[Unattributed quotations are from the article "History and Telling Stories" by John Brewer and Stella Tillyard in History Today, vol. 35, 1/85]
Of all the themes woven into Waterland the examination of history is most prominent. Tom Crick, like so many of Swift's other central characters, is in the midst of a life crisis. His formerly rational wife has recently begun speaking directly to God and under His advising has stolen a baby from a nearby Safeway's, claiming the child to be her own through immaculate conception. Crick begins to examine his past in order to find out where he has been and to gain a better understanding of where he is going. Brewer and Tillyard point out that "ruminating on the nature of history is one of the occupational diseases of the historian," especially for those who are "descending from the summit of their life."
Crick, charged by the syllabus with teaching the French Revolution, strays from his syllabus with greater frequency as he discovers his class's greater interest in stories. And for Tom Crick history is a collection of stories. "Perhaps history is just story telling." (p.115) The stories in Waterland range from the minute (how eels mate) to the epochal (how continents drift), "a mixture of autobiography, regional history, 'natural history', historical geography and the history of the family."
Apart from attempting to teach history, Crick leads his class (and his readers) through a philosophical discussion on the nature and types of history. "For Waterland is not just about history and the history-master, it is a didactic tale about the limitations of history, and the greater value both of pure story-telling -- fiction -- and of what Swift calls 'natural history.' These two tensions or polarities -- between history and story telling and between history and natural history -- dominate the novel." Tom's dilemma exemplifies the differences between the two. The stories that he tells are artificial: "'history' as construction and artifice." Yet by telling them he is able to paint a much more real-seeming picture of a lost past than "natural history" can. "Natural History," which "doesn't go anywhere. Which cleaves to itself. Which perpetually travels back to where it came from." (p.155) The fundamental problem of history is that there can never be enough actual "facts" to paint a true picture of the past. History becomes in Tom's eyes an "impossible thing: the attempt to give an account, with incomplete knowledge, of actions themselves undertaken with incomplete knowledge." (p.81)
One of the central themes of Waterland is that this "incomplete knowledge" may not be a problem after all. In many cases it may even be desirable. "Just as Tom Crick is a part of history, 'artificial history', so his incestuously conceived half-brother Dick is a part of 'natural history'. For most of the novel Dick is outside or beyond the realm of history: 'Not a hope for the future . . . Never asks questions, doesn't want to know. Forgets tomorrow what he's told today.' He is elemental, at one with nature, a 'potato-head . . . with the dull vacant stare of a fish.' Dick is a part of the flora and fauna of Waterland. It is only when Tom and his future wife Mary tempt Dick into asking the question 'why?' that the simpleton, with disastrous consequences, becomes a part of [artificial] history."
It is this question "why" that traps Tom into assuming the role of historian. Unable to break out of the "whywhywhy" cycle, his constant questioning takes him in circles (of natural history) until he comes out at the beginning. This is one way to answer his student Price who says, "I want a future . . . And you -- you can stuff your past!" (p.107) In order to explain to his students that it is okay to fear the "end of history" he must travel back to the very beginning of history. Tom is trapped because he asks "why?" Waterland's answer to his problem is clear; history can be overcome by telling stories. By fictionalizing history it is possible to escape the trap of too little knowledge. History enslaves men, while nature and fiction are two possible routes to intellectual freedom.