Before Dick questions his father about where babies come from, he is described in terms that place his existence closer to the level of the eels. He is presented as being unable to formulate anything other than relatively rudimentary communication. He has been deliberately kept uneducated. The most significant fact about him, besides his relation to the murder, is his potatoheaded-ness. In first explaining his brother to the reader, Tom Crick describes him in non-human terms:
It could be said that Dick's love of machines, if love it is, springs from the fact that Dick himself is a sort of machine--in so far as a machine is something which has no mind of its own and in so far as Dick's large, lean and surprisingly agile body will not only work indefatigably but will perform on occasion quite remarkable feats of dexterity and strength. (32)
Tom Crick's description of his brother as something inhuman can be understood when Tom Crick says "Another definition, children: Man, the animal which demands an explanation, the animal which asks Why." According to that definition, Dick is not something that is human. But that leaves the reader with the question of why is Dick's character important, and how does he relate to the other characters in the novel.
One explanation for Dick's presence in the novel is that he is human, and on those grounds, he is established as being not that different from the other characters. One of the events that makes the reader (and Tom Crick) realize Dick's fundamental humanness is that he, like Tom, Freddie and Mary, among others, is curious. Or, as Tom says, "Even a numskull must ponder those big and teasing questions:..." The effect of that curiosity in Dick, as could be argued is true for the others, is disastrous. That curiosity, combined with an inability to comprehend, is what is responsible, if not in deed that in essence, for Freddie Parr's death. This leaves the reader with mixed impressions about curiosity. As reflected in Mary's and Dick's curiosity about one another, it is the force which drives history, in that it is responsible for the people whose actions will form some part of it. But in its insatiable nature the reader finds the first signs of discomfort with a quality that, in its desire to understand life, can destroy it. Thus, through Dick Swift can reflect a very human paradox.
Dick's mechanicalness is also very human. This individual mechanicalness is observed against the backdrop of an entire world that (as relayed to the reader through Tom Crick) has indubitable elements of mechanicalness. The everyday routines of Dick's actions--especially the way in which Tom describes the clock-like nature of his movements--provide a lens by way of comparison to the also very mechanical, but on a decidedly larger scale, efforts of the Fens to reclaim land. Dick's caring for his motorcycle can be related to the care which the Fenlanders must take to protect their home against the ravaging effects of time. The benefit of relating the two allows the reader to make observations about how human history cannot help but be contained within natural history. That, in turn, gives the reader insight into why it is that Tom Crick consciously falls into the same habit of trying to make sense of life from the stories people tell, which, in turn, leads to the entire narrative.
But perhaps the most human element of Dick is his inability to comprehend. Here, Dick is like every other figure in the novel. He is like Ernest Atkinson, who takes refuge in some fantasy as a means of dealing with his lack of comprehension. He, again, is like Tom, who, despite being able to perceive trends in over hundreds of years of history, cannot understand the futility of his desire to explain, which leads him to tell stories. But perhaps most importantly, he is like Price, whose fears combine with his unknowing to look toward the future. A future which it can be said is initiated by the simplicity of Dick's question at the dinner table of where babies come from.
Document last modified 29 December 2001