The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Waterland is a book of ideas more than it is a book of strong characterization. The architecture of the work is so intricately and carefully structured that it makes characterization of limited importance to the narrative.

Although his development, even as one of the two most fully realized characters in the novel, is minimal, Tom Crick is an interesting character. He is an idealist. He is the first person in his family to receive a solid formal education and is the first to be a teacher. His life is quite unremarkable until he decides to alter drastically the way he teaches history. Mary’s rash, psychotic act precipitates the end of his career, but it also provides the motivation for him to unravel to his students the long, intricate story that constitutes the central core of the novel.

Mary is more psychologically complex than Tom. The pull of religion and the pull of sex combine to lead her into difficult situations that generate in her a festering guilt. Her initial guilt is about her sexual curiosity. The next layer of guilt comes as she begins to have sexual encounters, and these encounters lead to her pregnancy, her abortion, and greater guilt. She withdraws from the world, becoming a virtual nun (Swift reveals that at this point Tom regards her as a Madonna). She tries to find in religion the means of coping with her guilt. When she finally marries Tom, he knows that she cannot have children, that he will have no issue. As...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Tom Crick

Tom Crick, a history teacher at a private secondary school in Greenwich, England, the spot where time can be said to begin. The narrator, in his mid-fifties, has been an instructor of history for thirty years and is being forced to retire because the authorities contend that history has little value in the modern world. As a means of understanding his part in his wife’s recent mental breakdown and in the deaths of his half brother Dick and boyhood friend Freddie Parr, and in response to his students’ lack of interest in the more orthodox history of the French Revolution, Crick tells his students stories, stories from his own life and the life of his family in the Fen Country of Norfolk.

Mary Metcalf Crick

Mary Metcalf Crick, Tom’s wife. Mary, also from the Fenlands, has been married to Tom for as long as he has been a teacher. They have been friends and lovers since childhood. While still in her teens, the sexually precocious Mary becomes pregnant by Tom and has an abortion that renders her permanently sterile. After being a supportive teacher’s wife and working with the elderly for many years, Mary, believing that God wants her and Tom to have children, kidnaps a baby from a supermarket. The baby is quickly returned, but Mary no longer has any contact with reality and is admitted to a mental institution.

Dick Crick

Dick Crick, Tom’s older and retarded half brother. He is the offspring of Tom’s mother, Helen Atkinson, from an incestuous relationship with her father, Ernest. Undeveloped both emotionally and intellectually, Dick is like his motorcycle, more machine than human. In the early 1940’s, when in his late teens, he becomes attracted to Mary Metcalf and she to him. In his jealousy, he kills sixteen-year-old Freddie Parr with an ale bottle, part of the legacy left to him by his true father. Fearing arrest, he commits suicide by drowning himself in the Fens’ River Ouse.


(The entire section is 814 words.)