Enclosed Mysticism and Madness in Waterland

Marta Cobb '97 (English 168, 1996)

Although still a feminine place, the enclosed space serves a different function for women in Waterland. Within this space women often undergo mystical transformations. These mystical experiences, however, whether had by men or by women, always possess a disturbing perversity and often stem from a state of madness. Men, however, with the exception of Ernest Atkinson, experience the mystical from without the enclosed space. For example, Tom's father sees the will-o'-the-wisp while he stands outside his cottage (231-2). Many years later, Jack Parr lies outdoors on the tracks hoping a train will run him over. When he wakes up from his drunken stupor to find himself alive, he believes that God has saved him. He never learns that God took no hand in creating the miracle; rather, his wife saved him by signaling over the telegraph wire, telling the trains not to come. Nevertheless, this miracle changes his life, and he experiences it in the open air. Furthermore, as the closer mystical events come to the present day, the mysticism becomes mad and deflated, as if time and distance create the mystique of the divine, rather than the divine creating its own presence. Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely given its religious connections, the enclosed space also becomes associated with guilt and punishment.

Sarah Atkinson, an ancestress of the narrator, is struck by her husband because he falsely believes that she has committed adultery. She spends the rest of her life in her room, never again recovering her wits. For her the enclosed space exists not only in the physical world, but in her mind as well. From then on, a veil of rumor and myth shrouds her life and death. Sarah becomes, in the eyes of the town, a sanctified holy figure -- a strange combination of the local saint, Gunnhilda and a more powerful, almost pagan spirit able to cause floods and to see the future. In these rumors, she brings about the rise and decline of her children and their descendants:

. . . to [her sons] indeed she departed, perhaps in plain words, perhaps, perhaps by some other mystical process of communication, wisdom and exhortation. That it was from her, and not from their father, that they got their zeal and their peculiar sense of mission. Not only this, but the success that came to the Atkinson brothers came to them not from their own sterling efforts but from this wronged Martyr.

In short, that that blow to the head had bestowed on Sarah that gift which is so desired and feared -- the gift to see and shape the future (83).

Sarah, transformed by her solitude and a blow that stole her life, becomes the reason for her family's success while she lives, and, after her death, its downfall. Underneath this fairy-tale, however, the narrator hints of another, less attractive truth -- that perhaps Sarah does not watch the community from her room, but lives in an institution "trussed up in a straight-jacket" (85). Or perhaps, as some think, the asylum her sons built in her honor was actually built for her to inhabit. Over the years, legend builds upon legend, concealing a potentially horrible truth. The fables, being easier to bear, remain. Yet, whether a mystical force or a madwoman, a blessing or a curse, Sarah's presence and her wrongful punishment continue to haunt the community long after her death. In 1914, forty years after her funeral, the Atkinson's brewery burns down, and someone sees her watching over the conflagration, repeating the only words "specifically attributed to her in all the years following her husband's dreadful fit of rage . . . 'Smoke!', 'Fire!', 'Burning!'" (84). Even Sarah's death cannot stop the power she has acquired in the eyes of the community.

Fairy-tales have less power to shelter the narrator as time progresses. Sarah's granddaughter, Helen Atkinson, follows her father into seclusion after the brewery burns. Whether Ernest Atkinson set the brewery on fire himself, or others struck out against him, the destruction of his family's empire becomes yet another part of the curse. For four years, from 1914 until 1918, they seldom venture from their hall. The townspeople imagine another set of fairy-tales about a beautiful daughter trapped against her will by her father. In response to their story-building, the narrator comments, "in every myth there is a grain of truth" (215). During these years alone, both father and daughter change:

A strange thing, but the more the war progresses (if that's what wars do), the more it loses its fairy-tale flavor, its rally-round-the-flag, all-over-by-Christmas flavor, and becomes something appalling, something quite unlike a fairy-tale, so the more beautiful grows this daughter. And the more despairing (of mankind) and worshipping (of his daughter) grows Ernest. Till . . . Ernest Atkinson beats a headlong retreat, backwards, inwards, to Paradise, and starts to believe that only from out of this beauty will come a Saviour of the World (220).

As the madness grows in the world outside the enclosed space, another sort of madness -- not entirely different from what the townspeople imagine -- grows within. The world plunges forward in a feeble attempt at progress while Ernest, in the face of the apocalypse, seeks retreat into a new beginning, spinning a fairy-tale around himself and his daughter to protect himself from his despair. He wants to become the father of this Saviour that his daughter will bear. Helen, who grew up in this not quite sane environment, "love[s] her father, both in the way a daughter should and in the way a daughter shouldn't" (228), but she realizes that this child should not be. Instead, she urges her father to build a hospital, and in 1918, the Atkinson's build another asylum to house the shell-shocked soldiers. She herself emerges from seclusion, transformed into a nurse with the power to heal. She does not, however, heal the soldiers as her father imagines, "by the sheer magic of her beautiful presence" (224) but through telling stories -- "a way of bearing what won't go away, a way of making sense of madness" (225). For her, for Ernest, and for her son, Tom, story-telling plays a fundamental role in coping with the past; it creates a cushion of distance between the self and the event, making it easier to bear.

Eventually, as with the war, the story cannot support itself. Unable to bear the madness of her home and of her work, Helen strikes a terrible bargain; she will bear her father's child if he will let her marry one of her patients. This child, far from becoming the Saviour of the World, is a "potato-head" and a murderer. The mystical fairy-tale Ernest created falls to pieces, giving way to the perverse madness it attempted to conceal. Tom cannot salvage the tale either; he possesses Ernest's journal from those years. He also has the evidence of his idiot brother. He can, however, follow Helen's example and turn the horror into a story.

Tom's control diminishes further as the events of his story spill over into his own life. As time moves into the present, the enclosed space gradually loses more of its mystical powers and transformative properties. He no longer has the power to frame what he tells as a story, beginning with "once upon a time." Tom loses his beloved Mary to the enclosed space twice, and the second time he does not know if he will ever get her back again. The first time, which occurs after her abortion and Dick's death, Mary voluntarily "decide[s] to withdraw from the world and devote herself to a life of solitude, atonement, and (which was only making a virtue of necessity) celibacy" (41). In her ironic attempt to live up to her name, she punishes herself for her sexual curiosity and "commun[es] with On High" (41). Tom does not reveal much more; she never speaks of her seclusion and he seems afraid to speculate. When he sees her again, the situation does not quite meet his expectations:

[He] makes his journey home in the guise of the returning Prince ready to pluck aside briars and cobwebs and kiss his Princess out of whatever trance has possessed her for the last three years. He expects to find -- and accept -- a nun, a Magdalen, a fanatic, a hysteric, an invalid . . . But he sees . . . a woman (no girl) who impresses him with her appearance of toughness, endurance, as if she has made the decision to live henceforth without any kind of prop or refuge. And he realizes that though this three-year separation has fostered the illusion that . . . he would be a prop for her . . ., it is quite the opposite: that she will be a prop to him. (120)

Once again, the narrator attempts to create a fairy-tale out of the events, but they do not quite fall into place. The girl he hoped to awaken no longer exists; he cannot revive the curiosity that began their affair. Nor does he find a religious devotee in love with God, needing his help to cure her madness. She no longer needs his support; she will support him. Mary's seclusion has wrought no mystical change, but rather has created a new strength within her, giving her a maturity she did not have before. He does not have the happy ending he hoped for, but perhaps they can leave the past behind.

The past however, does not fade so easily, and eventually Tom cannot simply tell a story to make himself more comfortable. After years of being his wife and caring for the elderly, Mary slowly begins to slip away from him, into the recesses of her mind:

But it must have always been there, lurking, latent, ripening like some dormant, forgotten seed. Because in the year 1979, a woman of fifty-two, she suddenly began looking again for Salvation. She began this love-affair, this liaison -- much to the perplexity of her husband . . . -- with God. And it was when this liaison reached a critical . . . pitch that your astounded and forsaken history teacher . . . ceased to teach history and started to offer you, instead, these fantastic-but-true, these believe-it-or-not-but-it-happened Tales of the Fens. (41-42)

Unable to escape the past, both husband and wife attempt to find ways to make it more palatable. Mary turns again to God, hoping for salvation for her past sins. She shuts herself into a place in her mind, abandoning her husband. Tom copes as his family has always coped, through telling stories. Somehow, these stories will make the past less painful. They cannot, however, protect him from the present when Mary, believing that God will give her a child as he gave one to her namesake, kidnaps a baby from a grocery store. Through gaining a child she hopes to make up for the child she lost, and heal the destruction of the past. When Tom takes the child away, she loses her last refuge and becomes mad. In "the cloistered precincts of this asylum," she again exists in an enclosed space, both physical and psychological. This space, however, no longer bears trappings of the sacred, nor does it have the power to heal or to transform -- it is the room of a broken woman who stares out the window and refuses to remember, as Sarah did many years before. Tom does not suggest that she has the power of prophecy, as Sarah did. Mysticism no longer has a place in the present:

In another age, in olden times, they might have called her holy (or else have burnt her as a witch) . . . They might have allowed her the full scope of her mania: her anchorite's cell, her ascetic's liberties, her visions and ravings . . . Now she gets the benefit of psychiatry (330).

He cannot turn this into an acceptable story or his wife into a mystical figure. She is his wife and this is his present; he cannot create the necessary distance. He can only acknowledge how she might have been perceived in another time, yet her treatment would have remained the same. Whether in a cloister or mental hospital, society keeps the mystics or the insane in a place apart, because in their minds, they do not live in the same world.

United Kingdom

Document last modified 20 December 2001