Storytelling as A Way of Displacing Traumatic Experiences


This novel’s title is in reference to its setting in East Anglia. “Waterland” is mainly concerned with nature and its story is mainly associated with historicism. Some of the major themes involved are storytelling and history. This novel explores how happenings of the past eventually affect the future. In the novel, Tom Crick, a fifty two year old history teacher has been tutoring history for around thirty years. He is married to Mary, in a union with is without the most wished for fruit, a child. Everything seems to be going wrong as the headmaster of the school does not really care about Tom’s subject. One of his students questions the relevance of knowing more about historical events. This is what causes Tom to change his teaching approach and to start using his own past in a storytelling session during lessons. The headmaster requested Tom to retire early, but he refuses because he knows that it would mean that History as a lesson would disappear with him. His wife gets arrested for kidnapping a baby, and these scandals reflect badly on Tom and the school. As a result, he is now forced to retire. This is the time when he decides to unfold his story to the children. He tells of his relationship with Mary before and after they were married. While still young, they were both brought up by their father’s. Mary’s mother died while giving birth to her, and Tom’s mother passed away while he was eight years old. While still growing, they got into an affair and after a while Mary realizes that she is pregnant. However as it turns out, Tom’s brother, Dick also thinks that he may be the father. Mary declines and states yet another man, Freddie Parr, as the father. This leads Dick to act as a result of jealousy by attacking Freddie who is drunk and push him into the river. Tom’s father is the one who finds the father and does not realize that it was not an accident. Since Mary has been brought up in a very strict religious background, she cannot keep the baby. So she tries to induce an abort without much success. Then later on, she and Tom, who is the real father, go to an old crone who performs a procedure that leaves Mary sterile. After her father realizes this, he forcibly isolates her for three years. This is when their parents decided to bring them together again. They get married, and the ghosts from her teenage abort disturb her to the point of leading her to snatch a child and claim that it was a blessing from above. She then gets arrested.

Storytelling as a Way of Displacing Traumatic Experiences

            Storytelling is a method used by many in the form of literature, to enable them come to terms with traumatic historical experiences. In this Novel by Graham Swift, some of the traumatic experiences feature that of the World War II, Freddie’s murder, Tom’s Mother’s death and the teenage abortion. In this book, Graham Swift has used storytelling in various ways so as to help displace traumatic experiences. There are certain issues in Tom’s life which up to the last page, he has not been able to deal with appropriately. First of all, when he lost his mother at a very tender age, the experience became very traumatic as he was still young and hence still much attached to his mother. A child relies mostly on his mother for everything; emotional support, basic needs and much more. According to the book, Crick states that “though, indeed, it only happened once, it’s gone on happening, the way unique and momentous things do, for ever and ever, as long as there’s a memory for them to happen in…” (Swift 1983, p. 275). From this statement, it is quite clear that Tom is still suffering from his mother’s death even during the present when he is relating this story to his students. It is something which, as long as he has a memory of his mother, he will never forget. It feels as if it keeps on happening over and over again. However, by Crick sharing this story as part of a history lesson, he also gets the chance to talk about his own life, an act which is therapeutically beneficial. It is as if he is getting counseled, when all he is doing is incorporating the personal stories in his classes.

In the attempt by Tom Crick to relate his stories in class, he first asked the purpose, truthfulness and the limitations of stories. At the same time, he was making it very clear to his students that he believes that History as a subject is a form of storytelling. Crick is about to be fired because the head teacher does not find his subject as of any significance to the students. The students also question the importance of learning that which has already happened. “You ask as all history classes ask, as all history classes should ask, what is the point of History?” (Swift 1983, p. 92). In general, these students want to know why History as a subject is important, and why history itself is of any significance in the present. Why should people study anything to do with the past? Does the past affect the present?

This narrative by Crick is somehow structured as if it belongs to a therapeutic session. In the classroom, the students are somewhat passive, and Crick tells his stories without interference. He later on “repeats the stories he’s told in class…” (Swift 1983, p. 331). He “Speaks to an audience he is forced to imagine…” (Swift 1983, p. 63) This shows that talking out loud about his past is really helping him to move on with life. He still wants to move on with his life. Crick tells a story of his past and of his present outside the analysis and on the inside of the analysis. Every now and then, he is seen to reflect on the narrative, or on the circumstances which the analysis took place. It is always as if he tries to block out parts of his past which he does not feel comfortable recalling. He expresses himself within these stories to the class and also when he is alone but with an imaginary audience.

Crick admits to his fear of confronting the past. “Avoiding in these memory-jogging journeys… many no-go areas and emergency zones (you see, when it comes to it, your history teacher is afraid to tread the minefield of the past” (Swift 1983, p.330). This shows that he was not yet willing to talk of his past, even when sharing a set story with his students. He would skip the most traumatic areas of the story. However, this discontinuous plot gradually forms a very relevant story as it returns to the events of the past and gives a summary of all these happenings which he does not want to share. This factor used in this area is very common in psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis usually works in a temporal circle to aid in discarding this radical discontinuity. The plot of the novel works backwards from what is being told in the present so that a rather coherent account of the events of the past may be reconsidered. At the same time, it still works by moving forward with the story so as to create an understanding of how the two events are related.

From this Novel, Tom finds solace in discussing the lives of his ancestors, as well as his past. This method of storytelling is also a means for Tom to justify his sanity, which is slowly degenerating (Kermode 2000, p. 54). He has been asking himself what led to these misfortunes in his life. As a result, he explains his past as well as the past of his ancestors in a bid to try and explain his situation to his students as well as to himself. He tries hard to show why he has no control over his situation, he even tries to identify common traits in his ancestry. “He acquires the virtue; if virtue it is, of which the Cricks have always had a good supply: Phlegm, a muddy, silty humour,” (David 1991, p. 52. He uses this statement as an excuse as to why he wishes not to be involved in his wife’s problems. He claims that it is in his family nature to be calm at all times. He insists that coming up with an autobiography usually happens after something bad has happened, and so does writing History. “History begins only at a point where things go wrong; history is born only with trouble, with perplexity, with regret” (Swift 1983, p. 106).

When the body of Freddie was found in 1943, Crick had to undergo yet another traumatic event in his life. He explains himself to his students that his purpose for wanting to bring events from his past is “…all a struggle to make things not seem meaningless. It is all a fight against fear…” (Leigh 2001, p. 38). He was the reason why Freddie lost his life because he was the one responsible for the pregnancy of Mary. Therefore, he felt scared that he would have been one dead at the river just as he was also guilty. Although, he still does not want to admit this in the open. Instead, he tries to find meaning as to why everything had to take that path. Tom Crick also explains to his students the reason why he constantly tells stories. “What do you think all my stories are about…I don’t care what you call it… explaining, evading the facts, making up meanings, taking a longer view, putting in perspective, dodging the here and now, educating, history, fairy tales- it helps to eliminate fear” (Doyle 2001, p. 78). This shows that he was indeed afraid of something. Was it his brother? Was it the fact that he was scared that the abortion made his wife barren? Was he scared that he was losing his mind?

The abortion is yet another factor, which may have traumatized Crick. Although when it happened he was still a teenager, he did not give a second thought about the consequences. Up to the current time, he still has no courage to confront this issue with his wife who is also losing her mind. Price, the student said “You know what your trouble is sir? You’re hooked on explanation. Explain, explain. Everything’s got to have an explanation…Explaining’s a way of avoiding facts while you pretend to get closer to them” (David 1991, p. 145). This student has been used as a way of showing that this teacher is still not willing to confront his problems even though he tries to use stories and explanations as a way of coming to terms with the issues.


From this analysis paper, it is clear that the author has used the character Tom Crick to narrate the events of the past and present. From his storytelling, both in class and as he narrated to an imaginary audience, much can be learned about his past and what he has gone through.  Whenever he relates to a story in the past, the author takes us back there, and the event is described. The major issues, which have affected his life in the present, started when he had an affair with Mary while still so young. This led to her getting pregnant and everything went out of control. Someone was murdered; Mary was isolated for years, the relationship between Crick and his brother become sour, and many others. Jealousy and betrayal were evident. Mary wanted to protect Crick because of love, and as a result, an innocent person dies. Years later after they get married, they still cannot live with what they did, hence they both start losing their minds. The fact that they are now unable to have children makes the situation even worse. Mary really wants a child to the point that she goes crazy and snatches someone else’s baby. This results into many other issues such as the loss of a job for Tom Crick. It gave the school a chance to fire Tom, something which they have been wishing for a while. Storytelling has been used in various ways by the narrator to hide and eventually expose everything that had happened in the past. He tries to hide them but eventually gets back on them. These traumatizing events may be very unbearable to the character. However, the author of the book explains these parts. It is the things which happen now that will affect the future, according to the book, just as the things, which happened years ago, are still affecting the present. If Tom and Mary had not decided to abort the baby, then things would be better. Unfortunately, they aborted a child, lead to the death of a man, Mary became barren, she stole a child, and eventually Tom got fired, as a result. Their guilty consciences are what are affecting them. Tom is still very sensitive and cannot even talk about these things, although he tries to find an explanation as to why things are happening that way.


David, H 1991, ‘Unconfessed Confessions: The Narrators of Graham Swift and Julian Barnes.’.pp. 3-84.

Doyle, W 2001, ‘The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction’, History, pp 3-135.

Kermode, F 2000, ‘The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction: With a New Epilogue’,Oxford University Press. Pp. 1-57.

Leigh, G 2001, ‘The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony’, Cornell University Press. 5-102.

Swift, G 1983, Waterland, Oxford University Press, pp 20-350.