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Waterland

Waterland (1983) is a postmodernist text by British novelist and short story writer Graham Swift. It centres around the efforts of Tom Crick, a history teacher, to convince his students of the value of history in a world that does not recognise the distinctions between history, story, and fairytales.

Waterland, content warning, StudySmarter

Waterland: summary

Waterland revolves around the character of Tom Crick. Crick is a middle-aged history teacher from East Anglia. He is passionate about the topic of history, but there aren't many around him who share his views. Lewis Scott, the headmaster of the school he works in, believes history has become somewhat irrelevant. He is trying to convince Crick to take an early retirement. Crick initially refuses. He is forced into leaving when his wife, Mary, steals a baby. This is due to the growing mental instability that has been taking over her life since a traumatic event when she was a young woman. The scandal that ensues is the final event that pushes Crick out of his job.

Crick's students have also begun to question the value of studying history. Crick takes a particular interest in one student, Price. He sees potential in this young man, but Price also questions the point of teaching history in the modern age. Crick takes it upon himself to try and convince his students of the purpose of history. He moves away from teaching the accepted school curriculum. Instead, Crick begins to tell his students about his own personal history. This includes the history of his ancestors and the history of his own past as a young man in the 1940s.

Crick comes from two ancestral families, the Cricks and the Atkinsons. According to Crick, both of these families played key roles in shaping the area where Crick is from. This area is The Fens, a part of East Anglia. This part of England is known for its marshy land and rivers. The title of Waterland comes from this. Crick informs his students that the Atkinsons were the ones to drain The Fens and the Cricks were the ones to ensure that the rivers did not reclaim the land again. These ancestral stories stretch back to the seventeenth century.

Crick also engages in the telling of his own personal history. Waterland is not told in a linear or chronological fashion. Many of the events that Crick explains in his personal history help readers make sense of what has occurred in the earlier stages of Swift's novel. Crick tells a story of adolescent love. He, his mentally challenged brother Dick, and their friend Freddie Parr are all in love with the same woman. This woman is Mary Metcalf. Crick and Mary begin a relationship that results in Mary falling pregnant. Dick asks if the baby is his. Mary tells him it is Freddie's in an effort to protect Crick.

This plan backfires as Dick is sent into a rage that results in him killing Freddie. Freddie's body washes up on the shore near the Cricks' house. Initially, no one knows exactly what has happened. Crick eventually works out that his own brother is responsible for Freddie's murder. Dick also discovers some horrifying news. Letters from his grandfather reveal that Crick and Dick's father is really only Dick's stepfather. Dick is the product of an incestuous relationship between his mother, Helen, and her father. Helen had passed away some years before this. The culmination of all these events results in Dick committing suicide.

Around the same time, Mary is struggling with her pregnancy. She decides to get an abortion. Crick helps her with this. A local woman who seems to resemble a witch performs the abortion. It is technically successful as Mary is no longer pregnant. However, the abortion is also botched and leaves Mary infertile. She will never be able to have children. This turn of events explains why Mary stole a baby as a middle-aged woman. The trauma of never being able to have children has impacted her more and more throughout the years. This has deeply affected her mental health.

In the wake of Mary stealing a child, Crick begins to come to terms with the fact that his wife may be schizophrenic. He has her committed to an asylum. Many of Crick's stories were an attempt to educate Price about the value of history. This education seems to have benefitted Price but Crick is not positive about where Price's future will lead him.

Waterland: analysis

Waterland is a postmodernist novel.

Postmodernism as a genre began as a reaction to modernism. Modernist literature often focuses on the chaos of modern life. It usually reflects negatively on the lack of meaning these modernist authors believe life has. They tend to use experimental forms of literature to express this. Postmodernism promotes many of the same beliefs as modernism, but it does not see these things negatively. Postmodernist literature often accepts and sometimes even celebrates the chaotic nature of life. Famous postmodernist texts include Underworld (1997) by Don DeLillo and Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis (1915).

A common experimental literary device used in postmodernist texts is metafiction.

Metafiction refers to when a text makes the reader aware that they are reading a fictional text. It is self-referential. The story might examine the very means of storytelling itself.

Waterland exhibits the subgenre historiographic metafiction. Canadian academic Linda Hutcheon coined the term in 1987 in her essay 'Beginning to Theorize the Postmodern'. Historiographic metafictions self-consciously draw attention to how history and the practice of writing history are a construction. History is a narrative created by people which means historical documents can have biases and inaccuracies according to who wrote the documents, or whether such documents have been preserved in time.

The writing of history (known as historiography) is not linear nor does it have one singular viewpoint. Works of historiographic metafiction examine how history itself is a narrative and thus readers must examine the truth and lies in the historical record. Waterland blurs the definitions of history, story, and truth. Crick tries to teach his students the idea of history as an incomplete story in Waterland:

I always taught you that history has its uses, its serious purpose. I always taught you to accept the burden of our need to ask why. I taught you that there is never any end to that question, because, as I once denied it for you (yes, I confess a weakness for improvised definitions), history is that impossible thing: the attempt to give an account, with incomplete knowledge, of actions themselves undertaken with incomplete knowledge. (Chapter 10)

Crick mixes different kinds of history together in teaching his students. He teaches them about recognised historical events, his ancestral history, and his own personal history. These are multiple versions and viewpoints of history. This moves away from seeing history as one specific set of dates and documents, which is key to historiographic metafiction.

Main ideas of Waterland

We will now take a look at main ideas present in Graham Swift's Waterland.

Waterland: loss

Loss is very prevalent in Waterland. Many of the central characters lose very significant things throughout Swift's novel. The impact of loss is also shown.

Crick loses much in Waterland. He loses his job because of the devaluing of history and also because of Mary's actions. But Crick loses much more than just this. He will no longer have the ability to educate students on the importance of history. This is clearly a passion of his and very important to him. It is part of the reason why he abandons the school curriculum and teaches history in a much more personal way for the short time he has left at the school. Crick also loses his wife in a way. Mary's clear mental illness means she is eventually committed to an asylum. This is likely to have a drastic impact on their marital relationship. As a young man, Crick also lost his brother, Dick, to suicide because of a series of tragedies.

Mary also experiences significant losses in Waterland. These happen when she is a young woman but impact the rest of her life and the lives of those around her. Mary's botched abortion results in her losing the ability to ever have children. As she gets older, it becomes clear that she desperately wants children. Her infertility drastically affects her mental health to the point in which she is unstable enough to steal a baby. Not only does she lose the ability to have children, Mary gradually loses her mind throughout Waterland too.

Crick's mentally challenged brother Dick both experiences and causes loss in Swift's Waterland. Dick is romantically interested in Mary but loses his opportunity to be with her as she falls for Crick and becomes pregnant. This loss affects Dick and sends him into a rage. This rage drives him to murder Freddie Parr. Dick's state of mind is made even worse by the fact that he discovers he is the product of incest. He loses any sense of his lineage because of this. All this culminates in Dick losing his life via suicide.

It could also be said that Crick's students are losing something significant in no longer having Crick as their history teacher. From your analysis of Waterland, what conclusion can you draw regarding this?

Waterland: characters

We will now take a look at some of the key characters in Waterland.

CharacterExplanationTraits
Tom CrickThe novel's central character and narrator. Tom Crick is a middle-aged history teacher from an area known as The Fens. Crick is passionate about his job but is being pushed out of his position by a headmaster that does not value history as a subject. Crick takes it upon himself to educate his students about a history that is broader than their curriculum. He teaches them of his own personal and ancestral history, showing all that history can encompass. Crick has also had to deal with a traumatic personal life. His brother, Dick, committed suicide. His wife, Mary, is infertile due to a botched abortion and this has had a detrimental effect on her mental wellbeing.Passionate. Educated. Struggling.
Mary Crick (née Metcalf)Crick's wife. Mary had a traumatic experience as a young woman that has impacted her entire life. She had a botched abortion after becoming pregnant due to her relationship with Crick. This left her permanently sterile. At first, she did not claim to want children. Mary tried to be a supportive wife. As her mental state deteriorates, this changes. Mary becomes delusional and believes God wants her to have a child. She steals a baby which results in Crick losing his job. Mary is admitted to an asylum because of her likely schizophrenia.Traumatised. Delusional. Troubled.
Dick CrickDick is Crick's older brother. Dick is mentally challenged but is physically strong. He has deep romantic feelings for Mary. He is left disappointed when Mary falls pregnant and tells him it is Freddie Parr's child. This sends Dick into a rage that results in him killing Freddie. It is some time before Dick is uncovered as the killer. Dick also discovers that he was born of forced incest between his mother and grandfather. All these events culminate in Dick committing suicide.Angry. Challenged. Neglected.
PricePrice is a young A-Level student of Tom Crick's. He questions the value of teaching history. Price sees the world as in danger and heading towards some kind of nuclear crisis or destruction. He believes the learning of history will not aid in stopping this. Crick recognises a potential in Price that he does not see in many of his other students. Crick often directs the tales of his personal history at Price.Sceptical. Immature. Youthful.

Author of Waterland

Graham Swift is the author of Waterland. He was born in 1949 and had a relatively comfortable childhood. Swift became a Cambridge graduate in 1970 with a degree in English.

Swift worked as a teacher for a time and began writing in the 1980s. His first novel, The Sweet Shop (1980), discussed themes of time and the past. These would prove to be prevalent themes in his work. In the following years, Swift published multiple novels. Waterland and Last Orders (1996) were the most popular of these with Last Orders winning the Booker Prize.

Graham Swift has also released both short story and essay collections. His two short story collections are Learning to Swim and Other Stories (1982) and England and Other Stories (2014). England was particularly noted by critics for its multicultural discussions of English identity.

Swift is still writing today. He is now highly critically respected. Swift is known for his nuanced explorations of history and time and his use of postmodernist literary techniques.

Waterland, content warning, StudySmarter

Waterland - Key takeaways

  • Waterland is a 1983 novel by Graham Swift.
  • Swift is a respected British writer known for his focus on history, time, and loss.
  • The novel centres around Tom Crick, a teacher, as he argues for the value of history in the modern world.
  • Waterland is a postmodern novel that uses the technique of historiographic metafiction.
  • One of Waterland's main ideas is loss.

Frequently Asked Questions about Waterland

Waterland is about Tom Crick, a history teacher who is losing his job because history is no longer seen as important by his school's headmaster. Crick takes it upon himself to educate his students on the importance of history.

Graham Swift.

While we can never know an author's motivations for certain, it is likely that Swift wrote Waterland in order to explore the fact that history is a constructed narrative.

The storyline in Waterland is complex and non-linear. Most of the story takes the form of stories told by Tom Crick. These help explain events that have happened earlier in the novel.

Waterland teaches the importance of history in the modern world. It also exposes some of the horrors of human nature, like incest and murder. 

Final Waterland Quiz

Question

When was Waterland published?

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Answer

1983.

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Question

What genre is Waterland?

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Answer

It is a postmodernist text.

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Question

What is a main idea in Waterland?

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Answer

Loss.

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Question

What is historiographic metafiction?

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Answer

It is the idea that history is constructed by people and can have biases. Texts that have this technique emphasise the fact that history is full of stories.

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Question

Who is responsible for the murder of Freddie Parr?

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Answer

Dick Crick.

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Question

What causes Mary's declining mental state?

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Answer

The fact that she can never have children.

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Question

Where does the title Waterland come from?

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Answer

It comes from the area, The Fens, that Crick is from. This area is known for its marshy land.

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Question

How does Price push Crick to change what he is teaching his students?

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Answer

Price questions the value of history in the modern age. Crick wants to convince him otherwise.

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Question

Who is the author of Waterland?

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Answer

Graham Swift.

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Question

What is metafiction?

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Answer

Metafiction is a story that is aware it is a story. It is self-referential.

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