The novel entitled Waterland was published in 1983 and combined in its plot the elements of detectives, gothic family saga, and philosophical contemplations. Written by famous British writer, Graham Swift, it provides the fictional autobiography of a secondary school teacher interwoven with the insight on the world’s history. Trying to understand his own life, the main character, Tom Crick, questions the reasons of learning history and its relation to the life stories of simple people. The novel itself contemplates the connection of the history of mankind with the understanding of personal life histories of single individuals. Waterland demonstrates the nature of the history itself that consists in providing the answers to the fate of the whole humankind and its members in particular.
History is the main theme of the Swift’s novel. Its central place becomes apparent from the epigraph that is the definition of the Latin word “historia”. The main character and narrator of the story is a history teacher that presupposes his autobiography to be connected to the content of his subject. However, history in the novel is treated not simply as a discipline of investigation of records regarding past times. The author provides its two different projections: the outer one that throws the light on the development of the human race, and the inner one dealing with more narrow matters of personal life of the main character. The latter may be also split into two layers: the one that makes the readers acquainted with the story of the places where Mr. Crick grew up, and the one that exposes the episodes from his life and introduces his relationships with his close people.
The first and most evident manifestation of history is performed through the references to the events that are known all over the world. Deprived of chronological order, the narration of the novel is often interrupted with the episodes from the world’s history. Swift refers to the events that took place during the times of the Dutch wars, French Revolution, or the Second World War. It overweighs the other layers of historical telling in terms of significance of the events regarding the degree to which it concerns the entire society.
The acquaintance with great events is intertwined with the stories about the past of the teacher’s native lands. It manifests itself in the description of the local history of Gildsey and Fens – the place of residence of the main characters. Mr. Crick explores the development of these places through the prism of the existence of the two powerful families, the Cricks and the Atkinsons. Here, the local stories are supplemented by the references to the personal stories that form the last layer of the nature of history.
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The novel tells about some episodes from the private life of Mr. Crick and his family. The narrator provides details concerning the experiences of Tom, his wife Mary, and their parents; he also describes the events from the lives of their more ancient ancestors. As it was already indicated, the novel presents the story of Crick’s predecessors – Atkinson brewing family, their appearance, rise, and fall. Alongside this, the main character shifts to the more recent events and dwells on the tragedy of his brother’s death and his wife’s madness. It is possible to draw the parallel between the fate of this ancient clan and the modern Crick’s family – they both once enjoyed prosperity and then experienced decay. However, the author underlines the influence of the past on the present making Tom and his close people the prisoners of the history. The fate of this family depends on the past deeds that were completed by both the living members and their passed away predecessors.
The real nature of history consists in the search for the answers. Defining a human being as the “animal that asks why”, the author exposes the central inner desire of each member of the society and claims that this desire serves as the main driving force in all investigations. Throughout the novel, Crick turns to the events of the world’s history as well as the past experiences of his family in order to understand why his life is the way it is. Retelling his past in front of his class, the main character attempts to figure out the reasons why his life has been shaped that way, why his wife ended as a child kidnapper and he – as the laid-off teacher. Looking back on the past, Crick deals with difficulties in present. He obtains the feeling of having his life organized again and finds important answers that replace chaos and doubts. However, it does not mean that looking back to the past, he aims at learning on mistakes. The main character, Tom, simply tries to examine the past mistakes and the ways how history has shaped his life.
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In conclusion, the novel emphasizes the importance of history in all its perspectives. The author claims that history is nothing but the stories of people that help to understand the meaning and find the explanation of certain occasions. It is about reasons, not about the guidance. Looking back at the past may help to regain the control over the present. The history is a big mirror that gives the account of the deeds that have been done and how they have shaped the people. It cannot and should not give any lessons as its main value consists in providing the explanations.