Embodiments of history and delayed confessions: Graham Swift's Waterland as trauma fiction.
Daniel Lea has recently remarked that
[Graham] Swift is a problematic figure amongst post-modernist writers largely because he questions the cynical or detached irony of many of its proponents. Instead, he reminds us that writing and reading are fundamentally ethical pursuits that cannot stand outside history, aloof and indifferent. (96)
The criticism by Lea, Tama Benyei, and Stef Craps aside, however, readings of Swift's ethics have largely been lacking in criticism of his work. Benyei has delineated the two categories of critical readings of Swift that have been developed over the last two decades: those indebted to Linda Hutcheon's notion of "historiographic metafiction" and those that identify "the dominant narrative mode of the fiction as one of mourning and/or melancholia, inscribing the melancholic narrative personae into the broader cultural pathologies of nation, empire or age" ("Novels" 40). Benyei further argues that although "these two styles of reading Swift are not irreconcilable," he privileges the "'melancholy' kind of reading," which "starts with the pathological voice of the narrator" and "qualif[ies] in advance the relevance of any theoretical statement as bearing the mark of the enunciative situation of narrating. It is natural that the latter kind of reading, inevitably in the case of Swift, lends itself more to a discussion of the ethical dimensions of the narratives" (41). The present essay employs the best aspects of both these strands of Swift criticism in rejecting the novel as exemplifying historiographic metafiction while nevertheless retaining this first strand's emphasis on history by demonstrating how the novel's treatment of personal history as trauma enables a causally grounded ethical reading of it.
While a variety of criticism has explored the nature of macrocosmic histories in Swift's masterpiece, Waterland (1983), (1) a persistent refusal to recognize the thrust of the novel as a delayed confessional narrative conveying the stories of narrator Tom Crick's guilt about the murder of his friend Freddie Parr and about his aborted child and the suicide of his brother has prevented commentators from fully appreciating the ethical significance of Crick's narration. (2) Furthermore, the criticism that has accrued around the natural, topographical, imperial, and family histories Crick relates actually occludes the narrative project of the novel. His very reason for telling these stories is to prevent revealing the atrocities resulting from a series of events in the mid-1940s. (3) He loves his job in the present as a history teacher at a boys' school in London in the late 1970s. But when his wife steals a baby from a supermarket, Crick's position becomes untenable, and he is finally fired after he starts telling stories about his childhood days in the 1940s to his classes rather than teaching.
The pressure of these two current events is unbearable, and Crick cannot now cope with the present, thus he starts his journey back into his memory as he undergoes a process termed "re-remembering," which itself stems from our instinctive needs both to tell stories and to confess crimes and misdeeds. This process refers to an almost inevitable recollection of events haunting persons involved in trauma who have forgotten what they originally remembered about the atrocities. Although the tendency to read the novel as historiographic metafiction has dominated criticism of it, Stef Craps has recently pointed out that
despite its obvious sympathy for the narrativist critique of traditional history, Waterland does not--as is often thought to be the case--reflect the extreme relativism and the radical skepticism in relation to the referentiality of language and narrative that are commonly imputed to post-modernist historiography. The novel insists on the possibility and necessity of maintaining some form of contact with the real, which it reconceptualizes in terms of trauma. (70-71)
Tom Crick's student Price triggers this process because he symbolizes Crick's bodily theory of history and represents the aborted son Crick never knew. It is only when Crick fully re-remembers and singularly confesses the traumas of that fateful summer of 1943-the murder of his friend Freddie Parr, his girlfriend's abortion of their baby, and his brother's suicide--that he has a chance to undergo a narrative catharsis. But a real danger looms for him: if he stays immersed in these particular stories of the past as he used his retreat into more abstract histories to escape that history originally, he is doomed to be unable to cope with the present events that desperately command his attention.
As Cathy Carruth has argued, it is "at the specific point at which knowing and not knowing intersect that the language of literature and the psychoanalytic theory of traumatic experience precisely meet" (3), and this essay explores the particular ways in which Crick's narrative and his traumas are intertwined in his mind. More precisely, it seeks to show how Tom Crick's particular narrative patterns exemplify what Carruth terms the crux of many trauma narratives: a "double telling, the oscillation between a crisis of death and the correlative crisis of life: between the story of the unbearable nature of an event and the story of the unbearable nature of its survival" (7). Crick suppresses narrating two of the three crises of deaths for which he is at least partially responsible until late in the novel, while the majority of the novel relates how he coped with his "correlative crisis of life" through his immersion in professional academic histories.
Waterland is thus a trauma fiction, a term employed by Anne Whitehead in her book of the same name. The question she poses to open her provocative study is an apt one for Waterland: "if trauma comprises an event or experience which overwhelms the individual and resists language or representation, how then can it be narrativised in fiction?" (3). Her general answer is that "novelists have frequently found that the impact of trauma can only adequately be represented by mimicking its forms and symptoms, so that temporality and chronology collapse, and narratives are characterized by repetition and indirection" (3). So it is with Waterland: time is both onrushing and infinitely postponed and present; progression occurs but not without extensive repetition. Swift's masterpiece is sufficiently saturated in trauma as to color every aspect of its fictive elements, in particular, its narration.
Crick's conception of history is cyclical, much like the rivers of his childhood that loop back on themselves repeatedly and often flood the surrounding countryside. Although he manages to make the dizzying array of cyclical histories he relates seem natural, they in fact serve to conceal his buried anguish at the deaths he played a part in that fateful summer in 1943. In an Herculean effort to avoid being haunted by these dead bodies, Crick immerses himself in the French Revolution and obsesses about the corpses in the Bastille and also investigates the history of the bodies of water surrounding him while growing up, which are themselves filled with the teeming bodies of eels. Tellingly, however, in several crucial passages, Crick compares history to an inquest upon a body, which gradually enables us to understand why he has been incapable until now of telling the most important stories about the dead bodies that haunt his childhood memories.
The novel is framed by bodies in the water of the Leem and Ouse Rivers that run through the flat Fen country above Cambridge, England. It opens with the body of local boy Freddie Parr in the Leem and closes with Tom's brother Dick diving under the waters of the Ouse and never reappearing. (4) The legal inquest upon Freddie's body rules his death an accident, but the novel, told as a narrative inquest into his death and the deaths that soon follow, reveals to us that he was murdered. Freddie was murdered because Dick believed that Freddie had impregnated Mary Metcalf, with whom Dick was infatuated. Tom actually turns out to be the father, and in a horrific scene late in the novel he describes the primitive abortion that is performed on Mary by a local midwife. Tom dumps the aborted fetus into the river, but he and Mary can never submerge their memories of this transgressive act. This abortion renders Mary sterile and leads her, later in life, to steal the baby from the supermarket as a sort of replacement for the child she never had. Mary is a Sarah figure who finally repents of her role in the abortion and believes that, despite her barrenness, God has granted her wish for children and led her to have this baby. Tom, however, has been so traumatized by the abortion and the suicide that he is unable to relate these narratives to the reader until late in the novel. His storytelling thus serves as both a way to suppress this trauma through a technique that circles back repeatedly to this bloodiest of personal family history, and finally also as an entry into the past so that he can belatedly tell the story and experience a narrative catharsis. Not long after the abortion is performed, Tom perversely reveals to Dick the forbidden knowledge that he is actually the product of an incestuous relationship. Frustrated and hopeless, Dick dives below the surface of the river, never to reappear, and is presumably drowned. The novel's conception of history as an inquest enables us to realize the lingering hold of these three horrors on Tom and mourn for the tangible physical expressions of them--human beings whose lives are destroyed.
Carruth's conception of trauma as a double wound is pertinent to understanding what I am terming Crick's incarnational theory of history because he thinks of trauma initially in its original meaning--as a wound inflicted upon a body or series of bodies: Freddie's body, Mary's body, Dick's body--but is only very slowly grappling with the impact of the psychic wounds he has inflicted upon himself. Drawing on Freud's The Pleasure Principle, Carruth suggests that
the wound of the mind [...] is not, like the wound of the body, a simple and healable event, but rather an event that [...] is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again, repeatedly, in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor. (4)
Three examples of this repetitive action involve Tom's many encounters with the morbid student Price who reminds him of the aborted baby; his forceful taking of the baby his wife stole in the present, which echoes a series of historical events in certain telling ways, particularly Mary's abortion; and his possible proleptic obsession over Dick's suicide once he has finally narrated that event. The novel thus relates a series of repetitious bodily actions that then prompt a singular verbal confession: it is only when Tom as survivor has re-encountered and re-enacted, as it were, Mary's abortion, that that specific narrative can surface in his consciousness and he can confess it in a one-time iteration. His narration of Dick's suicide, however, elides his responsibility for that act by overlaying it with a mythical, ineluctable quality.
Tom Crick conceives of history as a river and stoppages in history, or the "Here and Now," the moment when the flow of history immerses an individual, as the result of bodies that are often literally and sometimes metaphorically wedged in its flow. Thus, the novel opens with the account of the death of Freddie Parr wedged in the slow-flowing Leem River outside Tom's house; deals intermittently with the bodies immersed in water throughout world and British history; focuses on Price, the sort of replacement for Crick's aborted son who displays a distinctly corpse-like appearance; and concludes with the stories of the abortion--a fetus whose nourishing liquid is literally sucked out through a hollow reed--and Dick's suicide. Throughout the novel, significant bodies float into view on the stream of Tom's narration. Their bobbing persistence reminds us that history is never the impersonal river of events that Tom likes to artfully characterize it as but often manifests itself as the literal embod[y]ment of people important to him. The three bodies that frame the novel--Freddie's body in the water, the aborted fetus of Tom and Mary, and Dick's body arcing into the river at the novel's conclusion--represent collectively the end of Tom's personal history. His life as an historian is a series of stories told to fill in the gaps left by the destruction of these bodies, with all of whom he is associated, he finally guiltily realizes. (5)
Although the novel opens on a midsummer night in 1937, it quickly moves to another midsummer night some six years later, in July of 1943. The first chapter closes with Tom Crick's recollection of Freddie Parr's body that struck his lock-keeper father's sluice and bobbed there all night:
something floated down the Leem, struck the iron-work of the sluice and, tugged by the eddies, continued to knock and scrape against it till morning. Something extraordinary and unprecedented, and not to be disposed of like a branch or potato sack or even a dead sheep. For this something was a dead body. And the body belonged to Freddie Parr, who lived less than a mile away and was my age, give or take a month. (4)
In a pattern that is a microcosm of his delayed narratives about his aborted baby and his brother's suicide, Crick prevents us from knowing anymore about this body in the water by inserting three chapters between the finding of the body and the story attached to it. In the meantime, we are given two more stories--one set in the present about Crick's losing his job and one set in the past about the history of the Fens and the rise of the Crick family.
Although these stories seem unimportant, in the midst of chapter three, "About the Fens," Crick reveals why his family has been so good at telling stories for so long--to suppress the utter reality constantly threatening to encroach on their lives:
To live in the Fens is to receive strong doses of reality. Melancholia and self-murder are not unknown in the Fens. Heavy drinking, madness and sudden acts of violence are not uncommon. How do you surmount reality, children? [...] How did the Cricks outwit reality? By telling stories. (17)
In an indirect fashion, Crick elliptically alludes to the violent acts his subsequent life as a professional storyteller, an historian, will cover up: the "sudden acts of violence" committed by Dick against Freddie Parr, the "self-murder" of his brother Dick, and the violence he and Mary enabled to be committed against their fetus.
In chapter eight, "About the Story-telling Animal," Crick purports to tell his class of children in the late 1970s why he became a history teacher. His method is indirect and unreliable, but enough clues exist for us to read the subtext underneath his claims. He probingly asks in response to the obnoxious student Price's insistence on the "here and now," "But what is this much-adduced Here and Now? What is this indefinable zone between what is past and what is to come; this free and airy present tense in which we are always longing to take flight into the boundless future?" (60). (6) The terror of the moments in Crick's early life--moments he labels as examples of the "Here and Now"--is what he immersed himself in history to escape, even though he will not admit this even to himself. He gives just enough information in this chapter for us to realize that history enables him to flll the empty space of himself that was filled with terror by a series of events that summer.
Continuing to build on his earlier theory of why his family told stories, Crick asks, "What do you do when reality is an empty space?" (61). His answer, finally, comes from his family's penchant for narration--"Or, like the Cricks who out of their watery toils could always dredge up a tale or two, you can tell stories" (61). He tells the class that his conception of history as myth was shattered by his encounters with the "Here and Now" that fateful summer:
Until the Here and Now, gripping me by the arm, slapping my face and telling me to take a good look at the mess I was in, informed me that history was no invention but indeed existed--and I had become part of it. So I shouldered my Subject. So I began to look into history--not only the well-thumbed history of the wide world but also, indeed with particular zeal, the history of my Fenland forebears. So I began to demand of history an Explanation. (62)
A cursory reading of this passage suggests that Crick dealt squarely with the problems occasioned by Freddie's death at that time, but upon a closer reading we realize that he has merely "shouldered my Subject" in order to escape a much heavier burden.
Damon Marcel DeCoste suggests that Crick's escapist narration is a necessary avoidance of the nihilistic reality in the novel:
[It] is a desirable, almost morally imperative, enterprise. This is so because reality in Waterland is not simply absurd; it is a semantic nothingness that threatens, by way of catastrophe, violence, and amoral desire, other forms of annihilation, the negation of humanity and ultimately of life. [...] Reality, then, is consistently associated in the novel not simply with the death of meaning but with more concrete deaths, more material destruction, as well. [...] If for Crick, "[w]e all wander from the real world" , this is not only inevitable but something for which we should be grateful, given the maddening and deadly character ascribed to this real world. (381-82)
DeCoste's argument, while alluring, is ultimately as escapist as Crick's own attempts. Crick's real contribution to the deaths in the novel--his premarital impregnation of Mary, which led indirectly to Freddie's death, and especially the abortion of Mary's fetus and the way in which he drives his brother to suicide--must be examined by himself and by the reader in order to understand why he has fled reality for so long--because he feels responsible for these deaths. Tamas Benyei recognizes Crick's necessity to undergo this self-examination in part, arguing, "The point of history for Crick is to absolve him from the task of coming to terms with his pestering Dick into suicide and with his inability to retrieve Mary by his love" ("Narrative" 115-16). Because of his vocational studies in professional history and in his avocational delight in natural history, Crick experiences the consequences of the avoidance of trauma like the typical Swiftian protagonist/narrator as described by Stef Craps: "Negating the radically disorienting impact of trauma, typically through the pursuit of an illusory ideal of wholeness or completion, is shown to have catastrophic personal and political consequences" (3). The real morally imperative enterprise that Crick needs to undertake, in contrast to DeCoste's assertion that his entire narration is "almost morally imperative," is to face reality head-on--as his ancestors were never able to and as he finally does at the end of the novel in his process of re-remembering the abortion and Dick's suicide, although he unfortunately still tries to absolve himself of responsibility in the latter event.
It is not until the tenth chapter, "About the Question Why," that Crick articulates his academic theory of history--one that is colored by his experience with the dead bodies that surrounded him that summer in 1943. He recalls to his class his analogy of the past to a body:
I used to ask you to liken the study of history to an inquest. Suppose we have on our hands a corpse--viz., the past. A corpse not always readily identifiable but now and then taking a specific and quite personal form. For example, the headless trunk of Louis XVI. Do we say of this corpse, Well, a corpse is a corpse and corpses don't revive? No, we do not. We ask: Why did this corpse come to be a corpse? Answer: By accident--or because on a certain day in Paris when a certain guillotine was descending, Louis XVI happened to have his neck in the way. (107)
Especially since this chapter is immediately followed by his account of the actual historical inquest onto a body--that of Freddie Parr in 1943-we realize that that particular inquest has resulted in Crick's theory of history as an inquest on the metaphorical corpse of the past. His interest in bodies of the French Revolution--a revolt that caused the deaths of many people and concluded with the public executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette--stems from his early fascination with those dead bodies that bobbed around him in 1943-Freddie's body, the aborted fetus he dumps in the Ouse River, and Dick's body that never reappears after his concluding plunge into the same river.
He further notes that we continue to ask "why [...], did Louis' neck happen to be--?" (107) Asking why, he argues, is a never-ending process but it is worth it since "history teaches us to avoid illusion and make-believe, to lay aside dreams, moonshine, cure-alls, wonder-workings, pie-in-the-sky--to be realistic" (108). Yet it is precisely his immersion in history that has enabled him to enter a world of the past like the one he criticizes in this passage that effectively precludes having to re-examine the terrible deaths succeeding Freddie's murder.
His curiosity about Freddie's death, however, is sufficient to cause him to investigate what really happened, and he manages to relate the truth about this death--unlike his narration of the abortion and of his brother's suicide--fairly early in the novel, in chapter seven, "About Holes and Things," several chapters before the one just discussed. Perhaps because he does not feel as directly responsible for this death, Tom is able to relate it much more quickly than the others for which he feels direct responsibility; tellingly, however, he still feels guilt over the incident, although he will put off revealing this guilt for almost another 100 pages.
Now his example of Louis XVI as a case study in historical curiosity in chapter ten acquires a new resonance. Just as Freddie did not die by accident, neither did Louis XVI: each died for a specific reason. Asking why led Crick to the answer: his brother Dick killed him because he thought Freddie was the father of Mary's baby when it was really Tom. When Mary realizes that she has played a part in Freddie's murder, she experiences an absence of curiosity, an absence that will become absolute and final after the abortion is performed on her later that summer but related only much later in the novel. Tom notices this lack of curiosity when he recalls their meeting after the discovery of Freddie's body: "When she looks up she seems three times older than me, as if she's become a hard-featured woman with a past. Then I see it's because something's gone from her face. Curiosity's gone" (57). After this incident, the abortion, and Dick's suicide, Tom's curiosity, however, does not disappear but attaches itself to other histories, such as the French Revolution, which he can bear to relate, even study. (7)
After leaving Mary, Tom creates one of his first histories, sketching out a story about how Dick killed Freddie:
So Dick comes home from seeing Mary and goes out again with something in the pocket of his windcheater. He waylays Freddie near the footbridge. He knows that Freddie, like his father, never refuses a drink, and though Dick is never known to drink himself, he offers him something special--a beer like no other. With the result that Freddie, who can't swim anyway, will be in no state to save himself. "Freddie want drink?" They sit on the footbridge. For good measure, before pushing him in, Dick hits him with the empty bottle. On the right temple. Then Dick throws the bottle into the river too. And, like Freddie, the bottle floats downstream. ...(59)
The ease with which Tom relates this first of three stories of death that summer in 1943 is belied by his seeming refusal to bear any responsibility for it. Mary, however, has attempted verbally to claim culpability on behalf of both of them, telling him, "Dick killed Freddie Parr because he thought it was him. Which means we're to blame too" (57). At this point, Tom rejects even the possibility of his own paternity, questioning Mary whether or not Freddie or Dick is the father of the child, but not asking if he himself is (58).
Now, in the present, because of the frightening pressure put on him by his refusal to teach traditional history (he is telling all the stories that comprise the narration to his class instead), coupled with the pending realization that his wife is going crazy because she thinks God is going to give her a child in her fifties, Crick is forced to recall those horrific events of his past, briefly admitting from the point of view of his students, "it's the inexplicable that keeps him jabbering on nineteen to the dozen like this and scurrying further and further into the past. Because when there's no way forward the only way is--" (108-09). He is disturbed enough by the events in the "Here and Now" that he even finally claims the partial responsibility for Freddie's death that had been urged upon him by Mary so long ago. At the end of chapter seventeen, "About the Lock-keeper," which relates some of the personal history of his father, he mentions the appearance of that first of a series of disturbing dead bodies in liquid that summer and then quickly and surprisingly admits his guilt in the murder: "the body of a boy [...] whom I had played a part in murdering, floated against the sluice" (151). Because he is so disturbed by recalling Freddie's body, and especially by his admission of guilt in the murder, Tom escapes into the present by quickly giving us a chapter, "In Loco Parentis," about his conversation with his headmaster, which is quickly followed by a retreat into the distant past, given in chapter nineteen, "About My Grandfather."
Tom's narration then, beginning with chapter eleven, "About Accidental Death," tells the story about the inquest on Freddie's body and the events that followed in fits and starts. His present--his "Here and Now"--has finally become awful enough to force him to re-remember the past. He has obviously recalled these tragedies momentarily at the time of their occurrence and then forgotten them, buried them beneath the history he conducted on the Fens when younger and under the history of the French Revolution he investigated when older. Now he must re-remember these atrocities, an essential process when dealing with trauma. Moreover, Crick has to re-remember what happened in order to experience any expiation for the acts he helped commit that fateful summer.
In her discussion of trauma in Toni Morrison's Beloved, Nicola King makes a point about re-remembering apposite to Tom Crick's convoluted narration in Waterland. Discussing the appearance of the phrase "rememory" in that novel, King notes that the phrase "suggests 're-remembering,' a remembering after a forgetting, the psychic insistence of the traumatic event and the cyclical structure of the narrative" (158). Mae G. Henderson has argued that "rememory" "is something which possesses (or haunts) one, rather than something which one possesses" (qtd. in King 159). Taken together, these two insights about the process of recovering a traumatic memory, or series of memories, suggest that those who take part in traumatic events that they have forgotten, or tried to forget, remain haunted by them until they finally are almost ineluctably led into a process of re-remembrance that constitutes a cyclical narrative. Tom Crick's penchant for telling stories as a means of escape from re-remembering the traumas of 1943 he has repressed is eventually shattered by the pressure of the current traumas in his life. Thus the old memories that had haunted him for over twenty-five years finally circle back to him and, almost despite himself, are eventually iterated by him.
Crick's process of re-remembering is inherently a confessional one. The confessional method characterized his novel Shuttlecock, published two years before Waterland, in 1981. That novel's narrator, Prentis, reveals a series of confessions about his family life, his job, and his father's experience as a Nazi prisoner of war in World War Two, all of which eventually coalesce. Each of these three narratives is a type of confession slowly and deliciously revealed to the reader. (8) Swift had found the mode that he would turn to again in Waterland, but, as a careful reading on the latter novel reveals, this has gone largely unrecognized because the more straightforwardly descriptive stories that are articulated prevent the more confessional ones--the abortion of Mary's baby and Dick's suicide--from being told for most of the novel.
It is only when Price, the apocalyptic student with a corpse-like appearance, challenges Crick repeatedly about the importance of the Here and Now that Crick becomes more reflective about the stories from his past, an essential first step in the process of re-remembering. Price's function in the novel is a powerful one, though it has gone largely unrecognized. He acts both as a literal embodiment of Crick's incarnational theory of history and, more important, as a reminder of the child Crick lost through the abortion of 1943. Crick's extended time spent with the boy in the pub after school one evening thus finally precipitates his story of the abortion, a fascinating illustration of Carruth's double wound effect: as Crick recalls the physical wounds visited upon Mary's body and that of the fetus, he begins laying the foundation for future exploration of the psychic wounds created in his and Mary's minds.
Price's ghastly complexion suggests that he represents a literal embodiment of Crick's incarnational theory of history. He is described as "corpse-pale" (138), and earlier Crick tells his wife that "He wears this stuff ... a sort of dirty-white greasepaint ..." (125). Later, when Crick meets Price and ends up taking him to a pub for drinks, Price's face is described as "loom[ing] up like a haggard moon in the dark" (236), and, once there, Crick thinks of the two of them as "A semi-drunk schoolmaster and a schoolboy with a death-mask face" (238). His is the latest body that has figuratively lodged in the river of history, which makes Crick fearful enough about the present that he retreats into telling those long-forgotten and suppressed stories of the past he has avoided articulating for so long.
Since Price is overly concerned with the "Here and Now" and fears the world is going to end, he has become president of the Holocaust Club at Crick's school. In fact, it is his pronouncement that history is about to end (uncannily anticipating Francis Fukuyama's later claim in The End of History and the Last Man in 1992) that has inspired Crick's process of telling stories in class rather than teaching traditional history. Price proclaims to Crick and the class very early in the novel, "The only important thing about history, I think, sir, is that it's got to the point where it's probably about to end" (7). Crick recognizes that old familiar fear of the Here and Now that had so afflicted him in 1943, therefore he starts telling his class stories to assuage their fears: "So we closed our textbooks. Put aside the French Revolution [...]. I began, having recognized in my young but by no means carefree class the contagious symptoms of fear: 'Once upon a time'" (7). Price is thus the impetus for Crick's new "style" of teaching--one that eventually gets him in trouble with his headmaster and then fired after news spreads of his wife's kidnapping of a local baby. Importantly, then, Price starts the process of re-remembering for Crick; even though much of the novel is a cyclical avoidance of that process, Crick at least starts to recall some personal events of that summer in 1943, especially the death of Freddie Parr.
But Crick needs a further spur to fully re-enter that time in his life and re-remember the abortion of Mary's fetus and Dick's suicide. That comes through his long evening with Price in the pub much later in the novel and during which Price's second function is revealed: as a symbol of Mary's aborted fetus, the son Crick never had. When Price gets more drinks for himself and Crick that night the barman is not convinced he is over eighteen and Crick says, much to Price's embarrassment, "I should know. He's my son!" (241). Further evidence that Price reminds Crick of his lost son occurs after Crick's relation of the story of Mary's abortion to the student. After Price leads him to his bus-stop, Crick, having just told this narrative, briefly but tellingly identifies with Louis XVI, who also lost his son: "And History scarcely finds time to mention that on the eve of the French Revolution Louis XVI mourned his first-born" (310).
Crick has hinted about the abortion earlier in the novel but has successfully elided almost all traces of it from his narration. The twelfth chapter, "About the Change in Life," tantalizingly suggests Mary's course of action after Freddie's death but then quickly flashes forward a few years to when Tom and Mary are married. Introduced with a typical story-telling opening, the passage where Crick hints at Mary's abortion in this chapter is given a distanced quality that abstracts it from its concretized horror; tellingly, Mary is not even named and Tom casts himself in the third person: "Many years ago there was a future history teacher's wife who resolved upon a certain drastic course of action. Who said to the future history teacher (causing consternation to engulf him, for he had no notion what he, in the circumstances, would do): 'I know what I'm going to do'" (117). Crick then briefly mentions that they quit seeing each other for several years: she has withdrawn into her father's "lonely farmhouse--as he buried himself in history books" (117). Earlier I argued that Crick's escape into the professional study of history was undertaken to avoid facing responsibility for the abortion. This passage clearly suggests as much. But this is only a brief admission on his part that the attentive reader pieces together in retrospect.
Over the next three years, Crick goes to fight in World War II. In a letter to Mary suffused with feeling about their joint guilt over the aborted child, Crick suggests he, too, has done penance, but what he seems to have done instead is to bury himself in the abject human horror--"the ruins of Europe"--that he sees around him (120). Only then can he forget the more personal horror of the abortion. Upon his return, prompted by his father's written urging to write to Mary, he is reunited with her. When they walk by the Ouse River where we find out later Tom dumped their aborted fetus, she asks him bluntly, "You know, don't you, that short of a miracle we can't have a child?" (122).
There is no explanation at this point for Mary's infertility, and Crick follows her poignant question with two attempts to tell the story of the abortion. The first begins beguilingly, "Once upon a time there was a future history teacher's wife who wore a rust-red schoolgirl's uniform and wore her deep-brown hair in a straight fringe," and ends disturbingly: "Who liked to find things out, to uncover secrets, but then ceased to be inquisitive. Whose life came to a kind of stop when she was only sixteen, though she had to go on living" (122). This admission bespeaks too much reality for Crick, so he quickly follows that passage with one that starts in an even more distanced fashion: "Once, long ago, there was a future history teacher's wife who, though she said to the future history teacher they should never meet again, married him three years later. And the future history teacher took her away with him, in 1947, from the Cambridgeshire Fens where they were both born, to London" (122). He then mentions a great flood in the spring of that same year that gave his father "broncho-pneumonia" and killed him. Immediately, he stops that narration with another rhetorical move that forestalls any more revelations: "But that is another story ..." (122).
One brief further mention of Mary's predicament that led to the abortion is all we are given after these two passages until the long night in the pub with Price much later in the novel. In chapter thirteen, "Histrionics," Crick gratefully recalls the verdict that was returned on Freddie Parr's body--"that neat and neutral phrase 'Accidental Death'" (131). Clearly feeling himself thus absolved of any responsibility for Freddie's death, Crick thinks, "Because that neat phrase--it was official--meant that no one was guilty" (131). He tries to rationalize away Mary's pregnancy as "that little thing in Mary's tummy," but when he tells her, "'It's all right. Haven't you heard? Accidental death. So it's all right. All right. Nothing's changed,'" she replies chillingly, "'It's not all right. Because it wasn't an accident. Everything's changed'" (131). Finally, he imploringly asks her what they are going to do, and she says, "'I know what I'm going to do'" (133). That prophetic phrase haunts the rest of his narration, in which Crick attempts to avoid telling what happened to Mary's pregnancy by taking refuge in relating a whole host of other histories whose abstraction prevents him from re-remembering the particular horrors of the abortion and suicide narratives. (9)
But before the abortion narrative is resumed, Crick finally relates the story of his wife's kidnapping of a baby in the present in chapters 35 and 36, which is clearly done as a sort of replacement for the baby she aborted. The intense pressure of this event in the present, along with Price's presence, catapults Crick back to the events of that fateful summer of 1943. Crick's time in the pub with Price ineluctably leads him to undergo the process of re-remembering the abortion. Price's function as both a seemingly literal embodiment of Crick's bodily theory of history and as the symbolic son that Crick could have had leads Crick to tell Price both about the death of his mother, who caught the flu from Crick, and finally about the abortion. After all, Price, who is obsessed with the end of history, is about the same age Tom Crick was when his own personal history for all intents and purposes came to an end with the abortion.
Thus, in chapter 39, "Stupid," which is apparently told to Price that night in the pub, Crick finally picks up the thread of the crucial abortion narrative he had dropped in the thirteenth chapter. He finds Mary at the windmill, the long-time site of their sexual assignations, and, puzzled, watches her repeatedly jump off the embankment. He realizes she is trying to kill the baby, and she finally tells him it is his child. Mary's crude attempts fail, and they head off to Martha Clay's cottage in the Fens for the abortion. Tom sits outside while the operation proceeds. He drifts off and finally awakens to hear Mary "saying her prayers" (308). He rushes back to the cottage and looks in the window. What he sees sickens him: "A pipe--no, a piece of sedge, a length of hollow reed--is stuck into Mary's hole. The other end is in Martha's mouth. Crouching low, her head between Mary's gory knees, her eyes closed in concentration, Martha is sucking with all her might. Those cheeks--those blood-bag cheeks working like bellows" (308). When he finally enters, Mary is repeatedly chanting "Hail Mary's." The flat declarative tone of the final sentences in this confessional chapter suggests the utter horror of it all: "The candle is snuffed under Mary's hand. I nearly trip over the pail. In the pail is what the future's made of. I rush out again to be sick" (308). (10) Crick has arrived at the end of his personal history, and so has Mary. This event shapes the rest of their lives, beginning with his decision shortly afterward to bury himself in history to escape re-remembering this act and including her decision over thirty-five years later to kidnap the baby as a substitute for this aborted fetus.
Mary's reason for choosing an abortion stems from her guilt over Freddie's murder by Dick, which itself has been brought about by the question of the fetus's paternity. Judith Wilt holds that the abortion is both an analeptic punishment for Mary's own sexual curiosity and a proleptic attempt by her to escape from her guilt over Freddie's death: "The abortion Mary plans is both her effort to emerge from herself, from her guilty self-imprisonment, and her effort to expiate one death with another, to punish in herself the sexual curiosity that led to Dick's murder of Freddie" (114). (11) Aborting the fetus literally removes the motive for the murder and perhaps, Mary thinks, may remove her guilt in that tragedy. But the murder and the abortion have clearly haunted her for years, resulting in her sudden loss of curiosity that Tom literally sees figured in her face after Freddie's death: "When she looks up she seems three times older than me, as if she's become a hard-featured woman with a past. Then I see it's because something's gone from her face. Curiosity's gone" (57). The forbidden sexual knowledge she has gained from her pre-marital liaisons with Tom has resulted in two deaths that destroy her natural curiosity. For many years, Mary buries her feelings about these two murders, and she simply "learnt how to mark time" (126).
Shortly before she kidnaps the child in the present, however, she starts taking responsibility for what she has done. Crick is shocked to hear her say that she has been to a priest, using confessional language in his incredulous narration: "At length she confesses she has been talking to a priest. She confesses she has been to confession--something she has not done for nearly forty years. But she will not say more" (128). Mary, despite her reticence to her husband, has clearly confessed her role in the death of Freddie Parr and the death of her fetus. She finally admits her responsibility for these murders and, as a result, must feel forgiven, since she starts taking walks by herself on Sundays, probably to go to church as Crick suspects (128). Finally, however, she becomes delusional and casts herself as a Sarah figure, telling her husband one day that "'I'm going to have a baby. Because God's said I will'" (130). She is so desperate to replace that long-ago fetus that she imagines she is not barren anymore and then finally kidnaps the baby from the supermarket. Before her insanity, Mary seems to have come--even if only temporarily--to terms with her responsibility for the death of Freddie and her baby. It will take Crick longer to do so.
When Crick relates the story of Mary's kidnapping the child at the local grocery store before he finally recalls the abortion, she was rendered a Virgin Mary figure: "A Madonna--and child." He thus casts himself as standing "before this bizarre Nativity, [in] the posture of an awestruck shepherd [...]" (265). He quickly comes to his senses and finds out she has taken the child. Now, as he finally relates the story of the abortion, he gives us a picture that is the opposite of the Immaculate Conception--a secular, messy abortion that ends up giving Mary septicemia (316).
As he struggles to comprehend what Mary has done in the present by stealing the baby, he ends up forcefully removing this child from her arms, an action which, although different in nature from Mary's voluntary abortion, nevertheless visits violence upon her again in the removal of a baby. This entire scene, moreover, contains a succession of violent images from the past in addition to the abortion narrative, including a reference to the French Revolution, Sarah Atkinson's physiognomical appearance in her supposed madness, and Dick's attack on Mary after her revelation of her pregnancy to him. First, Crick briefly reads Mary's taking of the baby through the violent narrative of the French Revolution before adopting a biblical view of the incident: "So one day, after teaching the French Revolution, I come home to find that my wife's committed a revolutionary--a miraculous--act ..." (264). The narrative then recapitulates the nineteenth-century narrative of supposedly mad Sarah Atkinson when Mary is described as "seraphic," recalling Crick's description of Sarah after she is struck by her husband as having "angelic features" (84). Next, as Crick grabs his wife and "starts to shake" her, we are led to recall his brother Dick's shaking of her in the past when she tells him that because his penis is too big she cannot make a baby with him: "with his big, bewildered hands, he shakes her hard by the shoulders ..." (261). Finally, Crick re-enacts the abortion narrative: "As the husband pulls he cannot suppress the sensation that he is pulling away part of his wife. He is tearing the life out of her" (267). (12) Crick thus enacts a whole series of historical events and compounds them by heaping new violence on top of old, a process that resembles yet qualifies Carruth's theory of the double wound, in which repetitive actions lead to a process of mentally dealing with bodily trauma. Crick cannot fully enter into an exploration of his psychic trauma of the past at this point, however, since he has just inflicted another physical "wound" on his wife.
Thus, immediately after he tells this story, its horror is so strong that his narration quickly skips forward to the present, and Price helps the grown Crick home from the pub in chapter 43, "Not So Final." After Price's exit, we are expecting more information about the abortion but instead are given the end of the present story in chapter 44, "Begin Again," whereby Tom and Mary return her stolen baby. They enter the store and Tom, not fully wanting to accept full responsibility for this particular action, says merely, "'My name is Crick. My wife took the baby. Yes. My wife's--not very well. We've brought it back now. So it's all right now. Please, is that all?" (314).
Interrogated by the waiting policeman and policewoman, Crick finally admits their responsibility in inherently confessional language surrounded by the crowd of onlookers, a move designed to integrate them back into the community but also, and more important, to answer for the crimes of their past as well:
"'Look sir, shall we go back to the beginning?' The beginning? But where's that? How far back is that? Very well, I confess that my wife, with intention so to do, took a baby from an unminded pram. Very well (this far back?): I confess my responsibility, jointly with my wife, for the death of three people (that is--it's not so simple--one of them was never born, and one of them--who knows if it was really a death ...)." (314)
Crick is confessing responsibility, along with Mary, for Freddie's death; for the abortion of the fetus--"one of them was never born"; and for Dick's death, whose death he strangely is still not sure about--"who knows if it was really a death." He has delayed the process of re-remembering for as long as he could but, upon recalling the abortion to Price, realizes and speaks his guilt about not just that murder but also about his complicity in Freddie's murder. The police will not and cannot prosecute him for these crimes, but at least Crick has finally faced up to them--except for owning up to the compelling role he played in Dick's demise--and made us realize how traumatic they were to him.
After this telling confession, Crick gives further evidence of his conviction that the abortion was wrong. He recalls throwing the fetus away in the Ouse and his great sadness and horror upon seeing it in the water despite Martha Clay's warning not to look: "Larks were trilling somewhere above the mist, but I was stumbling through a mist of tears. I climbed the river wall, descended to the water's edge. I turned my head away. But then I looked. I howled. A farewell glance. A red spittle, floating, frothing, slowly sinking" (317). Tom Crick has begun the first step in forgiveness: a steady gaze at the sins committed and an admission of responsibility. But he must still relate one more story--the tale of Dick's death, to which Tom drove him.
Dick's suicide clearly results from having received the forbidden knowledge that Henry Crick is not his father and that he is the product of an incestuous relationship between his mother and her father. The symbol for all of these forbidden revelations is Dick's birthright, the wooden chest filled with Coronation Ale and a letter from his real father (also his grandfather) telling him his parentage and his bizarre plan for Dick to be the Savior of the World. This chest functions as a sort of Pandora's box that clearly should not be opened. Knowledge figures prominently in Swift's early fiction, as Del Ivan Janik has shown. Janik argues that in Swift's first three novels, The Sweet-Shop Owner (1980), Shuttlecock (1981), and Waterland, there is a "recurrent theme of the value and danger of knowledge" (74). This theme is intrinsically linked to the reason Tom became a history teacher--curiosity. He could conceal this forbidden knowledge from his brother and he should, especially because the abortion was a direct result of his and Mary's exploration of forbidden knowledge, but, perversely, he chooses to tell Dick. This unethical revelation directly causes Dick to kill himself. (13)
Because Dick cannot read, Tom reads the letter aloud to him and then attempts to convey its message in language his slow brother can understand. Tom finally begins to tell him the secret, and Dick's grasp of what Tom is saying is accelerated by his heaving, wheezing chest that should but does not preclude Tom rushing on to tell this particular story: "'My father isn't your father.' His chest starts to heave, to wheeze. 'Though your mother was my mother.' The wheeze grows hoarser. 'You and your mother had the same father.' And hoarser still. 'Before your mother and my father ...'" (322-23). But Tom cannot continue, especially since he realizes he has communicated the awful truth to his brother: "So he understands? Or understands, at least, what he's already half-guessed. That he's a bungle. Something that shouldn't be. There's been a mix-up somewhere and he's the result" (323). After Dick apologizes, Tom attempts to placate him by telling him he is not supposed to have any babies since he's going to be, in the words of his grandfather/father, "the Saviour of the World" (323).
Even though this chapter concludes with Tom relating how Dick rode away that afternoon with a sack full of the rest of the beer bottles in the chest (the first of which Dick gave to Freddie, then killed him with), Tom still cannot bring himself to tell of his brother's suicide for several more chapters because he knows he directly drove Dick to it. He resists mightily, again resorting to the device that has forestalled his dwelling on reality for so many years--storytelling. Thus he tells the successive stories of Mary's insanity in chapter 47, of his resignation in chapter 48, and finally of his father's death in chapter 50-several years after that of his brother--before he relates Dick's suicide. Recalling his father's death through drowning in the phlegm that collects in his lungs because of the broncho-pneumonia he contracts from a flood in the Fens, Crick finally states, "when you drown you see it all pass before you. And now's the time, now's the only time, to tell the whole--" (343). But he still cannot speak of Dick's suicide, retreating instead to the conclusion of his father's death, in which Henry Crick, too, tries to tell a story to escape the reality, the phlegm in his lungs, which is now literally drowning him. Tom indulges in one more narration to forestall his own tale and gives a brief history of phlegm in the 51st chapter. Even that story, though, leads him back to the tale of his brother since he acknowledges that a remedy for phlegm is "the administration of alcohol" (344), an associational entry back into Dick's final drunken plunge.
The phlegmatic Dick, we soon find out in the 52nd and last chapter, has drunk all the remaining bottles of beer, his birthright. As Stan Booth, the owner of the dredger where Dick works, two American pilots, and Tom and Henry Crick go out in a boat to the dredger where Dick has taken refuge, Dick repeatedly gulps the remaining beer down. Henry shouts to Dick that he will be his father, and Tom urges him not to jump, but he does, in a long curving motion:
For a moment he perches, poises, teeters on the rail, the dull glow ofthe western sky behind him. And then he plunges. In a long, reaching,powerful arc. [...] sufficiently reaching for us to observe his body,in its flight through the air, form a single, taut and seeminglylimbless continuum, so that an expert on diving might have judged thathere indeed was a natural, here indeed was a fishof a man. (357)
Dick's "limbless" body recalls his constant associations with eels in the novel and to emphasize the point, Crick tells us that, "He's on his way. Obeying instinct. Returning. The Ouse flows to the sea ..." (357). (14) The seeming naturalness of Dick's aquatic immersion, however, belies Tom's precipitating role in his suicide. Crick's narration suggests he has attempted to absolve himself of guilt over Dick's death by casting it in romantic, mythical language that recalls the earlier cyclical history he has given of the eels that are born in the waters of the Fens and migrate to the sea. Richard Todd's misreading of this concluding act of the novel suggests he concurs with Crick's view of Dick's suicide as natural and even ineluctable: "The novel ends on the arresting image of a human, who has never been in his true element, instinctively and atavistically finding his natural one, as do the eels with which this extraordinary narrative wriggles and threshes" (310). Dominic Head's interpretation of this tragedy echoes Todd's reading: "Dick swims back to his mythic origins, symbolically confirming the neglect of the natural, but, conversely, putting the society back in touch with the natural cycle through the ritualistic idea of atonement" (206). But Dick has no mythic origins--he is the product of sordid, intergenerational human incest. And this is no act of atonement but a purposeful self-punishment. This moment should horrify us; we should not be taken in by Crick's beguiling narration here and should realize that he could have refrained from telling Dick the forbidden knowledge of his parentage and thus have prevented his brother's suicide. Of all the tragedies in the novel, Tom has delayed confessing the story of this one until the very end, suggesting that he plays the greatest role in this death and that he has been unable to deal with it since it happened. The only way he finally can accept Dick's death is to cast it in mythical, cyclical terms, thereby deflecting his own responsibility for causing it.
Criticism on the novel such as Todd's and Head's facile acceptance of the concluding image has failed to realize the degree to which Tom is implicated in Dick's death. As we have seen, he has confessed it earlier to the police upon returning the baby Mary has stolen but does so in terms that suggest his evasive sense of guilt: "and one of them--who knows if it was really a death ..." (314). Understanding Dick's origins in Swift's earlier short fiction enables us to see Tom's guilt more clearly. Dick's literary forerunner is the nameless narrator's suicidal and slow brother, Neil, who appears in the short story, "Cliffedge," published the year before Waterland in the collection Learning to Swim. The narrator effectively causes Neil to jump off a cliff one day by reminding him of how much he owes him for taking care of him for so long. Despite being cleared by an inquest, the narrator is haunted by the disappearance of his brother. He repeatedly has a fruitless dream about retrieving his brother from the water:
I am alone in the boat. I am leaning over the side looking at my line disappearing into the water. I know that Neil is somewhere there in the depths and I will catch him. I start to pull in. A storm is brewing and the waves are rising up against the boat. I pull and pull so as to catch him in time. But the line is endless. (157)
This narrator's guilt, haunted by the memory of a fish-like brother, who even "blink[s] warningly" (155) like Dick often does in Waterland, adumbrates Crick's suppressed guilt and horror over the similar suicide Dick commits by diving into the water and not coming back up. Just as the narrator in "Cliffedge" constantly returns to the seaside village where his brother took his own life to look for him, the novel ends with Crick, his father, and Stan Booth repeatedly scouring the water for signs of Dick, suggesting Tom's unconscious guilt as a result of revealing the forbidden knowledge that has led Dick to take his own life. He must come to fully examine why he told Dick of his true parentage if he is to be forgiven and forgive himself for this crime. (15)
While Tom has gone through a process of re-remembering this event, though unfortunately not accepting any responsibility for it, Dick has finally realized the ugly truth of his existence, a moment akin to Aristotle's notion of anagnorisis, a fundamental aspect of tragedy. Northrop Frye argues convincingly that this principle reveals the existence not of a linear sequence of events, but a parabolic one: "As a structural principle in tragedy, anagnorisis is a point of awareness near the end that links up with the beginning, and shows us that what we have been following up to that point is not a simple continuum but something in the shape of a parabola, a story that begins, rises, turns, moves downward, and ends in catastrophe" (44). (16) The parabolic shape of Waterland thus is formed by the joint narrative arcs of Crick's process of re-remembering and in Dick's discovery of his true identity, the latter of which results in and is echoed in microcosm by the seemingly lovely but actually haunting arc of his body as he dives into the river. His submarine exit has brought the novel nearly full circle. It began with Freddie Parr's body lodged against Henry Crick's sluice gate and concludes with the disappearance of Dick's body into the water. A continuous loop of personal history and narrative structure is formed by these bodies in water.
The novel's apocalyptic ending has been most insightfully discussed by Tamas Benyei, who offers an intriguing critique of the eschatological aspects of Crick's narration focused upon Dick's suicide. Benyei argues that Crick believes the world he knew has already ended yet he is doomed to relive it repeatedly by hauntingly recalling the abortion and Dick's suicide:
The two eschatological events in his past are the returning of the babyand the death of his half-brother, the half-witted Dick, who, at least according to his mad father, Ernest Atkinson, was to be the Saviour of the world, a new Christ. His disappearance in the murky water of the Ouse is the other moment that goes on happening for Crick. It is, however, an eschatological event emptied of its true eschatological content and its power to redeem historical existence. The end provides no vantage point for Crick; rather, it is a moment that makes Crick's life (and therefore history) future-less, devoid of meaning, and thus causes a compulsion in Crick to repeat and re-tell the story endlessly. Instead of conferring unity and coherence on the story, this end makes it disjunctive; instead of paradoxically reinstating Crick's presence in history through his beyond-ness, it makes him absent, absolving him without redeeming. ("Narrative" 115)
I have also argued that the aborted baby and Dick's suicide (and to a lesser degree, the death of Freddie Parr) formed the two supreme events of Crick's life that he must deal with in order for absolution and redemption. But I disagree with Benyei on two other important points--that these events recur narratively for Crick and that their telling "absolv[es] him without redeeming [him]." Precisely because he has been so successful in immersing himself in the histories of the French Revolution, of the Atkinsons and Cricks, and in natural history has he been able to avoid telling the stories of the abortion and suicide until now, when the combined pressures of his wife's insanity and baby-snatching and the loss of his job force him finally to confront the past. There simply is no evidence that he has told these personal stories before the end of the novel, although his descriptions of the French Revolution and the narratives of the Atkinson and Crick lines are well-worn and have probably been told repeatedly to his class during his last year of teaching and to himself for years. He has, however, bodily reenacted aspects of these personal narratives in, for example, his encounters with Price and through his brutally physical removal of Mary's stolen baby from her arms. But such reenactments are only the first part of Crick's dealing with his traumatic double wound; he is just beginning to deal consciously with the psychic trauma from these original events.
Secondly, confession is a one-time event that by its very nature is not repetitious since the process of utterance must fully recall the sins and admit responsibility for them to be efficacious. In Crick's tortured, elliptical confession of involvement in these crimes lie the seeds of his possible redemption. Although he has been cathartically released by his re-remembering, the possibility exists that just as he managed to escape his own history through immersion in other histories over the years, he now stands in danger of escaping the reality of the present by immersing himself in the aqueous stories of his personal past in order to discover why he transmitted the deathly, forbidden knowledge of Dick's parentage to his brother. If he remains in the past too long, he will mentally drown as surely as Dick does physically.
To conclude a reading of trauma in Waterland, as Stef Craps does recently, by arguing that it "promotes a life of radical curiosity in relentless pursuit of an elusive, traumatic reality" (103) both neglects Tom Crick's extremely reluctant process of remembering and fails to recognize Swift's emphasis on the pernicious consequences of Crick's overzealous pursuit of forbidden knowledge, which indirectly causes Freddie's murder, constitutes one of the direct causes of Mary's abortion, and directly causes Dick's suicide. Craps's assessment also over-optimistically ascribes a sense of potential to an essentially closed, circular novel framed by bodies in the water whose narrator finally recognizes that there are epistemological and moral boundaries that, once penetrated, enable the starry-eyed and naive to cause great harm. Crick's recovering ethical system, which has yet to admit responsibility for his brother's death, is the novel's final revelation to us.
(1) See, for example, Del Ivan Janik's "History and the 'Here and Now': The Novels of Graham Swift," George P. Landow's "History, His Story, and Stories in Graham Swift's Waterland" (Studies in the Literary Imagination 23.2 : 197-21), John Schad's "The End of the End of the History: Graham Swift's Waterland" (Modern Fiction Studies 38.4 : 911-25), Richard Todd's "Narrative Trickery and Performative Historiography: Fictional Representation of National Identity in Graham Swift, Peter Carey, and Mordecai Richler," and Pam Cooper's "Imperial Topographies: The Spaces of History in Waterland" (Modern Fiction Studies 42.2 : 371-96).
(2) Although Margret Champion has recently identified Waterland as a "novel of confession," she unfortunately relegates her analysis of the novel's confessional aspects to a comparison of these with Bakhtin's analysis of Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground" in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, and wrongly suggests Crick's dialogic voice constitutes his freeing state of autonomy (see 35, 36 and passim). Because Crick increasingly suggests that his personal story will free him from the sins of his past, his confession of the abortion and the murders requires a different sort of Bakhtinian analysis than the traditional dialogic reading. Bakhtin articulates three stages of confession in his essay, "Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity," that are especially helpful in understanding Crick's confessional narrative. I discuss these stages in my essay on Barry Unsworth's Morality Play, 230-31, 234-35. They include a sort of self-obsessed recounting of sins; a recognition of a need for forgiveness and redemption as unmerited gifts; and a turning toward God that enables faith. Crick, however, clearly remains in phase one by the novel's close.
(3) James Acheson's essay "Historia and Guilt: Graham Swift's Waterland" is a felicitous exception to this trajectory of critical misunderstanding of the novel, although he wrongly stresses the reasons for Crick's guilt, focusing on what he perceives as Crick's failures as a husband:
we discover that his wife's abduction of a baby may be related to the abortion she had as a teenager--one that he is all too aware of having helped to arrange. Crick believes that Mary's Catholic sense of guilt over ending a life and her frustration at not being able to have children subsequently, may have contributed in some way to her irrational but firmly-held belief, in late middle age, that the baby is a gift from God. [...] He engages with history as a diversion from writing about what he fears may be his manifest failure as a husband--and, as a diversion from his inability to determine the extent to which that contributed to Mary's abduction of the baby. (92)
This reading, however, downplays Crick's own clear guilt at not only having helped set up the abortion, but also at the indirect role he played in Freddie Parr's murder and at the direct role he played in Dick's suicide by perceiving Crick as upset at Mary's guilt and not having any of his own save that of his fears of having been a bad husband.
(4) Although I do not have the space to develop the point here, this last scene seems itself haunted by a much more famous suicide in the Ouse--that of Virginia Woolf in 1941, who walked into the river with stones in her pockets, two years before Dick drowns himself in the novel.
(5) In "The Novels of Graham Swift," Benyei points out "the emptiness of his life, enclosed between the two moments of the abortion and the returning of the baby his wife has snatched from the supermarket. [...] In the book, there is nothing between the two moments [...]" (51).
(6) Northrop Frye's description of ordinary time suggests that Crick is already attempting to face away from the past and its associated traumas and look toward the future, a process that is deleterious to any meaningful expiation of his guilt over the deaths in his past, and ultimately impossible because of the constant collapse of the present into the past and the resulting tension in our subsequent analeptic/proleptic expectations of the moment:
In our ordinary experience of time we have to grapple with three dimensions, all of them unreal: a past that is no longer, a future that is not yet, and a present that is never quite. We are dragged backwards along a continuum of experience, facing the past with the future behind us. The centre of time is "now," just as the centre of space is "here," but "now," like "here," is never a point. The first thing that the present moment does is vanish and reappear in the immediate past, where it connects with our expectation of its outcome in the future. Every present experience is therefore split between our knowledge of having had it and our future-directed fears or hopes about it. The word "now" refers to the spread of time in between. (41)
Crick's attempt to read the "Here and Now" as having only a proleptic trajectory is thus doomed to failure since the past will always intrude and beckon him as part of its normative dialectic with the future.
(7) Understanding this change in Crick's curiosity after he experienced the events of the summer of 1943 makes Robert K. Irish's claim that his own history is more "tellable" than that of the French Revolution spurious: "The French Revolution functions as counterpoint to focus readers' and students' desire on his story of the fens. Its intractability as narrative repeatedly becomes a justification for turning to Crick's own more tellable history" (929).
(8) Prentis even admits his narration is explicitly confessional at one point: "no sooner had I written that first confession than there were lots of other things that had to be examined and written down--and now I'm at it again" (40). He also uses his mute father "as a sort of confessional. I go to Father to say things I would never say anywhere else" (43).
(9) This reading is anticipated by Wilt, who argues about the abortion scene that Crick finally recalls late in the novel that, "[It is] a primal scene reluctantly uncovered by the skittering narrative as a series of nightmarish snapshots" (113; my emphasis).
(10) Despite Martin Dodsworth's complaint about "the gratuitous horror of the crucial abortion" in this scene (337), it could have been rendered much more graphically than it has been. The fetus is not even shown and we only glimpse Martha performing the abortion through seeing her red cheeks sucking on the hollow reed and Mary's resultant agony. If we see the abortion scene as "gratuitous," that perception greatly cheapens the physical agony of Mary and her fetus as well as Tom's mental trauma. Instead, the abortion scene is so real that Tom must quickly retreat to a growing immersion in other histories to avoid dwelling on this moment.
(11) Besides Wilt's brief analysis, there is an embarrassing lack of critical comment on her motivation for the abortion. In his sensitive and intelligent article on magical realist elements in the novel, Richard Todd speculates that Mary aborts the baby because it could be Dick's child and thus mentally retarded: "The possibility that the father might, after all, be Dick, perhaps at one level motivates Mary's inducing the abortion that Martha Clay, 'the witch,' performs" (310). The evidence for this possibility is mixed. After denying that Freddie Parr was the baby's father in a passage near the end of chapter seven, Mary implies to Tom that he is the father because Dick's penis was too large to enter her when Tom then asks her if Dick was the father: "Because it was too big" (58). And in a scene immediately before the abortion, in response to Tom's mistaken realization that the baby is Dick's, Mary quickly says, "'Not Dick's. Ours. Ours. You understand?'" (294). It is difficult to determine if Mary is telling the truth in either scene. Tom finally realizes why Mary wants to abort their baby--because of the whole chain of events that her pregnancy set in motion: "Yes, I understand. Because if this baby had never ... Then Dick would never ... And Freddie ... Because cause, effect ... Because Mary said, I know what I'm going to. ..." (295).
(12) I am grateful to my graduate student Laura Shrock for this last insight.
(13) One might even say, as Roger Shattuck does of Milton's Adam and Eve, that Tom Crick displays a libido scienti, "the lust to know," and, further, that this wicked curiosity even leads him to make this fateful decision to inform Dick about his true parentage so that he, too, might know. Shattuck suggests that human understanding of curiosity had changed so radically by the twentieth century from the earlier conception of it as transgressive that it "strikes us far more as the beginning of wisdom than as the beginning of sin" (69). Unfortunately, Shattuck is correct. While curiosity certainly has led to profound advances in medicine and in other fields, it also has produced cataclysmic horrors such as the atomic bomb. It is no longer handled with care as it should be.
(14) Two earlier chapters adumbrate the eel-like Dick's seemingly instinctive plunge into the Ouse River at the end of the novel. In chapter 24, "Child's Play," Mary promises to reveal her naked body to the boy who can dive into Hockwell Lode and stay submerged the longest. Dick dives in and stays under for so long they fear for his safety. Upon his emergence, Tom recalls the "(long, but finless, scaleless) body of my brother" (190), and Freddie then thrusts an eel into Mary's knickers (192-93). Crick goes on to give the history of the eel in chapter 26, "About the Eel," and relate their instinctive drive to return to the sea, spawn, and die (196-205).
(15) Wilt's reading of this crucial concluding scene attempts to clear Tom of any real responsibility for Dick's suicide because she argues that Tom has engaged in a "guilty and desperate revelation of his incestuous origin," suggesting that he made the revelation out of a sense of despair and concern for Dick. Wilt curiously argues further that Dick's dive is not borne out of despair but curiosity: "But his dive has the look not of self-immolation but of search, another Atkinson push toward the idea, another gallant, if futile, move into the future which is, in reality, governed by the backward flow of the form of nothing. It is a dive which kills him" (118). But Dick's suicide is clearly committed to extirpate the newly revealed forbidden knowledge of his parentage pounding in his head that creates a profound dislocation from humanity and especially now from his father and brother, the only human beings who have truly accepted him for who he is.
(16) Frye's example of tragic anagnorisis, the self-blinding of Oedipus when he discovers from Tiresias that he murdered his father and is now living in incest with his mother, suggests even more compellingly the application of anagnorisis to Dick, who is the product of incest. The horror that results in both instances is sufficiently strong to prompt great self-loathing, then blindness and death, respectively.
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RICHARD RANKIN RUSSELL is Associate Professor of English at Baylor University. His edited collection of essays on the London-Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh: A Casebook, was published by Routledge in 2007, and he has a monograph forthcoming from Bucknell University Press on the novelist and short-story writer Bernard MacLaverty.
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|Author:||Russell, Richard Rankin|
|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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