The Role of Childhood in Swift's Waterland

Elora Lee Raymond '99, English 27 (1997)

In Waterland, childhood is not a time of innocence or ignorance, as it is in Aké and The Slave Girl. Rather, Swift draws on Freud's ideas of storytelling and personal history to demonstrate the importance of history.

In Freudian psychoanalysis, storytelling is a way to give the present meaning, to make sense of life. In Waterland Tom Crick must reveal the traumas of his childhood in order to make sense of his present life, and it is after revealing a tale of ultimate childhood trauma- the end of an incestuous relationship between father and daughter, that Swift ends the novel.

Swift refers to Freudian theories throughout his text. He begins his book with the quote "don't forget, whatever you learn about people, however bad they turn out, each one of them has a heart, and each one of them was once a tiny baby sucking his mother's milk." (p. 1) He describes George and Alfred Atkinson as suffering from "the classic symptoms of Mother fixation, not to say the Oedipal Symptom". (p. 88) The vagina, specifically "Mary Metcalf, later Mrs. Crick's" vagina, is described as a "miniature model of reality" (42). This treatment of female body parts and traditional roles of woman as crucial to a persons psychological development is a concept taken from Freudian psychoanalysis. In Waterland, troubling female sexuality is the mystery to be unveiled. Mary, the center of sexual discovery, male desire, and the murder of Freddie, is at the heart of the detective story. These themes echo Freud's case histories, and essays by attempting to both understand and define female sexuality, as well as establish it as mysterious and unknowable. The female characters; Helen Atkinson, Sarah Atkinson, Mary Metcalf, are reminiscent of the women in Freud's case histories. Their symptoms and maladies, shock, going mute, deaf and blind, the need to tell stories, madness caused by inability to have a child, father-daughter incest, are the same characters and female maladies found in Freud's case histories.

This is not to say that Swift endorses Freud's theories of sexuality. Rather, Swift seems to refer to Freud to make use of Freud's relation to storytelling. Freud used storytelling in order to give meaning to a current event. For Freud, curing meant making meaning of a patients illness, and meaning was attached to the patient's past. Hysteria, madness, did not exist only in the 'here and now'. Rather they were symptoms or signs of a childhood event. Swift draws on Freud to establish history as the signified, the referent, of today's problems and events. Referring to Freud is a powerful way of demonstrating why we cannot just face the 'here and now', and why that theory inspires terror, the fear of chaos and the threat of non-meaning in Tom Crick. According to Freud, the past is necessary to make meaning of the present. By analyzing his own past, Crick is able to show Price that history is relevant. It is though this metaphor, or through this particular connection, that he shows how history makes meaning of his life, and why he needs history and the past.

United Kingdom