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Ethics and Dick in Graham Swift's Waterland

1 Diagram

This analysis centres on Graham Swift’s Waterland, and more precisely Dick, the mentally handicapped brother of Tom, the hero of the novel and a history teacher who unravels the many intellectual oddities of history, at the same time as he is recounting the local history of his family and of the Fenlands. What I will explain here can be summarised in the following image:




Tom is “the brainy”, Dick “the brainless one” (1992: 39), for being handicapped, Dick is in many ways a representation of nature (with a twist, though, for he is probably the offspring of an incestuous, and therefore unnatural, relationship between his mother and his grandfather). Dick

  • is very strong
  • lives in the animal present
  • is silent
  • has such an enormous penis that he is “Dick by name, […] Dick by nature”
  • looks like an eel (253) and is an excellent swimmer (190), “a natural, [...] a fish of a man” (357)

Compared with Dick, who is presented as nature, Tom is much more cultivated and therefore represented as society.


At some point, doubts arise as to who of the two is the father of the baby that Tom’s later wife is expecting and which she finally aborts.


Tom throws a tantrum and bury himself in his history books. Dick, on the other hand, makes use of the little reason he has and performs the action he thinks will save the situation: he commits suicide.  One the one hand, this action is senseless, the kind of thing we might impute to his being mentally handicapped.


On the other hand, Dick’s action is ethical to the highest degree:

  • limited as his reason is, he uses it
  • he shows the necessary courage to make a sacrifice for the well-being of others, also the girl he loves
  • he proves historical awareness by learning about his origins

The social dimension Dick seemingly lacked for most of the novel has suddenly emerged, and is accompanied by something which looks very much like teleology, but a sound one, for it includes

  • sacrifice, for Dick’s suicide is a sacrifice, and as such a move away from nature and towards society
  • but also love, for Dick's sacrifice is motivated at least partly by his love for Tom's later wife

This kind of teleology ensures that Dick's socialisation never entails denying his nature.

work cited

Swift, Graham. Waterland. New York: Vintage, 1992.

daniel.candel@uah.es | ©2008 Daniel Candel Bormann