Waterland | Critical Essay by Judith Wilt

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Waterland.
This section contains 3,166 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Judith Wilt

Critical Essay by Judith Wilt

SOURCE: "Abortion and the Fears of the Fathers: Five Male Writers," in Abortion, Choice, and Contemporary Fiction: The Armageddon of the Maternal Instinct, The University of Chicago Press, 1990, pp. 101-31.

Wilt is an American educator and nonfiction writer. In the following excerpt, she discusses the conflicts and issues associated with abortion in Waterland.

Empathetic with women characters, deeply conflicted about women's choices, male writers in the twentieth century still resonate most profoundly to the special exposures of the man in the matter of maternal choice. [In As I Lay Dying] Faulkner's Addie Bundren makes a discovery: she had remained complete and somehow untouched during intercourse, but in her first pregnancy her "aloneness" had been "violated." Pregnancy was rape. But birth made the violation "whole again." It is true that the circle binding the violated mother and child never loses the elementary violence introduced by the father: "Only through the blows of the switch could my blood and their blood flow as one stream." But the primary fact here is the exclusion of the father and the entire apparatus of phallogocentric reality from that circle: "My aloneness had been violated and then made whole again by the violation: time, Anse, love, what you will, outside the circle." "Love," a word which like all words, says Addie, is "just a shape to fill a lack," was the husband's bid for immortality. Instead, the birth of his son spun him out of the circle of life: "And then he died. He did not know he was dead."

Better attuned to the same dark premonition, the father in Hemingway's "Indian Camp" cuts his own throat as an "exalted" Doctor Adams, a successful "fisherman" that day, completes a cesarian delivery, sewing up the mother "with nine-foot, tapered gut leaders." The Indian husband "couldn't stand things," the doctor explains later to the appalled onlooker, his own son, Nick. On the trip home, father rowing the boat, passenger-son trailing his hand in the fertile water, startling a trout into its arcing leap, Nick savors his own immortality, a fragile fiction which lasts only as long as it takes his own father to sense his exclusion, his death, and shoot himself.

The same premonition haunts the male protagonist of Hemingway's famous abortion story, "Hills Like White Elephants," a restless terror that the Australian writer Thomas Keneally will allow the articulate embryo of his 1979 fable, Passenger, to state about his father: "He cringed at the possibility of observation by unborn and kingly me." This premonition about the undertow in the stream of progress generates a counterinsight in the protagonist of English writer Graham Swift's powerful historical novel of 1984, Waterland, that "however much you resist them, the waters will return; that the land sinks; silt collects; that something in nature wants to go back." Swift's history teacher narrator, Tom Crick, is a critic of the "myth of progress" which his Victorian male ancestors created/believed, not knowing that with each move forward they became just a little more dead. "Reality," "that empty but fillable vessel" whose human form is the womb of woman, must for Tom Crick pay due respect to the "natural" truths of return, going back, stopping altogether. To abortion.

Yet as we shall see, the plot of Waterland is conflicted about the abortion it uncovers: three deaths, not one, result from it, along with, thirty-six years later, the madness of the female protagonist and, arguably, of the male narrator, haunted by the truth, vision, or guilty desire for the stopped life….

Graham Swift's Waterland opens like a Gothic novel with a murdered body floating down the river that drains the English fenland. The narrator is a mysteriously spooked London history teacher whose fenland, paternal forbears were rural lock keepers and tale spinners, and whose maternal forbears were Victorian builders and brewers on the rise, in league with progress. Throughout the novel he addresses as his readers a class of adolescents who have suddenly rebelled against "the grand narrative"—history. The young people are spooked, too; they are pierced by nuclear fear, the recognition that the future, which is all that makes the past significant, may be foreclosed. Their challenge to the teacher, Tom Crick, culminates two other disasters. His headmaster, a no-nonsense technocrat with an airy faith in a future under the nuclear umbrella, has used the excuse of Thatcherite cuts in the budget to eliminate the history department and, by implication, Crick, too. And his wife, Mary, returning in her childless, early fifties to the Roman Catholic religion she had grown up in, began a "love-affair, a liaison … with God," whose issue was the kidnapping by the would-be, couldn't-be mother of another woman's baby from the supermarket.

The narrative is carried back from these present errors in rushes, oozes, and broken crosscurrents of self-interrupted musing, explaining, and reasoning, to the three deaths which at some profound level stopped the lives, the stories, of Tom Crick and Mary Metcalf, his wife. For, Crick warns his students in the obscure early pages of his rambling, "there is such a thing as human drainage, too, such a thing as human pumping." And the subsequent "pumping" of Mary and Tom, sexually, socially, intellectually, produces energies which drain continually back to the murder of Freddie Parr, found floating in the lock of the Leem River in 1943, the suicide (if it was such) of the murderer, and the pregnancy/abortion that caused and was caused by these.

Of the three mysteries these deaths involve, the first introduced is the most easily explained and the first illuminated. The narrator's brother, the mentally retarded "potato head," Dick Crick, killed Freddie Parr by getting him drunk on a bottle of his grandfather's famous Coronation Ale, then hitting him on the head and pushing him into the river. He did it because he was, in his dim but intense way, in "lu—lu—love" with Mary Metcalf and believed that desire alone was sufficient to make him the father of the child the sixteen-year-old Mary was carrying. This naive belief runs in the family: brother Tom believed that desire alone is sufficient (and necessary) to fill "that empty but fillable vessel, reality" of which a woman's womb is "a miniature model." Mary's protest, protecting Tom, the real father, that their friend Freddie Parr was the father, thus outraged not only Dick's manhood but his very reality. For Dick is (more than he or we know at the moment) the child of the maternal Atkinson ancestors, a child of "progress" for whom the things that happen, are done, are made, are reality. Tom, on the other hand, is a child of their Crick ancestors, rural philosophers like Faulkner's Bundrens for whom events, deeds, are mere hallucinations in the everlasting flatland of vacancy, for whom "reality is that nothing happens."

The Atkinson vision thus privileges paternity as the ultimate sign of reality: Atkinsons will seek fatherhood, invest it with godhood, be unable to relinquish it. But the Cricks have been "water people" for hundreds of years, living on its animals, sustaining and repairing its ravages, receiving its draining cargoes, and taking to heart its message: "For what is water, children, which seeks to make all things level, which has no taste or colour of its own, but a liquid form of Nothing?" For the Cricks, fatherhood is what it was to primitive peoples, man's hallucination, his favorite fiction, poignant attempt to raise on the flats of reality, in the empty womb of it, "his own personal stage, his own props and scenery—for there are very few of us who can be, for any length of time, merely realistic." A Crick will not believe his own fatherhood nor insist upon it, nor, on the other hand, will he be destroyed by it or by its lack.

This is what Tom Crick claims to understand of his own vision as he looks back beyond and around the conception and abortion of his only child, a primal scene reluctantly uncovered by the skittering narrative as a series of nightmarish snapshots. It started with "curiosity," a "vital force," an "itch," which drove the fifteen-year-old Mary to explore her own and Tom's bodies, an itch "beyond all restraint" whose verbal form, "those spell-binding words which make the empty world seem full," is (as it was in Faulkner's novel) the repeated phrase drained of reality, "I love—I love—love, love." It begins in a "little game of tease and dare" between the aggressive Mary and two boys, Tom Crick and Freddie Parr, as to who will "show" what lies between the legs. Dick Crick, "potato head," several years older and more physically developed, suddenly makes himself a part of the game when Mary agrees to "show" to the boy who swims longest underwater. Experiencing an erection for the first time, Dick dives from the bridge and wins the game, the splash and swim itself serving as his act of intercourse with the river, with Mary, with the fillable vessel of reality. The whimsical and malignant Freddie Parr, seeing Dick, bewildered, fail to claim his trophy, initiates another game: he seizes an eel from the river trap and thrusts it into Mary's "knickers." And Dick, erection, dive, eel, and ejaculation combining in his rudimentary mind, begins a kind of courtship of Mary, bringing her an eel in an act which to him signifies his creativity, his fatherhood, his reality.

So the first fragment of mythic memory—Dick, ready, erect, on the bridge; Freddie in the water reaching for the eel; Mary, "impregnated"—contains all the elements of the second—Freddie, dead in the water from Dick's possessively paternal blow; and Mary, pregnant and, good Catholic girl that she is, "responsible," telling the terrified and shamed actual father, Tom, "I know what I'm going to do." Mary is frozen in guilt, "so inside herself she might never emerge again. And inside Mary who's sitting so inside herself, another little being is sitting there, too."

The abortion Mary plans is both her effort to emerge from herself, from her guilty self-imprisonment, and her effort to expiate one death with another, to punish in herself the sexual curiosity that led to Dick's murder of Freddie. It is a ritual of abasement and sacrifice which Swift's narrative connects with her Roman Catholicism: at the crisis of the abortion, "with a terrible involuntary persistence," comes the phrase from her school prayers, "Holy Mary Mother of God Holy Mary Mother of God Holy Mary Mother of—." Tom is excluded from this decision. It is Mary who first tries abortion by dislodgement: "She jumps. Her skirt billows; brown knees glisten. And she lands in what seems a perversely awkward posture, body still, legs apart, not seeming to cushion her fall but rather to resist it. Then, letting her body sink, she squats on the grass, clasps her arms round her stomach. Then gets up and repeats the whole process. And again. And again." Then, miscarriage begun but not completed, Mary makes the ultimate decision: "Little cramps—not so little cramps—in Mary's guts. And Mary says at last, because it's not working, it's not happening: 'We've got to go to Martha Clay's.'"

Martha Clay, fen dweller, "witch," living image along with her mate, Bill, of Tom's Crick ancestors, the water people, performs the abortion in a nightmarish evocation of the force that empties, drains, the vessel of reality:

A pipe—no, a piece of sedge, a length of hollow reed—is stuck into Mary's hole. The other end is in Martha's mouth. Crouching low, her head between Mary's gory knees, her eyes closed in concentration, Martha is sucking with all her might. Those cheeks—those blood-bag cheeks working like bellows…. Martha appears to have just spat something into the pail…. In the pail is what the future is made of. I rush out again to be sick.

A figure from Tom's own kind of nightmare, Martha beckons him back into the circle, the decision from which Mary would have excluded him. After the long process of drainage, in the dawn, Martha orders him to empty the pail of "the future" into the water, the liquid form of nothing: "You gotta do it, bor. Only you. No one else. In the river, mind." So his seed is abandoned to the river, as was his brother Dick's in that first dive after his first erection. Tom Crick's vision of reality is sealed by that abortion, draining, flowing back, stopping. The whole superstructure of his subsequent life, love, and marriage with the abortion-injured and now barren Mary, the ever-filling "grand narrative" of history, the precarious "fatherhood" of the teacher with his students, is a gallant fiction extended over that fundamental fact. It collapses, paradoxically, when the fiction becomes intolerable for Mary and she opts for the madness of an alternate vision: that God has offered to her aged womb a child, like the patriarch of the Old Testament did to Sarah, the patriarch of the New Testament to Elizabeth. Though her husband forces her to return the stolen child, as Martha had forced him to look on the reality which is drainage, she will never, Tom knows as he visits her in the "temporary" criminal asylum, submit to emptiness, will always grieve for the baby she believes she bore at age fifty-two, "the baby they took away from her and won't give back. That baby who, as everyone knows, was sent by God. Who will save us all."

With that phrase the story of Tom Crick's aborted fatherhood is linked with the messianic madness, the driven Atkinson pride, that produced empire, fueled war, sired Dick Crick, the mysterious elder brother whose attempts at lu—lu—love were behind the whole tragedy. Behind the tragedy of Dick's mental retardation is the Atkinson lu—lu—love (poignant, neurotic, incestuous) which begot him—a love timed by the "great narrative of history" to coincide with the Great War in which the Victorian dream of progress, of the March of Mind, of the primacy of energy over matter and of event and deed over reality, circled back upon itself and blew itself up (to quote an American tale of incest and the Great War, Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night) "in a great gust of high explosive love."

The story of the "rise" of the Atkinson side of the narrator's family from Crick-like flatlanders and water people to hillside shepherds, barley farmers, then monopolist brewers, land reclaimers, transportation barons and heads of local government, is a story of "the tenacity of ideas" over/against "the obstinacy of water." It is also a story of powerful but blind patriarchs and haunted and haunting wives, of men who sought to control their women like their water. A blow struck out of psychotic jealousy by Thomas Atkinson in 1820 puts his beautiful wife, Sarah, in a waking coma for the next fifty-four years, and, despite his external activity, internally "history has stopped for him" at that moment, waters leveling once again the "unreclaimable internal land." And while his son and grandson maintain "the driving force of the Atkinson machine" through the century, the traumatized wife mutters or screeches three words, "smoke … fire … burning" at intervals, dives into the Ouse River "like a mermaid," according to local legend, just before her funeral, and, according to the same source, presides over the conflagration which destroys the Atkinson Brewery in the last moments of the long Edwardian summer, 1911.

Tom Crick possesses the journal of his grandfather (Sarah's great-grandson), Ernest Atkinson, in whom the engine of progress finally strips its gears. The journals record Ernest's late Victorian doubts, financial and political failures. They follow his descent into a mysticism in which he brews a hallucinogenic, Coronation Ale, suffers and imposes an incestuous love upon his teenage daughter, Helen, and finally, despairing of humanity as his doubts and Sarah's ghostly prophecies have their culmination in World War, conceives the mad but tenacious idea that only beauty, a child of beauty, his own child begotten of his own Helen, can "become a Saviour of the World."

So Helen Atkinson, like Mary Metcalf thirty years later, becomes a ghostly emblem of Sarah Atkinson, "who, local lore has it, offers her companionship to those whose lives have stopped though they must go on living." Loving her father, seeing his diseased desire, Helen tried first to divert it. She helped him found an asylum for shell-shocked veterans: "Wasn't that a better plan? To rescue all these poor, sad cases, all of whom would be in a sense their wards, their children." But the father was adamant: both his Atkinson desire to control, possess, and materialize in his own deed, the idea, the "Saviour of the World," the son of beauty, and his counter-Atkinson despair at the secret failures of progress, drive him to this incest: "When fathers love daughters and daughters love fathers it's like tying up into a knot the thread that runs into the future, it's like a stream wanting to flow backwards."

The daughter's compromise, to marry the convalescing soldier Henry Crick but bear as his first child her father's projected saviour, frees her for a kind of future and triggers a last visit from the ghost of Sarah Atkinson as well as the suicide of the (next-to) last Atkinson: "Because on the same September evening that my father saw a will o' the wisp come twinkling down the Leem, Ernest Atkinson, whose great-grandfather brought the magic barley down from Norfolk, sat down with his back against a tree, put the muzzle of a loaded shotgun into his mouth and pulled the trigger."

The child of incest, "Saviour of the World," is Dick Crick, "potato head." This last Atkinson grows up like a Crick, deft handed, water drawn, apparently vacant brained. But as his brother, the narrator, noted, none of us, however apparently well-fitted for it, can be truly realistic—empty—all the time. In Dick's brain the disappearance (death) of his mother, Helen, becomes linked with his (putative) father's trips to the eel traps in the river, as well as with the substance (Ernest's last cache of Coronation Ale) in the bottles his grandfather (who was really his father) left him in the chest with the journals that he couldn't read, though his brother Tom could. Out of this draught of his heritage, together with the sexual play with Mary and the eel which he witnessed and then took part in, Dick constructs a myth, incestuous in its turn, Oedipal, of a mother who will "rise up, wriggling and jiggling, alive—alive—o, out of the river"; who may consummate his earliest desire if he dives with force into the river, refuses to relinquish that desire. When he goes to the river after Tom's guilty and desperate revelation of his incestuous origin he is, Tom speculates, partly feeling that counter-Atkinson despair at the botch, the emptiness he is. But his dive has the look not of self-immolation but of search, another Atkinson push toward the idea, another gallant, if futile, move into the future which is, in reality, governed by the backward flow of the liquid form of nothing. It is a dive which kills him.

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