‘ Also the idea of everything being ‘zero’ connects to the idea of circularity in Swift’s novel. Another comparison between the two works is that, this vacancy must be filled using stories, Swift offers the theory that man ‘ wherever he goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker-buoys and trail-signs of stories. He has to go on telling stories, he has to keep on making them up. ‘ The vacancy and emptiness of the Fens also encourages curiosity.
Curiosity is an important theme in the novel, especially in the Mary, Tom, and Dick love triangle. As I have already discussed the emptiness of the Fens encourages story telling, but I think the flat and monotonous nature of the context also encourages the motifs of discovery, curiosity, and mystery, ‘the bare and empty Fens yield so readily to the imaginary. ‘ ‘The flat empty Fens all around us became, too, a miraculous land, became an expectant stage on which magical things could happen. ‘ Swift is saying that with this sense of vacancy comes expectancy.
The Fens are this magical stage, where the ‘itch of curiosity’ becomes more and more irritating. Sexuality as I have already mentioned is inextricably linked to the Fens, being especially present in the water imagery, the Fens and sexuality also become mingled, curiosity is an idea that is encapsulated in the sexual content, thus curiosity and the Fens merge, ‘the land girls brought to our fenland byways an atmosphere of subversion and simmering sexuality. But simmering sexuality – as you may know, children – is always there.
‘ ‘Curiosity which bogs us down’ is an interesting phrase that immediately links curiosity with the marshy wasteland; ‘bog’ has several connotations, one of which is ‘silt’. This emphasizes curiosity’s role as an undertone throughout the novel, just like silt it is constantly there, lying just below the surface, impossible to get rid of, ‘a constant itch. ‘ The Fens in Waterland, conjure up a similar landscape to that of Great Expectations, and in its epigraph explicitly draws on Dickens to reinforce the powerful presence of the flat marshland.
The epigraph also immediately informs the reader that there are common themes throughout these two novels, both have a 1st person narrative and are about growing up, a ‘bildungsroman’. The setting almost always symbolizes a theme in Great Expectations and always sets a tone that is perfectly matched to the novel’s dramatic action. Pip’s imagination, like Mary, Dick and Tom’s curiosity, was forced to develop as a result of this openness and simplicity, and he expanded his ideas in the process. In the first chapter of Great Expectations the fenland is described as:
‘the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea, and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip. ‘2 The list gives this phrase a repetitive nature, which emphasizes the expansive quality of the marshes. In Chapter 24, ‘Child’s Play’, Swift uses repetition, alliteration, and a list to achieve a similar effect, ‘Blue-haze sky.
Hot banks. Flat, flat Fens. Rasping rushes. Mud between toes. Weeping willows. Mary… ‘ The two phrases are very similar, as both list features of the Fens/marshes and then immediately force the attention off this extensive landscape onto a character. Therefore the empty nature of the Fens allows the readers attention to be almost completely focused on the characters and their situations. Also in the background of the novel is George Eliot’s, The Mill on the Floss, she puts a similar strong emphasis on the surrounding landscape and the power of water in man’s working life.
The metaphors of water are used to explore the sibling relationship between Tom and Maggie. In Waterland, Swift establishes a connection between Dick and the river, especially when he characterizes him with eely attributes. The river, in Eliot’s novel, with its depth and potential to flood, (flooding also significant in Waterland) symbolizes Maggie’s deeply running and unpredictable emotions. George Eliot also personifies the river, ‘How lovely the little river is, with its dark changing wavelets!
It seems to me like a living companion while I wander along the bank, and listen to its low, placid voice . . . ‘3 Swift similarly gives the Ouse an additional connotation, a human element, ‘the continued contempt of the river for the efforts of men… ‘ and when he says the river has ‘… changed direction, taken short-cuts, long loops, usurped the course of other rivers, been coaxed into new channels and re-arranged its meeting place with the sea,’ he gives the Ouse control, a control which is most closely associated with humans.
A very important symbol that runs continuously throughout Waterland is the River Ouse. All the traditional symbolism is present in Swift’s use of the river: i. e. the flow of time, endless progression, and the force of nature, but Swift also gives the river a human element (see earlier). The river is a constant element; history passes it by while it just ‘flows on, oozes on, just like before. ‘ The Ouse is also a constant element in the narrative; it runs throughout the novel connecting various different parts and is the central symbol that gives Waterland its cyclical nature.
This circularity is well illustrated when Swift gives a description of the water-cycle, ‘so that while the Ouse flows to sea, it flows, in reality, like all rivers, only back to itself, to its own source; and that impression that a river only moves one way is an illusion. ‘ Swift uses a convoluted narrative that almost ebbs and flows; the non-linear style is carried in broken crosscurrents of self-interrupted thoughts, explanations, and reasons. Tom Crick uses water ridden analogies all the way through the novel, one of the most obvious ones being the description of history, ‘It goes in two directions at once.
It goes backwards as it goes forwards. It loops. It takes detours… marching unswervingly into the future. ‘ Waterland involves the story of two families, the Cricks and the Atkinsons, water people vs. capitalist brewers, David Malcolm in his book ‘Understanding Graham Swift’ argues that this serves as a ‘paradigm for England during the Industrial revolution, technology and capitalism overtaking the life and land of the Fen people: figuratively connecting Swift’s ideas of progress to the movement of the river.
Crick’s narrative is an attempt to reclaim/retell the displaced history of his people. The Fens are very important throughout the novel, they advance the plot and become this platform from which stories emerge, they lie just below the surface of the narrative, attribute human and sexual characteristics, and most significantly they allow the plot to advance more rapidly.
Bibliography Graham Swift – ‘Waterland’ David Malcolm – ‘Understanding Graham Swift’ Brian Aubrey Stef Craps – ‘Trauma and Ethics in the Novels of Graham Swift’ Charles Dickens – ‘Great Expectations’ George Elliot – ‘The Mill on the Floss’ Samuel Beckett – ‘Endgame’ Pamela Cooper’s article – ‘Imperial Topographies: The Spaces of history in Waterland’ Graham Swift: Waterland, an Overview http://www. hewett. norfolk. sch. uk/curric/english/resource/ Word Count 2936 words 1 Definition of existentialism found on www. google. co. uk 2 Charles Dickens, Great Expectations 3 George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss.