In Waterland the Fens play a vital role, they become an insular environment that appears to have little connection with the real world. They introduce many themes and motifs that recur throughout the novel, illustrating emotions and psychological states, and because they act less as a geographical setting than as an active force, their status is enhanced to that of a character in the novel. The majority of the novel is set in the Fens.
I believe the Fens as a surrounding context are crucial in the novel, their importance is illustrated by the immediacy with which Tom Crick introduces the reader to the location of the story, just seven lines in he says ‘ we lived in a fairy-tale place. In a lock-keeper’s cottage, by a river, in the middle of the Fens. ‘ The juxtaposition of imprecision, ‘a fairy-tale place’, and exactness, ‘in a lock keeper’s cottage…
‘ immediately establishes the setting as both a place of imaginative freedom, and a place of historical investigation, again illustrated a few pages later by the phrase, ‘a fairy-tale must have a setting, a setting which, like the settings of all good fairy-tales, must be both palpable and unreal. ‘ The juxtaposition introduces the reader to two different literary styles that Swift interweaves throughout the novel, the first being the lyrical, fairy-tale style, ‘once upon a time…
‘ and the latter being a distinct evidentiary style that he uses to describe the Fens, eels, and land reclamation. Therefore through this first reference to location Swift has introduced the important theme of narrative vs. historiography, fiction vs. fact, and myth vs. reality. The relationship between these opposites is illustrated through Swift’s portrayal of the Fens, ‘which are a low-lying region of eastern England, over 1,200 square miles in area, bounded to the west by the limestone hills of the Midlands, to the south and east by the chalk hills of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk’.
Throughout the novel this specificity is contrasted with the ambiguous, particularly well illustrated by the nature of the Fens, as the paradoxical ‘liquid terrain’. In the ‘Oxford English Dictionary,’ the Fens are described as the transition zone between land and water, being neither one nor the other. Swift comments on this throughout the novel most explicitly through the title, which illustrates the ‘not quite solid’ nature of the setting. The Fens were formed by silt, ‘silt: which shapes and undermines continents; which demolishes as it builds; which is simultaneous accretion and erosion; neither progress or decay.
‘ Waterland is a multi-layered novel, that does not have a linear narrative, ‘Swift tells the story through the process of ‘siltation,’ the building-up by layers of something (land) out of nothing (water). ‘ The Fens have the power of both destruction and creation. While the water imagery throughout the novel is used to construct the life of the Fens, Tom Crick’s history, and is also closely associated with sexuality (another form of creation), water imagery also represents death and destruction.
Water has the power to shape the lives of men and also the face of history, in the course of the novel there are three major destructive floods. The water acts as an agent of death and destruction, ‘The Leem brought down its unceasing booty of debris. Willow branches; alder branches; sedge; fencing; crates; old clothes; dead sheep’ and more significantly the body of Freddie Parr. Swift often gives elements of the landscape a sexual nature. As D.
H Lawrence in ‘Rainbow,’ paints an extraordinarily vivid and intense image of a very sexual countryside where ‘the earth heaved and opened its furrow to them’, So Swift uses water imagery in a similar fashion to illustrate the nature of human sexuality; the image of Dick’s ‘congealed seed’ floating down the river, emphasizes the creative power of water. Swift also uses an image of a ‘stream wanting to flow backwards’ in order to illustrate the unnaturalness of incest.
Dick’s infatuation with swimming and his immersion at the end of the novel could function as a figurative escape to the waters of the womb, a purification and return to innocence. Swift’s portrayal of Dick is interesting as he almost becomes an embodiment of the Fens. ‘Dick smells of silt’ and it is impossible to ‘expel from Dick’s clothes that tell-tale odour’. Also at the very end of the novel, when he dives into the water he does not emerge as he is ‘returning’ to where he belongs, he becomes one with the environment.
Describing the phlegm as ‘Neither liquid nor solid; a viscous semi-fluid. Benign. Yet disagreeable,’ Swift connects the reader back to the nature of silt and to the nature of the Fens itself. In the beginning of Waterland, water creates the life and land of the Fens people yet, by the end of the novel, the water imagery returns in the form of phlegm, flooding the body of Henry Crick, ‘Phlegm enveloped him… And now it’s choking him, filling the cavities of his lungs, welling in his throat. He’s escaped the flood, but he’s drowning. ‘
In certain places in Waterland Swift uses a diegetic narrative, this term refers to the world that the characters inhabit as much as the plot. Swift uses diegesis in order to create an intense, clear image of the surrounding environment. The best example of Swift’s uses of a diegetic narrative is in Chapter 31, A Teacher’s Testament, the passage is ‘Darkness. A school playground…… under veiled suburban stars. ‘ The short, almost paraphrased, sentences and the list illustrate this different mode of discourse, it is brief but very direct.