Water is without a doubt the central image of Waterland. The four elements have long been staples of literature but in Swift's novel water transcends the cliche to represent an all-powerful force, an undeniably potent entity in the lives of Waterland's Fenland residents. Swift accomplishes this feat by weaving his central image into his work in many subtle and varied ways. His main tool is not repetition but variation on a key idea: that water has the power to shape the lives of men -- to change the face of history.
While Swift traces the history of certain prominent Fen families he also provides the reader with a great deal of information about the natural history of the Fens, most importantly that "the chief fact about the Fens is that they are reclaimed land, land that was once water, and which, even today, is not quite solid." (p.6) "The problem of the Fens has always been the problem of drainage." (p.7) It is upon this conflict between land and sea that the fortunes of Atkinsons and Cricks alike are founded.
Tom Crick states quite explicitly that his ancestors were "water people. They speared fish and netted ducks." (p. 8) At some point in the past the Cricks "ceased to be water people and became land people. . ." (10) that is to say that they went to work for the Atkinsons attempting to drain the Fens. The Cricks continue to walk the fine line between water and land until Tom's father Henry is appointed to be keeper of the New Atkinson Lock, connected to and controlling the flow of water of the River Leem. When the Atkinsons and then the Cricks attempt to control this vital fluid they find that with time water always emerges the victor, no matter how strong the human effort.
The Atkinson family has an additional connection to the water besides working for its control and eradication. They are brewers of beer. In the words of Tom Crick: "whereas the Cricks emerged from water, the Atkinsons emerged from beer." (p.48) The Atkinsons took an interesting approach to their task: "We must help the poor besodden Fenlanders. They need a little cheer in their wretched swamps. They cannot survive on water." (p.51) So the Atkinsons dedicated their lives to the mastery of water, overseeing its transformation from a liquid of oppression (water) into a beverage of merrymaking (ale). Witness the legend inscribed over the portals of the New Atkinson Brewery built in 1849 in Gildsey: "Ex Aqua Fermentum . . . Out of Water, Ale." (p.64)
The Atkinson's dredging effort produces a growing town, Gildsey, at the junction of the Fens' two biggest rivers, the Leem and the Ouse. From its founding the town is locked in an elemental battle with flood waters. In recognition of these periodic floods its central street is named Water Street. There are three major floods in the course of the novel. The first, in 1713, is caused by the collapse of a man-made sluice -- water triumphs over men. The second occurs in 1874, and appears to be Nature's response to Sarah Atkinson's death (an invocation of the Pathetic Fallacy). The third flood comes at the very end of the novel (but not chronologically) in 1947. World War II is over and the flood is baptismal in nature, purifying and cleansing the Fens and the Fenlanders. In particular the flood wipes out the New Atkinson Lock, making it possible for Tom Crick to escape the watery roots of his ancestors and leave the Fens for London.
In order to live and work with water and against water it is vital to know how to swim. One of the turning points in Waterland occurs during a game played by Mary, Tom, Dick, Freddie Parr, and several other children. A single boy will be allowed to see the pre-pubescent Mary naked, determined by an underwater swimming competition. Tom Crick is an able swimmer, thus a survivor in life. Freddie Parr on the other hand cannot swim at all; he is found dead at the beginning of the novel. Dick Crick can swim further than anyone. A "potato-head," Dick is unlike those around him. It is fitting that Dick be the best swimmer, as he is intended to be the "Savior of the World." Dick's special skill at swimming (and his natural skill at dredging) raise important questions as to the nature of this "potato head." Can someone like Dick be judged on the same criteria as the rest of society? Is it just for this same society to label Dick "mentally unfit"?
Rivers also play an important role in Waterland. All of the traditional symbolism is present: i.e. the flow of time, endless progression, the force of nature. There is an additional connotation given to rivers by Swift, a human element. He writes of "the continued contempt of the river for the efforts of men." (p.109) As the Fenlanders build their dams and locks in an attempt to make the river deep enough for barges they also slow its flow, causing even more sediment to be dumped into its bed which in turn requires further dredging. This constant cycle is complemented by the natural water cycle whereby all water flows to the sea, is evaporated to the air, and then rains back down upon the land where it finds its way back to the rivers. Swift makes note of this cycle to correct a statement made "two and a half thousand years ago, by Heraclitus of Ephesus, that we cannot step twice into the same river. . . because [in reality] we are always stepping into the same river." (p.110) Even the incest that produces Dick Crick is described in terms of a flowing river: "when fathers love daughters and daughters love fathers it's like tying up into a knot the thread that runs into the future, it's like a stream wanting to flow backwards." (p.172)