Critical analysis of the opening chapters of Waterland Paper

Published: 2021-09-10 14:35:10
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This conclusion to the book’s opening paragraph epitomizes the first 4 chapters – a seemingly ambiguous idea that bears no real resemblance to anything. However, this is because Graham Swift writes deliberately, and even the strangest subject is actually entirely relevant to both the plot and story. This allows him to develop his novels in his own, unique way (Although numerous parodies of other writers are present in his words; the most apparent example being Thomas Hardy and his descriptive style, where Swift describes the setting for periods of time, relating it to his characters) and fully explore his setting through his words, in this case The Fens. The first four chapters of Waterland do not introduce a plot that has lots of substance, save for the discovery of the body, which “belonged to Freddie Parr”, and the “cutting back on history”. However, this is not Swift’s aim – he attempts to acclimatise the reader to his world (Most evident in the Chapter 3 description “About The Fens”), through first the introduction of the characters (Sometimes brief, sometimes more developed) and then the region they live in.
Swift begins his book writing “About the Stars and the Sluice”. In this chapter we learn of Tom, Dick and his father, Henry, Crick (As well as Freddy Parr at the climatic end of the chapter). Interestingly enough, it is a humble anecdote that begins the story from Henry Crick, “whatever you learn about people, …each of them was once a tiny baby sucking his mother’s milk…” This prophetic quote is typical of Henry Crick in the novel’s opening. He is described as a “superstitious man” (The theme of superstition and folklore is a recurring one, and is evident throughout the book), a trait that frequently appears during the course of the book. Tom says that his father “had a knack for telling stories. Made-up stories, true stories;” this is supported by Tom’s recollection of one midsummer night when his dad said, “Do you know what the stars are?” His father’s story about the stars strikes a chord with Tom, who admits some of his father’s tales are believable in the first chapter. The stars are referenced indirectly in Chapter 3, when we are told Henry Crick “always believed that old Bill Clay…was really…a sort of Wise Man.” This creates the image of The Wise Men following the Star to Bethlehem, as if to suggest the characters themselves are following their own star (Possibly meaning being led by fate, as the fates of people were said to lie in the stars). We do not even learn what Tom’s relationship with Dick is in the opening four chapters, such is the vagueness of Swift’s style. It is not until later known that Dick is Tom’s brother, and the irony that surrounds his name (In that Dick has an extremely large penis).
In fact, he is only referred to twice, and that is to learn he is four years older than Tom. The mystery around this figure is puzzling, Swift leaving the reader feeling interested and inquisitive about the character. However, we find the main character to be Tom Crick, the narrator of the book. He is an intellectual man, and also a history teacher. We can trace these traits to the first chapter, where Tom explains that, “it was my mother who first told me stories, which, she got from books as well as out of head…” He brings his intellect to his narration, which helps the reader understand the apparent reliance on history to help the story progress, using Latin phrases such as, “Ipso facto” (Suggesting his knowledge is plentiful and that Lewis shouldn’t actually fire him, as he’s valuable to the school). Tom’s only real admission of his own feelings is when he speaks of the “cuts” of the History Department (Him being one of them), which brings out the frustration and jealousy in him (Acting like a sulking child when saying, “It’s still his ship”, as well as the fact that Lewis “doesn’t say” certain things (The rhetoric emphasising his obsession over Lewis’ apparent negligence). Certainly the characters (In particular Tom), although not explored deep early on, begin to exhibit their complexities by the end of Chapter 4, Swift almost signifying his intent to prolong the full release of their emotions and feelings.
Even though the opening four chapters are only 26 pages in length, Swift wastes no time in introducing the main themes of his novel, most notably change, history and evolution. All three can be found in Chapter 3, “About The Fens”. Tom explains that “silt caused them [the “shallow, shifting waters of the Wash”] to retreat”, labelling it an obstacle to water. Whereas the idea of the book is about water never staying the same and constantly changing, silt impedes change, and leaves things as they are. This is both a metaphorical and literal process, as Tom seems bound to his life that he can’t escape, pretty much through choice, as if he is his own silt. He can’t, and possibly doesn’t even want to, change his situation, since his history and heritage means such a lot to him. This is re-emphasized by “the process of human siltation;” there is the real fight against the silt (Or for in Dick’s case, as he works on a dredger), and the metaphorical fight. That is to say, fighting the fears and obstacles we are faced with, and conquering them, all the while reclaiming the land (Our lives). The theory of change is highlighted by Tom’s extensive documentary of his family name and ancestry – it appears his ancestors were familiar with the change (Especially those in Vermuyden’s time) and could deal with it, accepting it in their stride. However, Tom can’t, or point blank refuses to. Whereas his ancestors “ceased to be water people and became land people” (Evolving and dealing with the change), Tom doesn’t, when it appears he needs to. This is in fact one of the major contextual points of the book – the idea of imperialism, colonialism and post-colonialism. The silt acts as the colonizer, and colonizes the land, claiming it from the water. The inhabitants have to co-exist with it, and live by its ruling. When post-colonialism occurs (i.e. the water leaving the land, either through dredging or actual retreat), the colonized take on its way of life, i.e. they try to fight the water as the silt did, and learn to control it.
History plays a big part in the novel. Tom, as the narrator, explains his story as well as exhibiting his own knowledge. To the reader, this mix between fact and fiction presents a credible story, but also leads to a distortion of fact, as he would perhaps manipulate them to correspond with his own personal story. One of the main links with history is that of fairy tales, i.e. made-up stories. These are referred to numerous times by Tom to his class (Thus merging them with history) and the single-line paragraphs such as “‘Once upon a time…'” (The classic fairy-tale opening, surreal in that Tom is telling us a fictional fairy-tale). The most extensive use of history, however, is Chapter 3, where Tom explains his family history, especially Jacob Crick (Swift highlighting him as the main ancestor simply through the amount of time spent on describing him), “mill-man and apprentice hermit”. Swift describes the simplicity of his job, but follows by stressing the skill and dedication needed to the job (Almost as if Jacob is a reflection of Henry and Tom’s roots). Waterland is an historical novel and explores the past, presenting an ironic fact, but also fictional, book. This is a clear example of a paradox where Tom and the characters can’t live with history, but also can’t live without it (This is also the case for the actual story, since there is no apparent place for fact in a fictitious novel, yet the book is not as fluent without it).
The form and structure of these chapters is quite telling of the way Swift wanted to communicate his novel. Chapter 1 serves as a perfect introductory chapter – it is short (4 pages long) and has longer paragraphs than, for example, Chapter 4 (This is because Swift varies the paragraph lengths to mirror the structure of the novel itself, with some chapters describing an event in his life, another describing his heritage or information on the Fens, etc). By doing this, there is a clear distinction between each chapter about its purpose – Chapter 3 has longer paragraphs, and is a longer chapter overall, because it is purely descriptive of the land, of the people and of the ideas that surround them (Evidently Swift uses these opportunities to develop the Fens so that we, the readers, experience, see and feel it as he does). The penultimate paragraph in Chapter 1 acts as a build up to the dramatic end – the detailing of the Leem’s “unceasing booty of debris” leads into the final paragraph where we learn of the discovery of Freddie Parr’s body (Indeed this is quite intentional as, at the beginning of the last paragraph, Swift begins, “And thus it was…”). Swift, as mentioned earlier, varies paragraph length, especially when dealing with short, sharp paragraphs, such as, “A fairy-tale land, after all”, or “He’d like it over and done with and out of the way.” This gives the words a more powerful impact, illustrating them as being highly significant (Certainly the sentence structure at the end of Chapter 4 aids this, as we can almost feel the shattering effect the situation is having on Tom, his fairy-tale being ruined by reality).
Also at the end of Chapter 4, we have the repetition of “We’re cutting back History”, as if to conclude the chapter the read has just read. This provides a cyclic nature to the chapter where the passage begins and ends the same. Tom uses his intelligence as a history teacher to objectively integrate his own opinions into his narration, adopting parentheses at the end of paragraphs, “(But since when have you been living, Lew, in the real world?)” There is a possible imperialist form to this novel, where Tom appears to be looking down on the children he teaches, as if they (More specifically, Price – “What matters is the here and now. Not the past.”) do not understand history as he does, and that he is in complete control of them. Lastly, Chapter 3 is the first pure historical chapter we’ve seen. In Chapter 2, Lewis tells Tom, “A chance to get on with that book of yours…A History of the Fens.” This Chapter is his book, and it flows from Chapter 2, where Tom says, “let me tell you About The Fens”. This reiterates the fact this is a narration – a story being told – and this makes the book flow better, making it more conversational.
Swift’s language throughout these opening chapters is very engaging, as it provokes the reader into reading on (most evident with the use of ellipses (…), using it where people’s speech begins to trail off, or to suggest what he leaves unsaid (“a school is a microcosm, so if the school works well…”)). Swift uses certain writing techniques that are cleverly integrated into his work, which, combined with specific linguistic style, creates intriguing reading. The audience of Tom’s narration is not named, but strong hints are made at his class (This makes his ellipses even more prominent, as there is an audience to suggest, and trail off, to). For instance, in Chapter 2, Tom says, “You, above all, should know that it is not out of choice that I am leaving you.” The direct address suggests that he is talking to people he knows and, considering he began with the single word sentence “Children” (The accompanying repetition reminding us that they are the future – a post-imperialist reference – and so Tom wants to pass them his knowledge before he leaves), we can assume it is to his class with relative aplomb.
Tom’s tone during this chapter is caring and knowledgeable, yet also dominant and slightly patronising, yet this is directed more at Price than the whole class, since Price chose to challenge (And thus insult) Tom’s life. Repetition is a common technique of Swift’s, as, in Chapter 3, he repeats the phrase “Not to”, showing Tom’s anger at the exclusion of certain facts (Such as “the men who cut the throats of King Charles’s Dutch drainers”), as well as “Perhaps”, questioning what lies ahead in his [Tom’s] future. Certainly Swift’s descriptions are believable, due to the timescale he covers, as well as the fact the dates and statistics give his story more weight (Make more real). Swift is a great user of pace throughout these chapters. He places two short chapters either side of the long, descriptive Chapter 3, as to break up the flow of the piece (As well as the fact the longer paragraphs and chapters decelerate the pace so that the importance of the facts are not ignored). Swift also integrates imagery and symbolism into his work. One of his more distinguishing images is that of the eel (Especially the trapped eel), which represents the situation of Tom – caged in a world and life he can’t escape from but, dissimilar to the eel, this is partly through choice.
So while Swift appears vague and very obscure at times, he does so for a reason. This is a recurrence throughout the first 4 chapters, which do not see a lot of (if any) plot development, but see a lot of theme and character building, the apparent main focus.

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