1. "How it repeats itself, how it goes back on itself, no matter how we try to straighten it out. How it twists and turns. How it goes in circles and brings us back to the same place" (142). Throughout the novel, the narrator Tom Crick, uses stories from his life to illustrate his theory that history repeats itself. And, in order to let history stop going around in cirlces, people must learn from the past. Yet, the characters in Swift's novel seem very passive, as if they watch events unfold without ever trying to change the outcomes. Why, if Crick is aware of the importance of learning from history, does it seem as if he is an outsider and watching his life unfold while he does nothing to change the events from occuring? (Kate Edwards)

2. (concerning Thomas Atkinson and Sarah's state, 79-80) "Where once he pored over the topography of the Fens and the innumerable complexities of drainage, flood control and pumping systems, he will pore over the even more intricate topography of the medulla and the cerebellum, which have, so he discovers, their own networks of channels and ducts and their own dependence on the constant distribution of fluids." The scientific analogy between the fluid mechanics of the cerebellum and nature introduces a definitive link between the inner workings of man and the forces of nature. Are attempts to control, or merely coexist with nature in Waterland, as futile as the historian's attempt to teach mistakes? Is equilibrium found only in moments of paradise? Is equilibrium defined by the struggles and triumphs? Or is equilibrium only an unattainable vision that disappears when it manifests itself in the Here and Now? (Kirk Fanelly)

3. Crick spends a lot of time talking about stories, describing various ways of telling them and the respective importance of each way. He himself comes from a long line of story tellers and as a history teacher, he has continued the tradition professionally. At one point, when describing his transition from a regular classroom teacher to a distracted man, he talks of a need to show himself to his students as part of the history he had always been teaching. ("And then it dawned on you: old Cricky was trying to put himself into history; old Cricky was trying to show you that he himself was only a piece of the stuff he taught." p.6) Does Crick in fact have a need to include himself in history? Why would he? If so, why would he choose the role of story teller to include himself-- why wouldn't he do something more visible or memorable? (Margaret Fiedland)

4. Crick makes constant reference to the stories and ghosts made up along the banks of the Fens. For instance,

"And it is strange - or perhaps not strange, not strange at all, only logical - how the bare and empty Fens yield so readily to the imaginary - and the supernatural. How the villages along the Leem were peopled with ghosts and earnestly recounted legends (18)."

At the same time, he gives much mention to God among the Fens,

"Us Fenlanders do not try to hide - since we know God is watching (52)."

Where does Crick count God among the Fenlanders? Is their piety one more part of their superstitions, or is it the exception? (Dan Shindell)

5. What kind of relationship does Swift seem to want to create between the reader and the narrator? Why does the narrator address the readers as "children"?

"Children, only animals live entirely in the Here and Now. Only nature knows neither memory nor history. But man -- let me offer you a definition- is the story -telling animal." (p.62)

How does this type of address affect how we, as readers, receive the story as a whole?

"Children, don't stop asking why." (p.130)

"Children, be curious. Nothing is worse (I know it) when curiosity stops." (p. 206).

Is the narrator being too preachy/ bossy here? (Erin Emlock)

6. I'm interested in Tom Crick's comment to Price regarding the role of history, the telling of stories, in qualming fears and attempting to "forget" the meaninglessness of existence:

All right, so it's all a struggle to preserve an artifice. It's all a struggle to make things not seem meaningless. All a fight against fear. You're scared. No need to start a club about it. Saw it in your face. And what do you think I am right now? What do you think all my sounding off is about, and what do you think all these stories are for which I've been telling as a finale to my teaching career and which - now you tell me - have not gone unappreciated. It helps to drive out fear. I don't care what you call it - explaining, evading the facts, making up meanings, taking a larger view, putting things into perspective, dodging the hear and now, education, history, fairy-tales - it helps to eliminate fear. And why do you think I'm sitting here with you now, wanting to tell you more? Don't have to go yet, do you, Price? Mum and Dad won't worry? Yes, I'll have another. Yes, I know, I'm drunk. Let me tell you another. Let me tell you - (241).

Throughout the novel, Tom has interspersed bits of information about the untold stories, the events that continue to happen, regardless of this grand history, regardless of the efforts and knowledge of man ( ex. the eels, who continue to procreate and remain a mystery, unaffected by wars; the water, which floods a town full of people with lives and stories to tell). Waterland takes place in a flat, empty land - all around, humans are reminded of their vulnerability, and ultimately, their inconsequence:

For what is water, which seeks to make all things level, which has no taste or color of its own, but a liquid form of Nothing? And what are the Fens, which so imitate in their levelness the natural disposition of water, but a landscape which, of all landscapes, most approximates to Nothing? Every Fenman secretly concedes this; every Fenman suffers now and then the illusion that the land he walks over is not there, is floating... And every Fen-child, who is given picture-books to read in which the sun bounces over mountain tops and the road of life winds through heaps of green cushions, and is taught nursery rhymes in which persons go up and down hills, is apt to demand of its elders: Why are the Fens flat? (13).

Which is the real "history"? The recordings of battles, military heroes, etc., or the little, meaningless tales that are told along the way, to make the bittersweet truth of the meaninglessness of human life, which ultimately must be realized, a little easier to bear? Which "history" is more important? (Maura McKee)

7. "So forget, indeed, your revolutions, your turning-points, 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" (Swift 10).

"There's this thing called progress. But it doesn't progress, it doesn't go anywhere. Because as progress progresses the world can slip away. It's progress if you can stop the world slipping away. My humble model for progress is the reclamation of land" (Swift 336).

Many references are made to Tom Crick's tendency to stray from the history syllabus and tell rambling stories about his home and family. These two quotes, one from the beginning and one from the end of the novel, seem to suggest a unifying purpose to his ramblings. Taking into account his position as a history teacher in the final days not only of his career but of his department, what might that purpose be? (Megan Lynch)

8. In relating the local history of the Fenland early in Waterland, Swift frequently juxtaposes widely-known historical images (particularly from the French Revolution)with the local history of the Atkinsons in the Fenland:

While on the continent the millenium arrives, while the Bastille tumbles, Jacobins oust Girondins and there is widespread draining of blood, Thomas Atkinson studies the principles of land drainage, of river velocity and siltation. (page 69)

Is the narrator, with these comparisons, attempting to add importance to his local history by placing it in the context of textbook, world history? Or do his constant references to the French revolution contribute more to historian Tom Crick's theory of a cyclical history that he develops throughout the novel? Comment on the status and importance of history to the Here and Now, both on local and global levels. (Benjamin McAvay)

9. "Inside every nurse there lurks the mother, and in three years at the Kessling How for Neurasthenics Helen has come to regard these poor, deranged inmates as children. Like frightened children, what they want most is to be told stories," (p. 225).

In Waterland, a complicated relationship is formed between women (especially as mothers), the future, and madness. As the quote above illustrates, the female characters take care of either the male characters and their children, or of certain ideas surrounding the family future. (An example of the latter is the town's idealization of Sarah Atkinson's saintly presence keeping watch over the Fenlands). Yet as the book progresses, these images of women are violated: women loose there minds, sleep with their fathers, die young and steal the children of others. Do these violations suggest that their connections with the future and associating ideas of progress are false, stories told as an attempt to cover the fear of nothingness, or do they rather indicate the end of history, as Price believes? (Kathryn Williamson)

10. To whom does Tom Crick address his story? In the beginning, he certainly seems to be speaking directly to his students. However, the nonlinear narrative structure as well as certain devices Swift uses in Waterland perhaps challenge that idea. For example, the frequent use of ellipses is not typical of oral storytelling. Could Tom actually tell his story out loud in the way the text implies he does?

it has even been said that Dick is so fond of his motorbike that he sometimes rides it to secluded spots, gets down with it on the grass and . . . " (38) "And Dad walks. And in walking, as he passes the cottage, he steps perceptibly to one side, round the spot on the concrete where . . . " (39)

Also, the fact that Tom does not tell his story in chronological order and often leaves out any sort of transition between chapters telling the audience that he is going to make a jump in time is inconsistent with the premise that he is telling his story out loud. However, Tom does include spoken statements from his students and responds to them.

Considering all this, who should we view as Tom's audience? And furthermore, should we believe that Tom is in fact telling his story to his class? Is he perhaps writing the story? Or could he be imagining that he is telling the story and thinking about how that situation would play out in real life? This last possibility is perhaps supported by the use of parenthetical statements which could be considered consistent with Tom's thought process (related ideas interjected as he thinks through the narrative). Lastly, should we believe that the Tom's story is real at all? And what might that say about the connection between history, fairytales, reality, and illusion? (Devin McIntyre)

11. Referring to the townsfolks of Fenland and their storytelling/belief in a supermundane force that directs history, the narrator states:

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)

And he warns the readers:

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)

What is the relationship between superstition and History? How has progress been stalled by superstition in Fens? Why does the narrator feel illusions caused by superstition pushing against his personal progress/growth? (Hyun Kim)

12. Lewis, the headmaster, tells Tom Crick that the reason the school is cutting back history is because it needs to focus on teaching it's students skills they will need in the real world. "Equipping for the real world" he calls it. What the reality of the world actually is though, seems increasingly subjective in the novel. The very usefulness of history is looked at from three different points of view, Lewis things it is "pointless," Price thinks it is over, a relic, but Crick uses it more as a buffer into the real world. Which is reality? What is Crick trying to tell his students about when, as a "twentieth century Crick" who has moved away from the Fens but still lives in them with part of his psyche, when he shares these stories about fairy-tales and flatlands? Is he continuing his family's tradition of avoiding reality with these stories, which may or may not be true, or is he actually in the midst of some obscure expose? (Melissa Rodriguez)

13. I'm interested in what Waterland is trying to convey about issues of knowledge, of the past and of the present. About what the text says about trying to get at the roots of things, to discover the cause and effect relationships between events that effect the characters lives. It seems, for example in the chapter "About Accidental Death" P.109, that even in the nothing-reality of the Fens, people are still troubled by events and their causes and the parts those people play in those causes and events. Jack Parr drinks because he cannot understand, make peace with his part: "He tilts and tilts again the bottle in order to silence that dreadful wail. Whywhywhy. "(114). These whys seem inescapbale for many of the characters, but they seem fruitless too. Still, those deprived of the whys- like Mary who loses her curiousity, or Dick whose identity is witheld from him lack something as well. If reality is nothing, if history just stories, why does Tom Crick insist on the importance of history, and what is swift trying to say about knowledge? (Kieran Heffernan)

14. Sarah Atkinson, once a hearty brewer's daughter, loses her senses after her husband hurls her into a writing table. Physically, she is powerless, and can no longer speak to her husband. After this accident, the public perception of Sarah changes. Sarah, who is to all appearance a vegetable, is imbued by the townspeople with all manner of saintly characteristics. Popular opinion believes,

"In short that that blow on the head had bestowed on Sarah that gift which is so desired and feared - the gift to see the future." p.83

The same can be said of the mystical regard with which Tom Crick views his brother Dick. Education is wasted "on 'im", but nevertheless he fascinates and frightens both Mary and his brother. Discuss the power that these two idiots possess over the town and why this fascination derives from or at least depends on an absence of intellect. (Kate Christensen)

15. On page 207 Swift describes putting two realms together, like Tom Crick does in his history lessons, as living an "amphibious life." There is a parallel drawn between Tom seeking solace in his books and the eel who, after being thrust into Mary's knickers, retreats "to the safety of the Lode." Swift often writes of the simlar cylcles of water, life, and of history. Like the eel who completes its circle of travel from the Lode to land and back again we find Tom retreating to the safe water of the stories of his youth. Is Swift supporting such a life choice or is he pointing out the futility of such cycles? Is this Swift's indictment of academia or his support of such an introspective (and arguably self-indulgent) life style? (Paul Grellong)

16. The lines between what the narrator says and what he thinks are slightly blurred. Some of the things that Tom says to Crick are in quotation marks. These are clearly conversation. But, there is also what Tom considers saying to Price, or what apparently says in his head, or wishes that he said, which is not marked by quotations and sometimes marked by parentheses:

"We could organize a protest, sir. Petition the education authority. Write to that sh**ty local paper."

"I'm flattered. But-" (But why this sudden solicitude? This solidarity? These extra-respectful "sirs"? From you of all--)

"I just want to say, sir, that we're all - the whole class- I mean, really sorry about everything."

"Well that's all right, Price. I'm not getting the sack. I'm being retired."


And. And these- new lessons you've been giving. Quite something."

Stories, Price. Fairy-tales. [does Tom say that or merely think it to himself?]

"And we're sorry- about Mrs. Crick."


"How is she, sir?"

The teacher doesn't answer.

[Also, when and why does Tom refer to himself in the third person?]

and on 239: is this passage which begins, "But that's what education's about, Price" a vocalized address to Price?] What is spoken, what is thought, what is afterthought for the narrator? Are there differences between what the narrator says and what he thinks to himself? Does this reveal anything about the narrator? (Lily Huang)

17. If you accept that water, especially in the region of the Fens, is one of the accompanying elements, and often itself the cause, of change, could it be that Tom Crick, having grown up alongside the river's edge, is fated to be an historian?

"Flood or no flood, the Leem brought down its unceasing booty of debris...All floated down on the westerly current, lodged against the sluice-gate and had to becleared away with boat-hooks and weed-rakes." (p.4)

From childhood on is it inevitable that Crick should be the one to try and sort out what the current brings in? Are some people destined to be historians while others make history, "Consider(ing) that the study of history is the very opposite, is the very counteraction of making it." (p.194) (Ryan Martin)

18. "For what is water, which seeks to make all things level, which has no taste or colour of its own, but a liquid form of Nothing? And what are the Fens, which so imitate in their levelness the natural disposition of water, but a landscape which, of all landscapes, most approximates to Nothing. Every Fenman secretly concedes this; every Fenman suffers now and then the illusion that the land he walks over is not there, is floating . . ." (13) "But was she (Sarah Atkinson) still there in spirit--cheering with the rest of them? Or was she still, in her upper room, keeping her watch over Nothing?" (91) "What has induced this premature birth? Some sudden shock, at something seen, perhaps, in that upper room where Sarah, we are given to believe, breathed her last? The Stress and agitation--which, who knows, might have betokened guilt as well as grief--attendant upon that rain-drenched funeral? Or was it that the swelling waters of the Fens, the bursting dykes, the rising river--already, through the windows, visibly lapping at the foot of Water Street--awoke a mysterious affinity in Mrs. Atkinsons's system and caused her own waters to break in sympathy?" (105)

Given her prophetic abilities and the circumstances just prior to and after her death, what does Sarah Atkinson represent in the novel? How does this relate to the narrator's characterization of History and Nature?

What then, could be said about the role of women in the novel? (Edward Ryu)

19. Throughout the story, Tom seems to defend history and storytelling as a way to learn about the life and times of people, their families, and the events surrounding their existence. It is through history that one can understand life's tendency to revert to thoughts and experiences of the past, rather than progress onward. History provides a proper dose of reality. The "here and now" of life, however is rare and extraordinary - a phenomenon which appears to deviate from a reality all too predictable within the cycle of life.

p.61: "Life includes a lot of empty space. We are one-tenth living tissue, nine-tenths water; life is one-tenth here and now, nine-tenths a history lesson."

What does Swift mean by the "Here and Now?" Exactly how is the "here and now" significant in relation to Swift's major themes throughout the book, including progress, fear, curiosity, and natural history? Is the "here and now" something to be cherished? Is the "here and now" more a product of Tom's perspective on events, his experiences, or both? Is it truly the exception to the norm, or is it an integral part of reality? Finally, what moment(s) in Tom's life are worthy of the being in the "here and now?" (John Rosenblatt)

20. Tom Crick seems to be, if not caught between, at least aware of the division between natural and secular history. The eels mate; somewhere, somehow. Water flows, land comes and goes. Empires are made and fall. Price, his student, on the other hand, seems to be caught up in the present. It is his understanding that this time, when the empire falls, there will be an end to history-of both kinds. And yet, towards the end of the novel, Price himself is overtaken with the desire to record history himself. "We thought we'd start a magazine. Get people to write down their fears. You know, how they see the end of the world. The last minutes, last thoughts, the panic, what it'll be like for those who don't go straight away . . . " (p. 238) At the pub where Price says this, Crick introduces him as his son to the suspicious bartender. Soon after, Crick confesses that he believes children grow up to be like their parents, making the same mistakes (p. 240). Is this scene in the pub meant to be analogous to Mary's theft of the baby from the supermarket? Is Crick making a final effort of investing himself in natural history, trying with Price to continue a cycle? (Geoffrey Litwack)

Reading Questions

Last modified 8 March 2004