Rippling Outwards: The Uncontrolling Centrality of Childhood in Swift

Sage Wilson '98, English 27 (1997)

Graham Swift's Waterland presents certain difficulties for discussions of childhood. Thanks to the structural intricacy of the novel, neither the temporal location of childhood in Waterland nor its relation to adulthood can be fixed in quick and easy declarative sentences. In a way, childhood lies at the center of Waterland just as it lies in the center of the other two texts. However, this center does not exert any centrifugal force; rather, the history teacher's childhood provides the kind of center from which the rest of the story leisurely ripples outward. The stories which emerge do not necessarily return to childhood or speak directly to it, but they do issue from memories of youth in some way or another, more or less obscure. For example, the discussions of the French Revolution and the desire for everything to be new relate directly to the long family histories Swift provides. Similarly, out of the childhood need to ask whywhywhy arises an account of Price's desire to stop studying the past when he believes the world might end in the near future. Most of the novel reconnects to itself in this manner, and thus Tom Crick's childhood organizes the text, but does not control it.

Because childhood ripples outward (in all directions, forward to the present, backwards to the past, laterally to the simultaneous), I cannot offer an easy formula for the novel's account of larger political and cultural issues. But some provisional observations can be made and provisional conclusions drawn. Basically, in Waterland, modernization is not so modernizing and forward-thrusting after all. Things get lost -- Mary's curiosity and Britain's empire, for instance -- at the same time as progress advances. Other cultures do not lie so far behind (the French, for one, seem to have started it all), and England does not stand so far ahead. Everything in Waterland, then -- not just childhood -- ties itself into knots, ripples outward, turns back on itself. The siltation of progress, the movement of childhood -- these suggest the over-arching themes and the narrative structure at once.

Postimperial Literature Waterland