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The Power of Narrative: An exploration of Atonement and Waterland, & the relationship between ‘fact’ and fiction By Tom Woodhouse


2 “We live immersed in narrative, recounting and reassessing the meaning of our past actions, anticipating the outcome of our future projects, situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed” (Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot) It is our everyday interior narratives which shape the world for us. By retrospectively analysing and placing meaning onto past events; imagining and in turn mythologizing future situations; and anticipating a future retrospection of the present event when we are actually in it, we escape the harsh insignificance of reality. This immersion in our own narratives adds to our already subjective experiences of the world by subjecting our experiences to our own personal interpretations of them. In Graham Swift’s Waterland and Ian McEwan’s Atonement, these narrative issues are addressed. As we shall see in these novels, the effects of our narratives and interpretations of events play a significant part in determining not only our understanding of past events, but can also help decide future outcomes, shaping reality into something it maybe should never have been. Yet our knowledge of everyone’s individual narratives and consequent varying views on reality should provide us with an understanding of why people may act in the way they do, in relation to their own individual stories and earlier determining experiences. In About Time, Mark Currie suggests that the images of water in Swift’s Waterland, particularly those of ‘water being pumped upwards for the purposes of land reclamation assemble an allegorical network for the representation of…the relationship between fact and fiction’. 1 He offers the metaphor of the river: ‘And, as we all know, the sun and the wind suck up the water from the sea and disperse it on the land, perpetually refeeding the rivers. So that while the Ouse flows to the sea, it flows, in reality, like all rivers, only back to itself, to its own source; and that impression that a river moves only one way is an illusion.’2 (quoted by Currie from Waterland) Currie’s focus here is on, predominantly, the treatment of time in post-modernist fiction under a Ricourean exploration of the relationship between ‘clock time’ and ‘mind time’, and how ‘these images… acquire a double function, representing both the operations of the narrative itself, and the philosophy of time it advances’.3 Yet it is possible to extend this image of a river moving back to its source beyond the circularity of time to a further Ricourean discussion of configuration, and the relationship between fact and fiction. Ricouer’s discussion of mimesis in Time and Narrative reveals a hermeneutic circle of prefiguration, configuration and refiguration whereby mimesis1 takes a sequence of physical movements and converts them into a meaningful action; into a ‘conceptual network that structurally distinguishes the domain of action from that of physical movement’.4 Mimesis2 then configures these (isolated) actions into a narrative, taking us from the world to a story, and mimesis3 places this acquired knowledge of actions back onto the world in order to make activities meaningful. Thus, if we extend our own narratives to the world of novels, ‘fiction may be seen to imitate the world of action and in so doing, produces a reverse mimesis in which the world of action ‘imitates’, or is modified by, fiction’.5 Currie highlights an issue with Ricouer’s theory when thought of in terms of time: on the one hand he appears to be the 1

M. Currie, ‘Backwards Time’, in About Time, (printed from Blackboard), p.91 Currie, ‘Backwards Time’, p.91 3 Currie, ‘Backwards Time’, p.91 4 P. Ricouer, ‘Time and Narrative: Threefold Mimesis’, in Time and Narrative, (printed from Blackboard), p. 54-55 5 Currie, ‘Backwards Time’, p.94 2


3 phenomenologist viewing our own experience of time as its only reality, yet at the same time needing to use an existing ‘real time’ as the referent which lies beyond that ‘horizon’ of its reality.6 Ricouer himself emerges as a sort-of transcendental idealist, where a ‘real time’ does exist but it is shaped differently by each of us. Again extending this issue of time to the relationship between fact and fiction, this essay will explore, using Graham Swift’s Waterland and Ian McEwan’s Atonement, how we each interpret events differently in our interior narratives, which, in turn, posit onto the external world our own understandings of those events which make up what the world is for us. Both Swift and McEwan present the insignificance of a reality without human interpretation in their respective novels. To deal with this insignificance, their characters create their own fairy tales and elaborate meanings to place onto past and, more importantly, imagined or expected future events, which, when the characters are confronted with these imagined events, transforms reality from harsh unimportance to being terrifyingly powerful and vital. Waterland is littered with fairy tales and supernatural suggestions from its narrator, Tom Crick. A striking example of the effects of the present reality colliding with a person’s mythologized account of that reality is found in Tom and Mary’s meeting with Martha Clay, a woman previously described as a Witch ‘who made potions and predictions’.7 The rug of imagined, manageable reality is pulled out from under Tom’s feet as Martha turns out not to be a Witch like his interior monologue expected, but a ‘small woman’ with ‘no pointed hat, no broomstick, no grinning black cat on shoulder’ but an unbearable smell and ‘leather purse of a mouth’.8 Had Tom not conjured this imagined essence for Martha Clay she would no doubt have remained a character to treat with some trepidation as her every action and indeed sentence ripples with crazed intimidation: ‘Oh, save it up, bor! I got eyes in me head, hevn’t I?’.9 However, despite Martha not turning out to be how Tom had constructed her in his head, she still retains an air of supernatural terror which propels what would ordinarily be a meeting with a scary old woman in the middle of the night into a downright haunting show of almost- mystical quality. The shocking ‘realness’ of Martha’s horror is augmented by a constant underlying half-expectancy of something otherworldly to occur: what we have is the real world with added meaning, emphasised by Tom’s reference to a fictional horror story: ‘Now she’s coming over to me – to deal with little Hansel’.10 So too in Atonement we find this need for the preparation of stories for future events and the resulting jarring discomfort when the present catches up with the imagined future. When Briony goes to see Cecilia in Part Three of the novel, she starts to feel sick not so much because her ‘sister’s confirmation of her crime was terrible to hear…but the perspective was unfamiliar…she had never thought of herself as a liar’.11 Yet whereas Tom Crick suffered the sudden immediacy of the present and the terrifying Martha, Briony soon recovers: ‘she was, after all, in a part of the conversation she had rehearsed’.12 Here we see what Currie calls the ‘incorporation of selfdistance within the lived present, and most significantly the installation of future retrospect in present experience’. 13 Thus ‘prolepsis joins the backwards movement of explanation to the forwards movement of life in a way that seems to deprive us of the unmediated presence of fictional events’.14 Indeed, when Robbie enters the meeting of Briony and Cecilia, Briony is said

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Currie, ‘Backwards Time’, p.94 G. Swift, Waterland, 25th Anniversary Edition, (London, 2008), p. 297 8 Swift, Waterland, p.299-300 9 Swift, Waterland, p.301 10 Swift, Waterland, p.304 11 I. McEwan, Atonement, (London, 2001), p. 336 12 McEwan, Atonement, p.337 13 Currie, ‘Backwards Time’, p.98 14 Currie, ‘Backwards Time’, p.99 7


4 to have ‘thought about this conversation many times, like a child anticipating a beating. Now it was happening at last, and it was as if she wasn’t quite here’.15 Certainly, a main reason for Briony not feeling like she was quite there is another element of this proleptic self-distance: the installation of ‘a future memory within the moment’.16 In this way the distinction between saying and doing is blurred by ‘the impossibility of separating the anticipation of a memory from the memory of anticipation’.17 In Waterland Tom claims that ‘memory can’t even be sure whether what I saw, I saw first in anticipation before I actually saw it, as if I had witnessed it somewhere already – a memory before it occurred’.18 This blurring of recollection and imagined recollection ‘deprives this climactic moment of its presence, sandwiching the moment, as it does, between the forward movement of an anticipation and the backward movement of a recollection, so that once again the co-dependence of time and selfdistance comes into view’.19 Yet it is not only a self-distance of time we get from this proleptic self-distance, but also of the events in the world external to us. Importantly, the characters in Waterland and Atonement are only at peace if they are conjuring eventful, meaningful narratives to place on reality, provided they are not actually in the present of those imagined events or realities. When the present does ‘catch up’ with imagined future events, we see how, by narrating the world prospectively, not only do we configure the world to place meaning into it, but our created meaning is ‘configured’ back again – still through our own narratives of events – into a twisted version of reality which blurs reality with fiction. In order to escape this, we employ proleptic self-distance, which creates a further view of the events as an anticipated retrospection. ‘The cost of this oblivious daydreaming’ for Briony, and indeed for us all, ‘was always this moment of return, the realignment with what had been before and now seemed a little worse’; a return to the harsh insignificance of the present, devoid of narration and meaning.20 It is here that the events of Atonement really begin, when Briony ‘would not stir, not for dinner, not even for her mother calling her in. She would simply wait on the bridge, calm and obstinate, until events, real events, not her own fantasies, rose to her challenge, and dispelled her insignificance’.21 As we shall see, it is not events themselves that carry significance so much as our own interpretations of them, and that certain interpretations – whether they are accurate or not – determine future events, ergo effectively constructing reality. If it is the varying interpretations of different events which make up reality and determine the future reality, then it could be said that we only really participate in reality, at least in any meaningful way, by our interpretations and interior narrations. This is explored in Waterland through Tom’s inbred half-brother, Dick Crick. Here we have a character who for a large portion of the novel is unaffected by the here and now, a ‘numbskull with the dull, vacant stare of a fish’; he does not appear to have an interior narration of events, and so remains unbothered by what is going on around him.22 However, personal involvement with the events of the novel - by his feelings for Mary Metcalf - unleashes a previously dormant curiosity in Dick, causing him to engage with the world. Now that he is involved with events, Dick is forced to try to understand them, to interpret them, and it is when he begins to do this that he in turn causes further events to happen. Certainly, Dick is told by Mary that her baby is Freddie Parr’s, which he interprets as being the truth, leading him to then murder Freddie. We see the same thing later upon his discovery that his grandfather is his father, that he is ‘unusual’, ‘not – natural’, causing him to ride 15

McEwan, Atonement, p.341 Currie, ‘Backwards Time’, p.99 17 Currie, ‘Backwards Time’, p.99 18 Swift, Waterland, p.352 19 Currie, ‘Backwards Time’, p.99 20 McEwan, Atonement, p.76 21 McEwan, Atonement, p.77 22 Swift, Waterland, p.242 16


5 off on his Velocette to commit the event of the novel’s end: his own suicide.23 Through Dick, Swift suggests that it is only when we begin to properly analyse what happens to us that we begin to affect the world and be properly be affected by it, and that our subjective interpretations of events can lead, especially when combined with strong emotions, to conflicting interests, desires, opinions and understandings, which can have devastating effects on other people For Tom Crick, it is impossible to escape a personalised account of history, but also ‘any account of the here and now must constantly refer back to a history which produced it’.24 Here, then, is the idea of a person not only as the agent responsible for shaping the world as they see it, but also as ‘part of a social and historical totality…through the interaction of the individual with history’.25 Yet this interaction of the individual with history is not wholly their own responsibility. In ‘Ideology and ideological state apparatuses’, Louis Althusser examines the role of social practices on our desires, choices, judgements and so on, claiming that society ‘fixes’ the individual in its own image: ‘all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subject’.26 An example of this is when we are addressed by a policeman: as soon as we turn to answer him, we become fixed by the policeman, in that role as the addressed much like the Sartrean ‘Other’. In a consumer society, this means that we can choose, but we have no choice over having choice – it is simply a part of the consumer society we are fixed by. However, this example of a policeman - an individual - ‘fixing’ someone is important. Clearly it is not only society as a whole that can fix an individual, but people within that society too. In the same way as we become the addressed, possibly the accused, from the policeman’s questioning, in Atonement Briony ‘fixes’ Lola as the victim with Robbie as the assailant. Briony wants Robbie to be the offender, so uses coercive questioning to make Lola agree with her: ‘It was Robbie, wasn’t it?’. Rather than allow Lola to answer for herself, Briony ‘said it again, this time without the trace of a question. It was a statement of fact. ‘It was Robbie.’’27 For Lola this is a seemingly easy way out of an awful situation for her, yet rather than straightforwardly assent to Briony’s determining of what happened, she remains entirely the ‘fixed’, saying only ‘But you saw him. You actually saw him’.28 (167) Briony, then, ‘fixes’ Robbie as the rapist – and in doing so ‘fixes’ Lola as holding this belief as well. Yet Althusser’s theory can be extended even further from the individual fixing someone else to the individual’s past experiences and interpretations fixing their own perceptions of the present. Indeed, Briony’s interpreting Lola’s assailant as Robbie is, as Phelan notes, an understanding ‘overrun by her ethical and aesthetic judgements’ – ‘As far as she was concerned, everything fitted; the terrible present fulfilled the recent past’ (quoted by Phelan from Atonement).29 Briony’s certainty of Robbie being the figure she sees in the darkness stems not from ‘ocular proof’ but because ‘that interpretation fits the narrative she is scripting on the basis of her earlier encounters with Robbie. And that narrative fit is a consequence of her ethical judgements: any one who could write that sentence in the letter to Cecilia must be a ‘maniac’, and, hence, Lola’s rapist’.30

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Swift, Waterland, p.320-321 M. Currie, ‘Prolepsis’, in About Time, (printed from Blackboard), p. 37 25 M. Currie, ‘Fictional Knowledge’, in About Time, (printed from Blackboard), p. 118 26 L. Althusser, ‘Ideology and ideological state apparatuses (notes towards an investigation)’ in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New Yok, 1971) (from seminar handout ‘Advertising, Ideology and Narrative’) 27 McEwan, Atonement, p.166 28 McEwan, Atonement, p.167 29 J. Phelan, ‘Narrative Judgments and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative: Ian McEwan’s Atonement’, James Phelan, (printed from Blackboard), p.328 30 Phelan, Phelan, p.328 24


6 We arrive, then, at a more complex ethical judgement of Briony, one that emphasises the subjectivity of human experience. By a shifting of internal focalization from one character to the next, McEwan shows Robbie to be an estimable young gentleman – not at all the ‘maniac’ Briony perceives him as – and, what’s more, his supposedly sickening letter to Cecilia is proven to actually be the breakthrough needed for his and Cecilia’s underlying love to finally develop.31 This constant shifting of perspective, along with a careful tracing of the factors responsible for Briony interpreting the events as she did, show on a wider level how we each perceive the world differently as a result of our previous experiences and constant running narratives of the world and, at least in the context of the novel, allow us to sympathise with the young Briony, on a re-reading if not first time around: ‘On a macro level, McEwan relies on the careful tracing of the convergence of the different characters and events to show how Briony’s transgression was overdetermined; on a micro level, he shows how difficult it was for Briony to change her narrative once she had articulated it’.32 Through Swift and McEwan’s explorations of the functions and effects of our everyday interior narratives, we see that everyone’s own interpretations of events make up the collective world – and it is a world built on subjectivity. Through Tom Crick’s history-obsessed narration, Graham Swift presents the impossibility of an objective history; really, everything can only be a personalised account of events: ‘it’s Mary’s story, pieced together and construed by me’.33 Indeed, Crick recognises the susceptibility of events to different interpretations, which may or may not have any right over another: ‘this is the story of how Mary tried to teach my mute of a brother. Or, alternatively, of how Mary’s curiosity – Or, alternatively, of how a little learning…’.34 In a word unavoidably full of different and mis-interpretations, McEwan, and to a lesser extent Swift, highlight the need to recognise how societal constructs and previous individual determining experiences and interpretations may affect someone’s view of an event. For example, the Tallis family (excluding Cecilia) readily believe Robbie to be capable of committing such a crime as he is accused of because of his low social position, especially compared to that of their own. And as we have seen, Briony’s earlier misinterpretation of events fuelled a believed certainty in what she thought she saw. Thus, in a world shaped by narratives, we should be aware of fiction, whether intentional or otherwise.

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Phelan, Phelan, p.329 Phelan, Phelan, p.329 33 Swift, Waterland, p.249 34 Swift, Waterland, p.248 32


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Bibliography L. Althusser, ‘Ideology and ideological state apparatuses (notes towards an investigation)’ in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New Yok, 1971) (from seminar handout ‘Advertising, Ideology and Narrative’) M. Currie, ‘Backwards Time’, in About Time, (printed from Blackboard) M. Currie, ‘Fictional Knowledge’, in About Time, (printed from Blackboard) M. Currie, ‘Prolepsis’, in About Time, (printed from Blackboard) I. McEwan, Atonement, (London, 2001) J. Phelan, ‘Narrative Judgments and the Rhetorical Theory of Narrative: Ian McEwan’s Atonement’, James Phelan, (printed from Blackboard) P. Ricouer, ‘Time and Narrative: Threefold Mimesis’, in Time and Narrative, (printed from Blackboard) G. Swift, Waterland, 25th Anniversary Edition, (London, 2008)

The Power of Narrative  

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