Waterland Essay - Essays and Criticism

Graham Swift

Essays and Criticism

The Nature and Purpose of Story as Presented in the Novel.

Underlying the sometimes lurid story of murder, suicide, abortion, insanity, incest, and mental retardation are some central questions about the nature of history. What is history? What is the point of studying it? Can the past really be known? How does the past affect the present? As a schoolteacher, Tom Crick, the narrator, has a professional interest in history, and it is no coincidence that the present-day sections of the novel are set in 1979, during a time of great upheaval in the methods applied to the scholarly study of history. Tom Crick also faces an academic climate in which the study of history is considered expendable (his school is phasing out its history department). And he must deal with a troublesome though highly intelligent student named Price, who thinks history is a waste of time, a view shared by Lewis Scott, the school headmaster, who refers to history as "a rag bag of pointless information."

For a man of Crick's generation, the method of studying history that he would have learned in the 1940s and 1950s was very different from what it would later become and what it is today. Fifty years ago, history usually meant political history, the story of governments and their relations, of wars, international treaties, parliamentary legislation, and the like. The lives of ordinary people, including women, were not considered worthy of study, since ordinary people appeared not to exercise any power over historical events. In addition to the narrowness of historical study, the emphasis of historians was on what was called an empirical/analytic method. The facts were assembled, the historian studied them objectively and dispassionately, and wrote a narrative that purported to explain those facts. The explanation became history, and when practiced by the leading scholars in the field, it was generally considered a true account of what had happened in the past. The voice of the traditional historian can be heard in Crick's mocking admonition, evoking "good, dry, textbook history":

History, being an accredited sub-science, only wants to know the facts. History, if it is to keep on constructing its road into the future, must do so on solid ground. At all costs let us avoid mystery-making and speculation, secrets and idle gossip.

Of course, Crick himself does not believe any of this. Even when he was a child and first began to be bewitched by history, it was the myths and stories, the "fabulous aura" of history that attracted him, not the parade of facts. As a mature history teacher, he rejects the idea that history is studied in order to learn from the mistakes of the past, since if that were the case, history would be the record of inexorable progress, which it clearly is not. Nor does history reveal the meaning of the events it records and purports to explain. History in Crick's view is nothing more than a "lucky dip of meanings," even though this does not stop humans from perpetually searching for meaning.

Crick has clearly been influenced by the debate over the nature of history that swept through the intellectual community of historians during the 1960s and 1970s. Much of this was due to the influence of the movement known as postmodernism, which cast doubt on the reliability of the rational empirical method to interpret the meaning of the past. Historians began to ask questions such as, Is the meaning that the historian finds in history something that genuinely is inherent in the past, or is it something that the historian imposes on it? How does language shape meaning? Is there only one correct meaning in history, or might there be several competing interpretations and meanings, each with its own validity?

As history expanded with the study of women, minorities, gays, and cultures all taking their place alongside—and also challenging—old-style political history, the conclusion postmodernism pointed to was that there is really no such thing as objectivity. Just as a novelist or poet gives expression, knowingly or not, to a certain ideology often dictated by class or gender, so too does the historian. The interpretation of the facts before the historian is inevitably colored by his or her own subjectivity, biases, and cultural and intellectual assumptions. The historian is, in a sense, a partner with the past in an act of co-creation, rather than an objective chronicler of something entirely separate from him- or herself. This is why historians today often speak of "doing" history rather than "studying" it, of "constructing" a historical narrative rather than merely writing it. The newer terms help to convey the active role of the historian in shaping his or her material. Some radical postmodernists even express the view that it is impossible to "do" history at all, since what is known as history is in fact no more objectively true than a fairy tale. This is not unlike...

(The entire section is 1992 words.)

The Authorial Intent that Lies Behind Swift's Novels

"Can it be a kindness not to tell what you see? And a blessing to be blind? And the best aid to human happiness that has ever been invented...

(The entire section is 1793 words.)

History, His Story, and Stories in Graham Swift's Waterland

Children [are those] to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to...

(The entire section is 5957 words.)

Abortion and the Fears of the Fathers: Five Male Writers

Waterland: The Stream Flows Backwards
Graham Swift's Waterland opens like a Gothic novel with a murdered body...

(The entire section is 2653 words.)

History and the Here and Now: The Novels of Graham Swift

On one level, Waterland is a series of history lessons, the lessons Crick teaches in the last few weeks before he is forced into early...

(The entire section is 2109 words.)