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In "Waterland" Swift weaves a magical yet haunting tale of ordinary characters who live through they’re own struggles and problems unadorned by the complexity of world history yet forever revolving around the isolated and mysterious Fenns. His characters are a formidable mix of the stereotyped and the unordinary as he shows us how even the most common person can lead the strangest and most complex life and display a vast range of opposed emotions and thoughts.
"Waterland" is a profound study of human nature that not only displays the intricacies of people but also analyses the men and woman that live among us and for which each of us can find a name. Thus we all know an Ernest Atkinson, a bourgeois born into wealth who finds a meaning in life in the texts of Marx which push him to oppose the life that has been imposed on him thus angering his town and family. Ernest is the most interesting character in that he shows how geniuses and men with unorthodox ideas are often called rebels and segregated from the rest of society in their uniqueness and intensity. Mary in "Waterland" leads a disturbingly bizarre life that ends with her kidnapping a baby; the transformation of her personality following the abortion and her increasing mental instability shows the fragility of the human mind. Her character as that of Ernest is astoundingly realistic and thus one of the most effective characters in the novel.
One of the most compelling characteristics of Swift's writing is his mysterious characters, he only describes people at the most important and relevant part of their lives and the rest is left to the readers imagination. He also surprises the reader by withholding vital information about a character for a couple chapters than suddenly revealing it thus changing the reader's perspective completely. This permits him to build up formidably complex minds in very short periods of time as he only describes what is striking and always brings new dimensions to old characters thus he shows what Mary was like when she was a "little Madonna" and abruptly changes our whole perspective of her when we learn of her adventures thus shedding the first layer of mystery and giving the reader something new to reflect on. Swift also for some of the characters gives us information at the very the beginning of "Waterland" and it takes the whole novel for us to learn how that person died (in the case of Dick) or became insane (in the case of Mary).
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Our first view of Mary is of the innocent village girl seemingly created to appear in contrast to the "land-girls" who had come to help on her father's farm, they appear as "simmering in sexuality" and Mary as the "little Madonna" of her Roman Catholic father. However we do already know at this point in the novel that she later on kidnaps a baby and is going to be married to Tom Crick. Swift tricks us into thinking that she is the typical scholarly "convent girl" however this view is quickly pushed aside as we hear of her sessions with Tom. We learn of her 'curious' side when she "explores holes" with Tom in the old windmill, Tom says: "this itch of Mary's was the itch of curiosity". In nine pages and to the reader's amusement Mary has gone from being the innocent "convent girl" to the bold woman who already controls men through sex. Her curiosity which plays such an important part in her life until the abortion even pushes her to investigate Dick. The way Swift completely transforms Mary in our mind is a proof of her effectiveness as a character. She also fits the stereotype of the naughty village girl who controls the entire teenaged boy population of the village with her looks and teasing. Later on we learn that Tom first took notice of her and her curiosity when they all get drunk next to the river and she manipulates them into first undressing then racing each other. It is then that she first becomes curious of Dick and his over-whelming physique. She also realises here the power her body can exerce over males and particularly Tom Crick. Swift portrays Mary as a girl capable of a lie to her own boyfriend if it is to her own advantage thus we suspect that "It was too big" is a lie, however Swift brilliantly never tells us the truth about this.
Next, Swift shows us the fragility of the human mind through Mary's guilt. The beginning of her madness starts when Dick kills Freddie because Mary told him that Freddie made her pregnant. She finally realises the harm her manipulating can do and as Tom says, "[her] Curiosity's gone", she suddenly loses her freshness and "seems three years older than me, as if she's become a hard featured woman with a past". This transformation in her personality that marks the beginning of her insanity makes Mary an incredibly believable character. Mary's madness is not evident after Freddie's death however we suspect that it was then that it was created and until the abortion it is lurking somewhere inside her. The abortion we later learn is the breaking point, Swift does not describe it in full, however we do get the impression of medieval ruthlessness from the atmosphere of gothic horror he creates and are left to imagine the minute by ourselves. After the abortion Mary realistically loses all interest in life and sex, at first Swift tricks us into thinking she has recovered when Tom comes back from the War but then we learn the truth about her 3 years of celibacy and are told of the mysterious voices she hears. Here again Swift offers us interesting insight on the human mind as he shows how people look back at the happiest moments of their lives and try to understand why all went wrong and often look at God as a solution to their problems, thus Mary looks back at the times when she was a pupil at St Gunhilda school and all was on her side, the only possible explanation for her bad luck is that she gave up her faith in God thus she becomes once again religious. We also see in "Waterland" how for some women having a baby is a necessity, almost an obsession and as Mary's knows that scientifically she can no longer have a baby she turns to God and asks for a miracle and when nothing happens her state worsens into what Tom calls a "condition called schizophrenia" and her mind hears a voice telling her to steal a baby. She deals with her inability to have a baby by imagining voices, which sadly marks the complete breakdown of her mind. Her desire to have a baby which was "always there, lurking, latent, ripening like some dormant forgotten seed" is more powerful in her than her real character which is curiosity, boldness and hunger for power and love. This battle inside her between what she wants, reality, what her father wanted and what Tom wants makes her completely lose her mind in so realistic a fashion that one can not help but think that Swift modelled her on a real person.
Swift clearly has a talent to develop characters effectively throughout a very short period, thus Ernest in the couple chapters he features in appears very much real and alive. One of the reasons for this is probably the stereotype he fits so perfectly yet not without his own touch of individuality. By the end of his first description we can almost predict his eventual expulsion and isolation. He appears as much more than "a renegade, a rebel" used to describe him in the opening sentence of chapter 19, "About my Grandfather". His rebelliousness merely intellectual in its content would make him now take the image of the Marxist intellectual trying to save the world. He is clearly a genius; he attends Emmanuel College, Cambridge, becomes an MP and is the finest brewer the Atkinson family ever produced. As many a genius who flirts with "European socialism, fabianism, the writings of Marx" he is an outcast, and here again Swift shows us the fear of anything or anybody different that is so common in small villages. We see Ernest as a frustrated young man, unwilling to but forced to take on the declining family business. He is undoubtedly the most intelligent of the Atkinsons and seems to be a man who tries to find a reason for every action. He becomes a brewer because he feels it is his contribution to the desolate Fenns which he "saw as no Atkinson had clearly seen for four generations". He is a "melancholy, a moody man whose character is very well described and developed by Swift throughout the chapter. He fits perfectly as the typical bourgeois with communist tendencies who wishes to help others and "actually rolled up his sleeves and committed the indignity of conducting trial mashing and fermentations" despite the disapproval of the town. His wish to make a difference which is countered by the rest of the town forces him to make his famous 'coronation ale' which is at the same time his revenge on the town and in a way his revenge on his family for imposing the brewery on him. Ernest at this stage is a very complex person, uncertain of what to do, who he supports, who he hates... This complexity imagined by Swift makes Ernest the most realistic character in the book.
As many unhappy geniuses in history, Ernest, in the latter stages of his life resorts to drink. When he realises that his work as a radical to transform society is impossible he retreats to his house in the country. Ernest "lived, with his daughter, the life of a determined recluse in the old hall" and for once stopped being a man of action wishing to make his countrymen see into the future and became a "misanthrope". He fell in love with his daughter because she had the power he longed for so long. When, during the parade in 1915 she is able "to make a mockery of these war-mongering proceedings" "without the need for either word nor action", Ernest is jealous which turns into love which in turn turns into madness! Even through his madness to father "the saviour of the world" his character is still present, he is still the socialist trying to save the world. His love for his daughter becomes incest when his sanity is taken away by the town that force him into Kessington Hall. Here again, Swift shows us the fragility of the human mind through a character.
Ironically the two most interesting characters in "Waterland" finish their lives mad! This has a lot to say about what Swift thinks of society and people in general. Waterland is not only a masterpiece of beautiful writing it is also a deeply philosophical novel that deals with human weaknesses. However it is the characters with the forever-present Fenns that make "Waterland" the intensly touching novel that it is
Abu-Lughod, Janet. "On The Remaking Of History: How To Reinvent The Past," Remaking History, Barbara Krueger and Phil Mariani, eds. . Bay Press, 1989.
Swift, Graham. Waterland. London: Picador, 1992.