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Waterland: Graham Swift

Waterland by Graham Swift: Analysis of Chapter Fourteen

Wednesday, August 29th, 2007

This essay will critically analyse chapter fourteen of Waterland by Graham Swift and establish that it is in the style of a self-conscious lesson in history directed at the reader. In its form it will be shown to be metafiction linking history telling and story telling (Hutcheon 1989). That as a chapter it is a lesson about history and post modernist literary theory. Form, content and literary devices, used by the text, will be considered in making this argument, and establish that the key preoccupations of the whole text are encapsulated within it. These are metaphoric devices of the river representing the circularity of history; silt as representative of progress and history; the French Revolution, grand narratives and the destructive nature of society are also considered in the text.

The title of the chapter “De la Revolution”, French for revolution refers to the French Revolution which is linked to the age of enlightenment and Jean-Jacques Rousseau who considers the nature of man and his environment in the eighteenth century. He argues that it is not natural for humans to live in society. Rousseau considered a division between society, which he sees as negative, and human nature. He considers human nature fundamentally good but corrupted by society. He considered humans living in a natural environment, free from the trappings and rules of civilization as independent, self-sufficient and good, in his essay, Discourse on the Arts and Sciences written in 1750. The text refers to it as “Rousseau’s cry of back to nature” (Swift 1983 p.137). All the major characters in the text are in some way corrupted by civilization’s touch. For Rousseau society is artificial, like the land reclamation in the text, and social interdependence, which he considered destructive of humanity, is symbolized by Mary’s abortion. The power of the Atkinsons and Tom Crick’s lack of it is symbolic of the inequalities of society first exposed by Rousseau. This is referenced in chapter fourteen when Crick is telling the reader in the form of a lesson, that

“So-called forward movements of civilization, whether moral or technological, have invariably brought with them an accompanying regression.” (Swift 1983 p. 135).

Crick explains how printing presses led to propaganda, steam engines to “ten year olds working sixteen hours a day in coal mines” (Swift 1983 p.136) and airplanes to the destruction of European cities. He refers to the splitting of the atom: “And as for the splitting of the atom—” (Swift 1983 p.136). The text in this phrase is in its own paragraph, an encapsulation of the grammatical and punctuation devices used throughout the text. This phrase shows the metafictional nature of the text, self-consciously narrating history as a series of stories; Linda Hutcheon calls it “historiographic metafiction”.

“And” beginning a sentence is generally considered bad grammar, but it is a device used throughout the text. Deviations from accepted rules of textual structure are typical of postmodern metafiction questioning established norms. Patricia Waugh defines metafiction as:

“fictional writing that draws attention to itself as an artefact” (Waugh 1984 p.2)

Metafiction self-consciously and regularly draws attention to itself as a book in order to examine the interface and dynamic between fiction and reality. This definition assists in understanding Chapter fourteen. It is written in the form of a lesson, addresses both readers and students in the class, it switches points of view and from addressing the reader to the scene in the class. This exploration of the narrative structure and consideration of the nature of the world outside the text as potentially fictional or misrepresented is typical of metafiction as defined, written in a postmodern style. It helps in understanding that issues are explored in the text by using “the metaphor of the book as world” (Waugh 1984 p.3) environment or grand narrative and then reshapes it in terms of contemporary thought in fields of philosophy, literature and language. It aids our understanding of the impication implied in postmodern metafiction like Waterland that says people have roles rather than self will and the consequences of other’s actions are a predominant feature of their lives (Rousseau refers to self will as self-sufficiency). This leads the reader to the logical conclusion that worlds and environments formed entirely from words are legitimate models for the examination of reality as a construct. This is what Waterland does in this chapter and is what Crick is teaching us, and does throughout the text as a whole, in terms of structure, content, style and grammatical devices – especially unexpected uses of grammar and punctuation – which draw attention to the metafictional voice of the text.

The metaficional lesson of this chapter and the text as a whole concens the negative impact of progress, supported by referring to the French Revolution, demonstrating the nature of history to distort the past, showing it to Modernists at least as a golden age: leading to a natural desire to revert to it. The title of the chapter refers to revolution, which also means circular and recursive, the lesson about history, Crick teaches his readers and pupils, is that a revolution involves going backwards in history to something better that exists, for post modern texts only in stories, no more reliable than the text that is speaking to the reader. The River Ouse is recursive potentially able to spread causing destruction unless contained by humans, like history and progress. The French Revolution is a symbol of attempts by society to retreat back into history and the destructive consequences of that. The theme of the text as a lesson continues in lessons, elsewhere in the text, about eels, land reclamation, the Ouse and silt. The message that the historical metaphor silt, inevitably returns to change the course of progress or the river, causing causes recursion or changes in direction, is constant throughout the text and present in this chapter. It describes history as an “Impedimenta” (Swift 1983 p.136) an “ever-frustrating weight”(Swift 1983 p.136), furthermore that it “…accumulates, because it gets always heavier…” (Swift 1983 p.136) this is also a description of silt; silt that “potato-heads”, like Dick, dredge up but becomes harder and harder to bring to the surface as it becomes ever larger and unmanageable, like history. Dick is the metaphorical hapless historian, dredging, the consequences “become more violent and drastic” (Swift 1983 p.137) the more dredging is done: Dick dies on the dredger. This is how Crick explains the “periodic convulsions” (Swift 1983 p. 137) of history. He refers to it as Natural History that seeks to take humanity back to “where we were” (Swift 1983 p.137), a reference to Rousseau’s view that humans are happiest living naturally. Crick considers the French revolution in some detail. The chapter, up to this point is delivered in third person limited to the perception of Crick. When the text begins to be more specific and consider the French Revolution the narrative voice becomes first person, as Crick, and is addressing the reader, the narrative is extremely self conscious at this point and addressed directly to the reader as a pupil. These shifts reflect the river, perception and reality as chaotic. At the end of this passage is another long dash which then leads into a first person narrative that utilizes mainly dialogue between Crick, now teaching in the classroom, and Price. Price is questioning the relevance or use of history. This is a metafictional device used by the text to consider post modernist theories of history and the importance of grand narratives. The voice of the chapter and the text is male, history and its relevance is considered from a male perspective, it is implicit from this that history itself is a male construct. The main characters in the French revolution were male. The lone female voice in this chapter is that of Judy Dobson who is described as a “perky answerer” (Swift 1983 p.139) she says “the voice of the people is the voice of God”(p.). A phrase used in the media to describe the opinions of “the man on the street”, quotes of which are usually edited. This girl in the book is portrayed then as an untrustworthy commentator, symbolic of the distain with which historical grand narratives consider female opinion and experience. Crick considers the meaning of “the people” by completely ignoring the girl’s opinion. Crick explains the pliable nature of history and its unreliability. The lesson directed at Price, emphasizes that history is for men. Crick says

“Price…the more you try to dissect events, the more you lose hold of them – the more they seem to have occurred largely in people’s imagination…” (Swift 1983 p. 140)

The theme, that history is male and both men and women suffered because of progress, is underlined by the fate of the female characters in the text: Mary losing a child, becoming infertile and then being committed, her mother’s and grandmother’s suffering. The text tells us that Dick is the product of a powerful, perverted and controlling man – a symbol of the corrupting nature of society. Dick’s father is a symbol of the futility of progress as he oversees the decline in his family fortunes and the beginning of the demise of the lock, control of the

Fens, the Ouse and Silt, ultimately arriving at Tom Crick, the narrator. The major premise of Post Modern metafiction is skepticism at the representation of history in grand narratives.

Enlightenment philosophers, like Rousseau, argued scientific thinking could examine all human activity and question everything – religion and authority especially. Prior to The Age of Enlightenment it was forbidden to challenge dogmatic, usually religious, theories. The Age of Enlightenment advanced ideas that reason and logic are able to establish an objective understanding of the universe.

Modernist writers have a mournful view of history as fragmenting and mourn its passing and do not question the validity of history and progress. Modernist literature considers that there is an overall purpose to human existence and views history and the loss of old values as a critical. The text obliquely criticises this view: “History is the record of decline. What we wish upon the future is very often the image of some lost, imagined past.” (Swift 1983 p.141)Price is mocking of the post modern approach to Crick taught in the lesson, he argues that to want a future does not equate to a yearning for paradise lost:“Never said anything about paradise. But – I want a future.”Price completely misunderstands Crick’s critique of Modernism. Modernists utilize narratives with multiple narrators, for example William Faulkners As I Lay Dying, showing an event from multiple perspectives as subjective and fragmentary and so history as fragmented and presenting this as a loss. Post Modernism celebrates this fragmentation. Crick is an example of it when narration changes from first to third person. Linda Hutcheon explains that Post Modernism is “not so much a concept as a problematic: a complex of heterogeneous but interrelated questions which will not be silenced by any spuriously unitary answer” (Hutcheon 2002)Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, explains the grand narrative. Stories are the original historical narratives. History once consisted of them leanding credibility to “facts” recorded, establishing social norms of behavior to protect existing power structures. Grand Narratives refer to the Koran and Bible. In his view these books confer credibility to the opinions and rules expressed. “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives”. (Lytotard, 1984)Post Modernism rejects the mourning of a lost past. Chapter fourteen demonstrates that progress is inevitably damaging:“Why is it that every so often history demands a bloodbath, a holocaust, an Armageddon? And why is it that every time the time before has taught us nothing?” (Swift 1983 p.141)Post modernism accepts natural chaos and disorder as inevitable symbolized in the text by the bloodbath that is Mary’s abortion and in this chapter by referring to the Reign of Terror orchestrated by Robespierre. The idea that grand narratives can organize humanity socially is discredited in this text and reality. The collapse of communism in Russia and the secular nature of the

United Kingdom are examples of rejection. Changes in

China consequent to Mao’s death and the Polish shipyard strikes were the first signs of these changes that were contemporary to Waterland. The chapter concludes as the narrator, in first person poses a series of questions. Then says the French Revolution resulted in Napoleon, ironically referring to Rousseau’s Golden Age. The circularity of history is once again explained by Crick who ends by running straight into the next chapter, like water, into the Ouse, a vast expanse of history that will swallow this story with all the others.

This chapter highlights the mythological and potentially fictional nature of the past as a golden age; it questions the reliability of history, as recorded in grand narratives, in the post-modern tradition, utilising the device of metafictional narration. The chapter and text argues and demonstrates that preoccupation with the past can be damaging, and that one can never fully know what the past is because it is a collection of stories surrounding events, like the text. The end of the chapter leads straight into a chapter about the Ouse, emphasising the unending, but all consuming power of an unreliable history to shape the future. This failure to end the chapter occurs in the whole text as there is no final resolution to narrative.

Word Count 2100


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