History and Story Telling in Graham Swift's Waterland
Waterland uses history, theory, and fictional biography to address the question of history. The blurring of boundaries between history, story, and theory questions the construction of those boundaries as well as the closure and linear nature of traditional narrative. If Waterland has a beginning, it is far in the geologic past, at a time when the continents began their slow journey to the positions they now occupy; however, the novel itself does not begin at this beginning. Waterland moves forward and backward through geologic, historic, and biographic time. By denying the linearity and absolute authority of historical narrative, Swift leaves room for rupture and revision, for stories and nostalgia. The historical and biographical accounts provide a context for the philosophy and theory that the narrator interjects throughout the novel; the philosophy and theory facilitate the leaps in time between geologic, historic, and biographic past. Swift's mingling of (what appears to be) a "real" geologic history of the fens and the fictional accounts of the Crick and Atkinson families blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction, turning history into fiction and placing fiction within a "real" historical account. (footnote 1) Waterland, as a novel, makes the same proposal that Tom Crick makes to his class: to discover and reveal the purpose of history by telling a story.
The study of semiotics shows that language is the primary mediator in the construction of reality. All systems of signification are dependent on language, and the development of subject position is determined through the act of speaking. (footnote 2) In a discussion of language functions, Fredric Jameson draws an association between personal identity, temporal organization, and the linearity of the sentence. Jameson proposes that speech acts organize temporal existence by positioning the past and future as separate from the present moment. Without temporal organization, reality is experienced as "a series of pure and unrelated presents." "If we are unable to unify the past, present and future of the sentence, then we are similarly unable to unify the past, present and future of our own biographical experience or psychic life" (Jameson, 72).
Henry Crick, Tom's father, returned shaken and shell-shocked from the WW1; he was healed by his future wife through her encouragement to tell stories. "She believes that they're a way of bearing what won't go away, a way of making sense of madness" (Swift, 170). Stories allowed Henry Crick to reorganize his temporal and psychic existence by placing in the past the events that so troubled him. But speech acts alone did not cause this healing process. Henry Crick told stories that were based on fact or fancy, stories that were "neither one thing nor the other." This blurring of the boundaries between fiction and reality made the fact-based stories less real, less associated with the...