Fairy Tales in Waterland

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exploration of the theme of fairy-tales in Swift's novel Waterland

Resource summary

Fairy Tales in Waterland
1 "Fairy-tale words: fairy-tale advice. But we lived in a fairy-tale place… Far away from the wide world"
1.1 Much like the setting of a fairy tale, the Fens are a ficticious location. Equally, they behold community completely isolated from society, meaning that scandal is amplified. However the difference lies in the physical appearance of the landscape: the Fens are entirely flat and monotonous, a stark contrast to the rolling hills, lakes and landforms of a make believe story. This would suggest that the fens are perhaps further from reality than a fairytale.
2 Sarah, transformed by her solitude and a blow that stole her life, becomes the reason for her family's success while she lives, and, after her death, its downfall. Underneath this fairy-tale, however, the narrator hints of another, less attractive truth -- that perhaps Sarah does not watch the community from her room, but lives in an institution "trussed up in a straight-jacket" (85). Or perhaps, as some think, the asylum her sons built in her honor was actually built for her to inhabit. Over the years, legend builds upon legend, concealing a potentially horrible truth. The fables, being easier to bear, remain.
2.1 Yet, whether a mystical force or a madwoman, a blessing or a curse, Sarah's presence and her wrongful punishment continue to haunt the community long after her death. In 1914, forty years after her funeral, the Atkinson's brewery burns down, and someone sees her watching over the conflagration, repeating the only words "specifically attributed to her in all the years following her husband's dreadful fit of rage . . . 'Smoke!', 'Fire!', 'Burning!'" (84). Even Sarah's death cannot stop the power she has acquired in the eyes of the community.
2.2 Fairy-tales have less power to shelter the narrator as time progresses. Sarah's granddaughter, Helen Atkinson, follows her father into seclusion after the brewery burns. Whether Ernest Atkinson set the brewery on fire himself, or others struck out against him, the destruction of his family's empire becomes yet another part of the curse. For four years, from 1914 until 1918, they seldom venture from their hall. The townspeople imagine another set of fairy-tales about a beautiful daughter trapped against her will by her father. In response to their story-building, the narrator comments, "in every myth there is a grain of truth" (215). During these years alone, both father and daughter change:
2.2.1 A strange thing, but the more the war progresses (if that's what wars do), the more it loses its fairy-tale flavor, its rally-round-the-flag, all-over-by-Christmas flavor, and becomes something appalling, something quite unlike a fairy-tale, so the more beautiful grows this daughter. And the more despairing (of mankind) and worshipping (of his daughter) grows Ernest. Till . . . Ernest Atkinson beats a headlong retreat, backwards, inwards, to Paradise, and starts to believe that only from out of this beauty will come a Saviour of the World
3 As the madness grows in the world outside the enclosed space, another sort of madness -- not entirely different from what the townspeople imagine -- grows within. The world plunges forward in a feeble attempt at progress while Ernest, in the face of the apocalypse, seeks retreat into a new beginning, spinning a fairy-tale around himself and his daughter to protect himself from his despair. He wants to become the father of this Saviour that his daughter will bear. Helen, who grew up in this not quite sane environment, "love[s] her father, both in the way a daughter should and in the way a daughter shouldn't"
3.1 but she realizes that this child should not be. Instead, she urges her father to build a hospital, and in 1918, the Atkinson's build another asylum to house the shell-shocked soldiers. She herself emerges from seclusion, transformed into a nurse with the power to heal. She does not, however, heal the soldiers as her father imagines, "by the sheer magic of her beautiful presence" (224) but through telling stories -- "a way of bearing what won't go away, a way of making sense of madness" (225). For her, for Ernest, and for her son, Tom, story-telling plays a fundamental role in coping with the past; it creates a cushion of distance between the self and the event, making it easier to bear.
3.1.1 Eventually, as with the war, the story cannot support itself. Unable to bear the madness of her home and of her work, Helen strikes a terrible bargain; she will bear her father's child if he will let her marry one of her patients. This child, far from becoming the Saviour of the World, is a "potato-head" and a murderer. The mystical fairy-tale Ernest created falls to pieces, giving way to the perverse madness it attempted to conceal. Tom cannot salvage the tale either; he possesses Ernest's journal from those years. He also has the evidence of his idiot brother. He can, however, follow Helen's example and turn the horror into a story.
4 In another age, in olden times, they might have called her holy (or else have burnt her as a witch) . . . They might have allowed her the full scope of her mania: her anchorite's cell, her ascetic's liberties, her visions and ravings . . . Now she gets the benefit of psychiatry
4.1 He cannot turn this into an acceptable story or his wife into a mystical figure. She is his wife and this is his present; he cannot create the necessary distance. He can only acknowledge how she might have been perceived in another time, yet her treatment would have remained the same. Whether in a cloister or mental hospital, society keeps the mystics or the insane in a place apart, because in their minds, they do not live in the same world.
5 he presents the problem that arises when narrative can not be separated from reality:
5.1 He escapes to story-books. Because he can still do that. Jump from one realm to the other, as if they shut each other out. He hasn't begun yet to put the two together. To live an amphibious life. He hasn't begun to ask yet where the stories end and reality begins. But he will, he will
5.1.1 Ironically, in this passage Tom speaks of himself in the third person; his reality becomes a story and he becomes a character in his story. Storytelling comforts Tom, but it also fractures his understanding of himself.
6 Martha Clay: known locally as a "witch", lives in a run down cottage in the Fens. Mary and Tom go to her following realisation of the pregnancy, at which she performs an 'abortion'
7 allusions to fairy tales embedded within the novel from the off - this blurs the margins between fiction and reality, contributing to the artistically abstract narrative structure and overall concept of the novel
8 "Children to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell restless thoughts; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tel stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales, of listening ears on which to unload those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives"
8.1 What fears does Crick seek to quell?
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