Critical Context

Graham Swift is a highly original author. Although his work is not derivative, Waterland must inevitably be compared to the Wessex novels of Thomas Hardy, particularly to The Return of the Native (1878), in which Egdon Heath has a metaphorical significance similar to that of the Fenlands and the Ouze as Swift develops them in his novel. Hardy’s extreme interest in the Napoleonic period, as evidenced especially in The Trumpet-Major (1880), also comes to mind when one reads of Tom Crick’s great interest in the French Revolution and in other historical events.

Swift’s subplot involving the Atkinson family and their enterprises is, on the one hand, suggestive of Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns (1902), The Old Wives’ Tale (1908), and Clayhanger (1910), which are concerned with the people of the industrial and commercial area of Stratfordshire known as “The Potteries.” On the other hand, the Atkinson family subplot is overlaid with romantic, indeed with gothic, elements that remind one of Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland: Or, The Transformation (1798) and of some of the works of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, particularly her classic gothic novel, Frankenstein (1818).

Swift examines almost microscopically the development of a family in a place. He traces the interweaving of family traits and characteristics and the effects of locale upon members of a family that has long inhabited the same region. He attempts the sort of observation that William Faulkner mastered in his novels set in Jefferson, Mississippi, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, which explored the Snopes, Compson, Sartoris, and Bundren families. For the stream of consciousness upon which Faulkner depends, however, Swift substitutes the historical narrative that Tom’s forced retirement motivates.