, those who quite properly want to know why, why pay attention to what's over and done with. "You ask," the narrator tells his students, "as all history classes ask, as all history classes should ask, What is the point of history" (92). They want to know, as we do, two things, in other words: (1) what is the point of history as a subject; why study the past? and (2) what is the point of history itself, that is, does history, man's existence in public time, have any meaning, any purpose?

This resistance to history by the young, who wish to live in the here and now, is embodied in Price, Tom Crick's student, who voices all the usual objections to paying attention to what has gone by. "Your thesis," Tom says, "is that history, as such is a red-herring; the past is irrelevant. The present alone is vital" (143). He himself admits

My earliest acquaintance with history was thus, in a form issuing from my mother's lips, inseparable from her other bedtime make-believe--how Alfred burnt the cakes, how Canute commanded the waves, how King Charles hid in an oak tree--as if history were a pleasing invention. And even as a schoolboy, when introduced to history as an object of Study, when nursing indeed an unfledged lifetime's passion, it was still the fabulous idea of history that lured me, and I believed, perhaps like you, that history was a myth. Until a series of encounters with the Here and Now gave a sudden urgency to my studies. Until the Here and Now, gripping me by the arm, slapping my face and telling me to take a good look at the mess I was in, informed me that history was no invention but indeed existed--and I had become a part of it. (53)

Concerned with saving the world from nuclear war, concerned that there may not be a future, Price thinks history is bunk: "I want a future. . . And you----you can stuff your past!" (123) Well, as it turns out, this past, this history, is precisely his----Tom's----past. Price also makes a second appealing attack on history and historiography, namely, that it is a means of avoidance: "You know what your trouble is, sir? Your hooked on explanation. Explain, explain. Everything's got to have an explanation. . . . Explaining's a way of avoiding facts while you pretend to get near to them" (145). Anti-history is thus, for Price, anti-explanation, because both evade life in the present (an attitude based on finding the present pleasant, nurturing, and not deadly).

The novel and its narrator treats this position sympathetically, because before the murder of Freddie Parr he and Mary lived outside of time and history, outside that stream of events he is trying to teach to his class. But with the discovery of Freddie's body floating in the canal lock, and with the discovery of a beer bottle, Tom and Mary fall into time and history. Previously, "when Mary was fifteen, and so was I, this was in prehistorical, pubescent times, when we drifted instinctively" (44). As Tom explains, "it is precisely these surprise attacks of the Here and Now which, far from launching us into the present tense, which they do, it is true, for a brief and giddy interval, announce that time has taken us prisoner" (52).

This view accords with that of those philosophical anthropologists--Mircea Eliade and others--who emphasize that until human beings leave tribal, agricultural existence they live in an eternal present in which time follows a cyclical pattern of days and seasons. One becomes an individual only by botching a ritual, a universal pattern. One differentiates oneself and becomes an individual in such societies only by sin and failure. The individual is the man or woman who got the planting or fertility ritual, the hunting pattern, wrong. Which is why the narrator explains: "What is a history teacher" He's someone who teaches mistakes. While others say, Here's how to do it, he says, And here's what goes wrong" (203).

This whole novel, in fact, is an attempt to explain what went wrong---what went wrong with his own life and Mary's, the lives of his parents and the lives of their families, who represent the peasant and wealthy entrepreneurial classes of modern Britain and its rise. Waterland begins, therefore, with the discovery of Freddie Parr's body in midsummer 1937, which comes all the more shockingly, unexpectedly, because Swift presents the discovery within a fairy-tale landscape, for it was "a fairy-tale land, after all" (2), in part because both his mother and father had a gift for such tales.

Trying to understand what has happened to him and his life, Crick retells the story of his life. That is, by relating the events of his life in some sort of an order he makes it into a story. He constructs history--his story. He constructs himself, and in the course of doing so he recognizes that "Perhaps history is just story-telling" (133); "History itself, the Grand Narrative, the filler of vacuums, the dispeller of fears of the dark (53). and he has examples of this in the historical legends told him by his mother (53). Tom also comes to believe that all such reconstructing of history, all such creation of explanatory narratives, are means of ordering our lives and protecting us from chaos and disorder---and surely the characters in this novel desperately experience the need for such shelter, these victims of progress of technology and the anti-natural (for the Cricks lose their way of existence as swamp people when the swamps are drained), and victims of the purely natural (as are Mary, and Tom, and Dick, and Freddie, who were only following natural sexual urges); and victims of World War I (like Tom's father) and victims, like Tom's mother, of natural unnatural love of incest that produces Dick, his idiot half-brother. Story-telling, and history, and books like Waterland are finally a prime defence against fear: "It's all a struggle to make things not seem meaningless. It's all a fight against fear. . . . What do you think all my stories are for. . . I don't care what you call it----explaining, evading the facts, making up meanings, taking a larger perspective, dodging the here and now, education, history, fairy-tales----it helps eliminate fear" (208).

In fact, Tom Crick argues, story-telling comes with time, with living in time, and story-telling, which distinguishes us from animals, comes with humanness.

Children, only animals live entirely in the Here and Now. Only nature knows neither memory nor history. Man 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. Her 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.

The problem, as this entire novel goes to show, is that the material of stories often refuses to be shaped by them, just as nature, unmediated nature, refuses to be shaped by the story of progress with which modern people have tried to cast it in an image more convenient for them.(And, in passing, this fact casts into doubt all story-telling, particularly that of this novel) Thus, Graham Swift's emphasis throughout the novel on two matters that resist all ideological, narrative control, that refused to be shaped by stories we tell----(1) the Fens and (2) sexuality. Putting together the two opposed forces that drive much of his tale, Tom claims "Children, there's something which revolutionaries and prophets of new worlds and even humble champions of Progress (think of those poor Atkinsons . . .) can't abide. Natural history, human nature" (178). As Tom makes us realize, natural history is a paradox and an oxymoron--that is, a jarring placement together of contraries--because it is history of the antihistorical which has no order or is cyclical (nonhistorical) without individuating markers.

Like the Fen waters, like the natural force it is, Mary and Tom and Dick and, alas, Freddie's sexuality refuses to be contained by the canal walls and damns of human fairy-stories and, instead, leads to Freddie's murder, Dick's suicide, Mary's abortion, and ultimately her kidnapping an infant in a supermarket and subsequent commitment to a mental institution. That is why the Fen lands and Fen waters, which the Atkinsons and other commercial leaders of the Industrial Revolution try to fit into a human story, play such an important part in this novel. And that is why Tom, who explicitly takes draining the Fens to exemplify progressive theories of history, speaks in his imagination to his wife of their "Sunday walks, with which he trod and measured out the tenuous, reclaimed land of our marriage?" (111) Fen lands and waters represent the reality that won't fit into our stories (one can't call it nature or the natural, because those terms refer to a reality that already has been placed in a story.

Waterland examines and finds wanting the Neoclassical view nature that takes it to be divine order, the Romantic one that takes it to be essentially benign and in the older manner accommodated to our needs, and the Victorian one that takes it to be, however hostile or neutral, something we can shape to our needs and use for the material of a tale of progress. This whole novel, in other words, sets out to examine these ages---and their literary as well as religious and philosophical foundations---and finds them wanting.) It examines various theories of history, such as that proposed by religion (35), progress (137, 140), and hubris (62), and canvases a wide range of subjects for history such as political events from the Roman conquerors of Britain (124-5) to the Bastille (155) and World Wars I and II, the history of technology (118, 290, including draining the Fens (111), the history of places (Fens), the history of families: Atkinsons and Cricks (78), the history of individual people, esp. narrator and Mary (214), and the history of a bottle, a beer bottle (33).

As impossible as getting right this story may turn out to be, attempting to shape a narrative, one's narrative, one's own novel, is all we have and we must all be historians:

History is that impossible thing: the attempt to give an account, with incomplete knowledge, of actions themselves undertaken with incomplete knowledge. So that it teaches us no short-cuts to Salvation, no recipe for a New World, only the dogged and patient art of making do. I taught you that by for ever attempting to explain we come, not to an Explanation, but to a knowledge of the limits of our power to explain. Yes, yes, the past gets in the way; it trips us up, bogs us down; it complicates, makes difficult. But to ignore this is folly, because, above all, what history teaches us is to avoid illusion and make believe, to lay aside dreams, moonshine, cure-alls, wonder-workings, pie-in-the sky--to be realistic. (94)

A last reason, finally, that we cannot resist story-telling and creating history is that story-telling both resists chaotic parts of living in the present but also weds us to the world, because story-telling is born of curiosity: "Children, be curious. Nothing is worse (I know it) than when curiosity stops. Nothing is more repressive than the repression of curiosity. Curiosity begets love. It weds us to the world" (178; cp. 180b). And that is why we tell stories, and that is one of the reasons why we begin this course with Waterland. The others I leave you to find as you read the other books in the course.

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