The Decline of Great Britain as Context for Waterland

Jen Chapin '93 (English 34, 1991)

Once upon a time people believed in the end of the world. Look in the books: see how many times and on how many pretexts the end of the world has been prophesied and foreseen, calculated and imagined. But that, of course, was superstition....For a little while--it didn't seem so long ago, only a few generations ago--the world went through its revolutionary, progressive phase; and the world believed it would never end, it would go on getting better. But then the end of the world came back again, not as an idea or a belief but as something the world had manufactured for itself all the time it was growing up.

...There's this thing called progress. But it doesn't progress. It doesn't go anywhere. Because as progress progresses the world can slip away. (Waterland, P. 291.)

The prophets of gloom take the view that Britain has had its day, while the opponents reply that it is merely passing through one of the periods of weakness and readjustment that occur in the history of all great nations. The philosopher will make allowance for both views, but he will also remember that there is no precedent to suggest how much strain an industrial civilization can endure without completely breaking down. (Sir Charles Petrie, Encyclopedia Americana, 1989, p. 221.)

Of the many stories that Tom Crick tells in Graham Swift's Waterland, the tale of the rise and fall of Great Britain is the most over-reaching. The post-World War II period that serves as the context for Tom Crick's recollections was the age that witnessed the gradual decline of England from an imperial power to simply another industrialized nation stricken by complex economic and social problems. Basically, the nation, (and inundustrialized Western society, by extension) is not "getting better." The decline would not be so dramatic had it not been preceded by such a long and illustrious ascent, but as it is implied in the encyclopedia quotation, this decline is deeply felt by the English, particularly those of the old aristocracy. So profoundly felt is the British descent by characters of Waterland that it is perceived by some to be the end of the world. Crick's student Price experiences the feeling as a premonition of Nuclear Armageddon, while Crick sees it more as the end of forward progress, or more abstractly, the end of curiosity and history.

In Waterland, Britain is personified by the members of the Atkinson family as they grow, industrialize, expand, and achieve status. Like Great Britain, the Atkinson family finally comes to a point, after centuries of piling glory upon glory, where there is nowhere left to progress. The Atkinson's conquest of many realms and their winning over of the awe and reluctant respect of those around them has paralled that of the United Kingdom. The question remains: will Great Britain sink into mediocrity, perversion and self-extermination as did Ernest Atkinson? Or will it continue its progress slowly and perhaps regain its old dominance? The first option seems unlikely, yet a sense of Britain's stagnation and imminent decline does hang ominously over the book.

When Tom Crick gives the quoted lecture to his history class, or possibly imagines he does, the reader senses that he is talking about a decline that extends beyond England or even the world. Crick, has reached middle age and is facing the disintegration of his marriage. Like England, he has come to the point of reflection; or what he calls "history." He does not identify his ponderings of the past as Nostalgia--"this insidious longing to go backwards."(p. 119) According to Crick, it is England that is feeling nostalgia for the past when its continual progress and technological advance signified something other than self-destruction, yet we can recognize nostalgia among some of Crick's reflections as well.

As the story ends, Mary has been overwhelmed by her subliminated past of abortion and guilt and has sought refuge from it in what looks like insanity. Tom Crick, the historian, has decided to confront his past as he confronts historical data. In his retelling of the family history to Price, he recognizes his need to examine the past in order to overcome his fear of its horrors:", history, fairy-tales--it helps to eliminate fear. And why do you think I'm sitting here with you now, wanting to tell you more?"(p. 208) By the end of the book, Tom has revealed and examined the most terrible moments of his past with the objectivity of a historian.

"The only important thing about history, I think, sir, is that it's got to the point where it's probably about to end."
For Tom, it seems that the history of the Atkinsons has ended, as has British history, or at least a stage of it. There is nothing left but the words of Price's first interruption of class: "What the here and now. Not the past. The here and now, and the future." (p. 6)

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