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  • The Greening of Postmodernism: Graham Swift’s Waterland
  • Ronald H. McKinney (bio)

In a recent essay entitled “The Greening of the Humanities,” Jay Parini has observed that the very best students in this decade are “abandoning English for environmental studies,” or, at the very least, preferring “ecocriticism” to postmodern “theory.” 1 He argues that the reason for this shift is due to a reaction against theory’s “apolitical” and “solipsistic” tendencies in favor of a return to the “realism” of “activism and social responsibility” (52). Moreover, he contends that this trend is in keeping with a greater interest today in an “interdisciplinary” and “bioregional” approach to literature (53).

While I am as enthusiastic as Parini regarding the greater openness in the academy today toward the need for an activist and interdisciplinary approach to literary criticism which also respects the “local” nature of writing, I am far less convinced that postmodernism is as antithetical to the ecological mindset as Parini believes to be the case. Consider the following reasons:

  1. 1. While “apoliticism” is now a commonplace criticism of the American version of deconstruction, the same cannot be said of Derrida’s thought itself. 2 While Derrida is as anti-utopian as his American followers, he is clearly for a political activism which strives to correct past forms of injustice.

  2. 2. The environmental movement is also plagued by its own pessimists, who not only critique all Enlightenment quests for technological progress, but also suggest that every form of human praxis is detrimental to the environment. 3 Thus the “paralysis” associated with the postmodern outlook by some critics can also be said to characterize the approach of many environmentalists as well.

  3. 3. It is precisely postmodernism that has been most responsible for highlighting the “local” character of all knowledge as well as for break-ing down the barriers between science and the humanities.

Finally, that there is a growing convergence possible for the postmodern and environmental movements is demonstrated by Graham Swift’s novel Waterland, 4 which uses the ecological metaphor of land reclamation as its central device for showing how postmodern praxis can avoid both mindless optimism and hopeless despair. [End Page 821]


Swift’s novel is a prime example of postmodern fiction since its metafictional structure is geared toward undermining the traditional aim of literature, that is, readers always have their expectations for achieving some epiphanic understanding of the meaning of human experience deliberately frustrated. However, Swift’s acceptance of the postmodern dictum that every quest to attain the “ultimate explanation” is doomed to failure does not result in the cynical message of some postmodern writers that all perspectives are thus worthless, except the one which says that no view is any good. Rather, Swift embodies the postmodern conviction of the necessary blurring of boundaries by meditating through narrative on the nature of postmodern theory and its hopeful political implications. Indeed, the theory he expounds is all about the nature of narrative (storytelling) itself.

Waterland is a work that both embodies and parodies the virtues of the following nineteenth-century English fictional genres: the gothic novel, the family saga, the business saga, the detective story, and the provincial novel. The plot revolves around the narrator’s metafictional quest to understand the “history” of himself and his own family. In the beginning, we are introduced to this narrator, Thomas Crick, who is a history teacher about to be fired because the Headmaster, Lewis, considers history to be a useless subject for modern students to take. The fact that Crick’s wife, Mary, has just been sent to a mental asylum for stealing another woman’s baby certainly gives Lewis an added reason for retiring Crick.

We learn that Crick’s family has always played a role in keeping the Fens of East England drained and dredged. His father was a lock-keeper for most of his life near where the River Leem enters the Ouse on its way to the North Sea. His father’s ancestors were originally “water people” who fished, caught eels, cut reeds, and netted ducks. They tried sabo-taging initial attempts at draining their homeland until, for whatever reason, they joined in the efforts at reclaiming the...

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pp. 821-832
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