Themes and Meanings
Swift is much concerned with history and with storytelling. Early in the book, he says, “While the Atkinsons made history, the Cricks spun yarns.” Tom Crick, however, demonstrates that the way to entice people into history is through spinning yarns. Although Tom’s headmaster does not agree with this sentiment, Tom’s students begin for the first time to be interested in history.
Waterland tells about the Fens of Norfolk, land created from marshes as the silt has accumulated. Nature always keeps the upper hand, however, and it reminds the residents of the Fens of its control by wiping out people and property in periodic floods. In some ways, one has the sense that Swift is writing about the primordial slime from which all life originated. Tom knows the history of his region and of his people, and he begins to explore both so that he can understand the structure of his own life and of the life of the Fens.
Tom is part Atkinson and part Crick. The Atkinsons are builders, the Cricks workers for those who build. Tom is not a builder, but he is a step or two beyond being the kind of worker his father was. He has some of the Atkinson drive and intelligence, but he cannot continue his line. Waterland has a strong theme of eternal recurrence. Price, the intelligent, skeptical student who causes Tom to rethink his approach to history, is himself a worker’s son, the first generation to have the educational opportunities that are now available to him. One must certainly ask whether he is not Tom’s spiritual son and, as such, whether he will not proceed along the same lines that Tom has.