1. Crick explains some of the theories proposed by those who lived in the Fens after the death of Sarah Atinkinson, one admitedly far fetched because it endows the paralized matriarch with supernatural powers with which she watched over the Fens quietly. This theory is followed by a less controversial one which says that Sarah was mad and would come back into conciousness every once in while. Crick uses the following transition between these two theories:

Whether any of this contains a grain of truth; whether the brothers themselves regarded their mother as oracle, priestess, protectress, or merely allowed these rumours to circulate as a means of securing the favour of the town, no one can tell. [84]

It seems that the narrator uses the sequence of stories in this passage to lend credibility to his story. Can we believe everything that this narrator says? How does the narrator use sequence throughout the book as a rhetorical device? [Brandon Brown] (See the Waterland narrative and structure overview)

2. So, what is history after all? Whywhywhy do we clamor for explanations of origins, possibilities and events? Does history repeat itself? What are the specific relations among post-colonial studies and history? Compare the characters in Waterland who must forget with those who must remember, and then Dick, who does not even ask the whywhywhy. [Kate Cook]

3. What relationship exists in this novel between superstition and progress (aspects of the past and the future, respectively)? And how does this interaction, this dynamic, affect the novel seen in its whole form, i.e. the novel as a grand story, as History itself? Some passages to consider (not by any means all that are possible to look at):

For the town, no less than its two young champions [George and Alfred Atkinson], feels, as it enters, indeed, its heyday, this ever-recurring need to begin again, to wipe the slate, erase the past and look to the sparkling landmarks of the future.(82)

Why this seeking for omens? This superstition? Why must the zenith never be fixed? Because to fix the zenith is to contemplate decline. Because if you construct a stage then the show must go on. Because there must always be — don't deny it — a future.(93)

Do not ghosts prove - even rumours, whispers, stories of ghosts — that the past clings, that we are always going back?(103)

And, for a bit of irony:

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. And, for God's sake, nothing supernatural. And above all, let us not tell stories. Otherwise, how will the future be possible and how will anything get done?(86) [Erica Dillon]

4. How does the detailed narration (filled with names, dates, scientific and historical explanations, etc.) function in the novel? Does it serve primarily to give a sense of the environment to the reader as in many of the more ethnographic works we have read (stories in African Women's Writing and The Slave Girl) or does the detail in Waterland convey more about theme? How does this style of narration compare to the detailed descriptions of the cabinet in Anthills of the Savannah? [Lucia Duncan]

5. The idea of History as cyclical is crucial to Swift's Waterland — "Now who says history doesn't go in circles?" (Tom Crick on 208). How could the cyclical nature of History be seen as a central theme in the larger framework of the post-colonial texts we have read? Consider the following quotes from Waterland: "We believe we are going forward, towards the oasis of Utopia. But how do we know — only some imaginary figure looking down from the sky (let's call him god) can know — that we are not moving in a great circle?" (135), and "Do you believe in them? All the things they're supposed to be. Heirs of the future, vessels of hope. Or do you believe they'll [Children] grow up pretty quickly to be like their parents, to make the same mistakes as their parents, that the same old things will repeat themselves?" (240). Are there considerations he re for the newly liberated states, or their authors? [Jeremy Finer]

6. "Historia, -ae, f. 1. inquiry, investigation, learning. 2. a) a narrative of past events, history. b) any kind of narrative: account, tale, story." — The narrative structure of Waterland positions the reader as student, receiving the Tom Crick's rambling last lectures. A history teacher, Tom revises the rigid academic definition of history to include the events of his childhood and life. He engages with his student Price in an extended debate over the value and substance of "history." Why is "history" such a central theme in this novel? How do Tom and Price's classroom debates affect Swift's constructions of history? How do they inform Tom's narrations of childhood? [Katie Finin]

7. The narrator, Tom Crick, often leaves the reader to ponder issues in the narrative and then continues to explain these issues using his expanded knowledge of history. For example, he builds up to the story of Coronation Ale and follows the Ale's existence through until its last drop. This story-telling technique engages the reader by making the reader feel as though they are in the mind of the narrator, struggling with the same questions and mysteries the narrator confronts. As a curious individual, Tom Crick works to distinguish the history from the stories and as a history teacher, he uses stories to tell history. In a sense, the reader becomes one of his students with a window into his thoughts. What "lesson" is Graham Swift trying to leave his reader with and how does he guide his audience, the reader and Crick's students, to this lesson through the progression of his story? [Laura Gelfman]

8. Mary's sexuality leads indirectly to the death of Freddie Parr and to the suicide of Dick. Helen's sexuality plays a part in her incestuous relationship with her father and results in the birth of a "potato-head." It is Thomas Atkinson's fear of Sarah's sexuality that leads eminently to her becoming a vegetable and (most likely) to his early death. Discuss the role of sexuality, in particular female sexuality, in Graham Swift's Waterland. [Phoebe Koch]

9. What makes Graham Swift such an effective storyteller? Is the layout of his book distracting or compelling? What about his style and his tendency to ramble on about eels and history and other such things? Do these detract or add to the overall effect of Waterland? [Jennifer G. Lee]

10. In Waterland, different forms of mental instability are particulrly instrumental in the development of two characters. Dick exemplifies one form: "Dick himself is a sort of machine — in so far as a machine is something which has no mind of its own and in so far as Dick's large, lean and surprisingly agile body will not only work indefatigably but will perform on occasion quite remarkable feats of dexterity and strength" (38). The other major example is Sarah Atkinson's vegetable state, variously interpreted as madness and brilliance by the curious townspeople. How does the quality of madness and mental instability make these characters function within the novel? Why does Swift make this instability such a crucial element of Waterland? What does a narrative including mental instability say about Swift's versions of "history" as compared with his distinguishing between "stories" and "supernatural elements". [Laura Otis]

11. Consider the following statements from the opening pages of Swift's Waterland:

"So forget, indeed, your revolutions, your turningpoints, your grand metamorphoses of history. Consider, instead, the slow and arduous process, the interminable and ambiguous process — the process of human siltation — of land reclamation" (10)

"...however much you resist them, the waters will return; that the land sinks; silt collects; that something in nature wants to go back." (17)

Can this discussion of the difficulties in reclaiming land be related to the post-colonial nation? Does it show that a nation will constantly be plagued with change and strife diverting that nation away from the goal of liberation? [Neel Parekh]

12. Discuss the structure of Waterland. Is it a circular cyclical historical monologue, like the Ouse flowing into itself, or can it be construed as a viable dialogue between Tom Crick and his students? How does the layering and linkage amongst the different periods (via motifs, characters, settings) add or detract to the narrator's presentation of the story and/or his points (such as the importance of asking "whywhywhy" or history)? [Elissa Popoff]

13. What is the distinction that Swift draws between reality and fairy tales and how does he connect these concepts to women's bodies and/or the traditional female roles of mother and wife? Swift begins his book with the quote "and don't forget, whatever you learn about people, however bad they turn out, each one of them has a heart, and each one of them was once a tiny baby sucking his mother's milk" (1). He then goes on to describe this as "fairy tale words, fairy tale advice." He aligns this fairy tale with his fathers superstitions and denial of reality. When describing the fens, he hints that Martha Clay, Old Bill's phantom wife, is a witch, and then immediately says, "But let's keep clear of fairy tales" (11). The vagina, specifically "Mary Metcalf, later Mrs. Crick's vagina, is described as a "miniature model of reality" (42). It is Mary, the center of sexual discovery, male desire, and the murder of Freddie, who grew up on her father's milk, and not her mother's. [Elora Raymond]

14. Discuss how Swift constructs the text of Waterland to echo and reflect the non-linear, self-reflexive natures of both history and water as described by narrator Tom Crick. [Jason Sperber]

15. What is the significance of historical dates in Swift's Waterland? For a novel concerned with the notion of "history", what is the effect of constructing narrative in a clearly non-chronological order? How does this affect our notion of history, historical facts and events in this novel? What "types" of history do we encounter and subsequently, what types of historical "dates"? [Barnali Tahbildar]

16. Swift often uses layers of flashbacks to set up the background for particular passages he wishes to elucidate. For instance, Swift mentions a conversation that Tom Crick had with Mary Metcalf explaining what had caused the early death of Freddie Parr, a few pages later, at the very end of chapter five, he mentions Crick picking up a bottle that washed down river and gives it particular emphasis although it initially seems an insignificant event. It isn't until the very end of chapter seven that Swift has actually shed light on all of the events surrounding the death of Freddie Parr. Why does Swift do this? Does the use of this type of foreshadowing strengthen the quality of his writing or increase our understanding of what goes on? How would the novel read differently if it was more strictly chronological? [Uzoma Ukomadu]

17. In a variety of ways, Waterland suggests that progress does not advance in a linear fashion, and perhaps that it does not advance at all. The discussions of siltation, the Ouse, and history certainly point in this direction, and the suggestion gets repeated even in the construction of the novel — the narrative does not quite advance from one chapter to the next, but rather it is repeatedly interrupted, repeatedly discontinuous, and repeatedly turns back on itself. And this strange kind of narrative flow even takes place at the level of the sentence — commas and dashes seem to be everywhere, clauses get tangled in one another, and fragments are allowed to stand. It seems that not even Swift's sentences can advance in a non-contradictory way. This skepticism about progress has been a recurring theme in the texts we have read this semester; remember, for example, "Progress" from Saro-Wiwa's Forest of Flowers. How do these conceptions of progress compare to one another, and why might progress be such a key topic for this kind of literature? [Sage Wilson]

Reading Questions

Last modified 8 March 2004