Monday, January 15, 2007

History and Other Connections: Waterland, Solitude, and Tess

History and Other Connections: Waterland, Solitude, and Tess

“So I began to demand of history an Explanation. Only to uncover in this dedicated search more mysteries, more fantasticalities, more wonders and grounds for astonishment than I started with; only to conclude forty years later - notwithstanding a devotion to the usefulness, to the educative power of my chosen discipline - that history is a yarn. And can I deny that what I wanted all along was not some golden nugget that history would at last yield up, but History itself: the Grand Narrative, the filler of vacuums, the dispeller of fears of the dark?” (Waterland, 62).

Graham Swift’s Waterland is a novel that is as much about the idea of history as it is about the characters that populate it. Tom Crick, being a history teacher, is naturally concerned with the subject, but as the passage indicates, he has come to realize that rather than being a quantifiable, explainable and explanation-bearing medium, history is actually what humans create in order to fill empty moments and to ward off fear and even madness. And yet, somehow history can explain things, if only obliquely, and what ends up getting explained may not be that for which an explanation was sought.

Crick is first exposed to the idea of history as a story when he is a small child. His mother is an avid story teller, and the stories she tells help to assuage his childhood fears. It is not until much later that he finds out that his mother may have had serious fears of her own, and her story telling ability may have sprung from these fears as a defensive mechanism. He also finds out, through the study of his family’s history, that his father learned to tell stories from his mother. Before they were married, apparently, she helped to cure his shell-shock (a kind of madness) by telling him stories when he was in the asylum. In other words, she drove away his fears with narrative.

This idea of history as a “filler of vacuums” seems to be related to the novel’s setting in the Fens. In a land as flat and empty as the Fens, people needed something to take their minds off all that nothingness. It was so with the Cricks, and not being “idea people” like the Atkinsons, they told stories.

It is only when Tom’s wife finally completely disassociates herself from her own past, her inability to have children, that she slips into the world of delusion. On the other hand, when Dick Crick is confronted with his history, he self destructs. History, seemingly, can be a destructive as well as a constructive force. This opposition can also be seen in the reaction of Price and the other members of the Holocaust Club to the elimination of history from the curriculum. Though they seem to be opposed to the subject when it is being presented to them, they rally in its defense when it faces cuts. The way they rally to its defense is particularly telling: they repeatedly chant “FEAR.” So to them the only thing more fearful than history itself is the lack of it.

The narrator also gives us insight into his own motives in telling this story when he offers his definition of man as “the story-telling animal.” The purpose of his narrative seems to be to seek some meaning in the mess his life has become. Although it is quite possible, and even probable, that there is no real reason for what has happened to him, to Freddie Parr, to Dick, or to his wife (at least no more reason than for what happens to anyone else), he persists in looking back over the events of his past in search of answers. As he says, “Wherever he [man] goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker buoys and trail-signs of stories. . . . As long as there’s a story, it’s all right” (63). In order to keep the madness that seems to surround him - his wife’s, the world’s, history’s - from infecting him, he tells stories. In searching for some kind of sense in the events of the past, he holds on to his own sense.

In Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, history serves a somewhat different purpose. It is indirectly because of her family’s former grandeur that Tess comes to a bad end. In this way history takes on a more negative connotation than it has in Waterland. Rather than being a balm to the sensibilities as Tom Crick posits it to be (albeit in the right context: as a story), it is something that comes back to haunt one.

The two novels do share a common motif in that they both trace the history of a family in a state of decline. Both the Atkinsons (the Cricks never did have much more than their phlegm) and the D’Urbervilles go through a degenerative period, moving from positions of wealth and power to almost complete obscurity, and even possible extinction. In this way both families are similar to the Buendias of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Waterland and One Hundred Years of Solitude share something that is hard to describe. Tom Crick may say it best in these words when he describes how he found that history held “more mysteries, more fantasticalities, more wonders and grounds for astonishment than I started with” (63). Certainly each novel contains bizarre occurrences, twists of fate, and corrupted blood lines, among other social non-conformities that their leading families practice.

All three novels share the idea of the circularity of time. Several times Ursula in Solitude refers to how events seem to be repeating themselves. In Waterland, the circularity seems to be attached less to humans and more to eels. In Tess, the circularity is reflected in the reversal of fortune of the D’Urbervilles, and by the continuous relocation of the “work folk.” The circularity in Tess seems to be in a downward spiral that is destined to hit bottom at some point with the extinction of the D’Urberville line and the disappearance of a class of folk in the wake of the industrial revolution. In contrast, the circularity in Waterland seems to be of a directionless type. It moves neither up nor down, but always maintains an equilibrium, not unlike the Fens themselves with their constant dredging and siltation and flooding and channel clearing. In Solitude the circularity seems to be related to the Buendias’ tendency to be obsessive. The same types that occur in the family (usually of the same name) usually exhibit the same behaviors. Thus the Aurelianos tend to be introverted until they decide to enter the world in a dramatic way, while the Jose Arcadios are self-indulgent (and self-destructive) extroverts.

Incest is another motif that appears in all three novels. In Waterland it occurs between Tom’s mother and her father. In Solitude it occurs in a couple of configurations. In Tess the incest only occurs in name, as Alec D’Urberville is only related to Tess in that his family bought the rights to her ancestral name. As different as the configurations are, it is interesting that they all bear some kind of blighted fruit. In one case it is Dick Crick, in another it is a child with the tail of a pig, and in another it is a child that dies in its infancy.

In conclusion, it is difficult to imagine three novels that deliver a more diverse experience for the reader. In tone, point of view, and effect they are very different, and yet at the same time they present and deal with similar issues. Each presents the reader with a unique view of the events of the past and how they lead up to and influence the present. As Tom Crick says, “ . . . only animals live in the Here and Now” (62) while the characters in each of these novels lives in and derives meaning, good or bad, from the events of the past.

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