I met a question in the sentence "whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to" of the novel "Waterland" that was written by Graham Swift.


I began, having recognized in my young but by no means carefree class the contagious symptoms of fear: ‘Once upon a time …’

Children, who will inherit the world. 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 tell 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; children – they are going to separate you and me. Lewis has seen to it. Forgive this emotion. I do not deserve your protestations. (We need our Cricky and all that stuff of his.) I do not expect you to understand that after thirty-two years I have rolled you all into one and now I know the agonies of a mother robbed of her child.… But listen, listen. Your history teacher wishes to give you the complete and final version …

And since a fairy-tale must have a setting, a setting which, like the settings of all good fairy-tales, must be both palpable and unreal, let me tell you

The sentence in which I met the question is below.

"whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to"

Does "the need adults have of" mean "adults have the need of"?

I can't understand the structure of "adults have of children to tell stories to".

Thanks a lot for everyone's help in advance.

1 Answer 1


The author balances two needs here --

  1. need of stories
  2. the need [that] adults have

The need of 1. is the need of children because the antecedent of the pronoun whose is Children. The need of 2. is the need of adults because it is modified by the (reduced) relative clause "[that] adults have".

Need licenses two complements. This first tells what satisfies the need and is supplied by a direct object or a prepositional phrase with of; the second tells the manner by which the need is satisfied and is supplied with an infinitive. Thus I can say

[1a] I need water to quench my thirst. (direct object water)
[1b] I have need of water to quench my thirst. (preposition of)

In both 1a and 1b, water is what is needed and taking care of my thirst is the manner in which water works. Swift has chosen the 1b variation for the need that adults have. What's needed is children (the object of the prepositional phrase with of) and the manner of meeting the need is the telling of stories (with the infinitive to tell).

Thus the balance is the need of children to hear stories with the need of adults to tell stories to those children.

  • Thank you very much for answering my question. I really appreciate it. Aug 22, 2016 at 5:39
  • You're welcome. I hope I was clear. Waterland is a wonderful novel. If you get a chance, you might enjoy the 1992 movie version with Jeremy Irons. The book is richer in the history of the fens, but the movie is terrific in its own right for its construction and performances.
    – deadrat
    Aug 22, 2016 at 6:24

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