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Australian Fiction

 

The condition of the OUTSIDER has attracted the interest of several Australian writers. COMPARE the forms in which this theme appears in any two of the works, paying particular attention to how the condition is defined and represented, and what values are associated with it.

In ‘Trees Can Speak’, Marshall explores how the shared conditions of alienation, disability and difference can foster an implicit trust and meaningful friendship between two different people. The text could be viewed as semi-autobiographical, since the author also suffered from infantile paralysis like the narrator. Marshall explores the values of loyalty, friendship, communication transcending boundaries, and the spiritual unification of two outsiders.

The narrator’s initial candid discussion with the store-keeper implies a familiarity and acceptance within his community. The narrator highlights the contrasting alienated or outsider quality of the silent newcomer, Silent Joe, by asking “Is there something wrong with him?”.  We initially believe that narrator is a local and fully immersed in his community; and Silent Joe is contrastingly not only a geographic outsider, but also marginalised due to his ostensible disability.

However, these preconceptions are subverted, when the narrator is shown to be lifting his crutches, which indicates that he too suffers from a disability of some kind. A connection and implicit trust thus immediately develops between the man who chooses to not use his voice, and the man who is forced to not use his legs. The profundity and depth of their fledgling friendship is indicated in the line:

“He smiled. It took a long time to develop. It moved over his face slowly and somehow I thought of an egret in flight, as if wings had come and gone.”

Their subsequent communication is thereafter verbally one-sided, but as eloquent and effortless as if they were both speaking: “…I answered his unspoken decision as if it had been conveyed to me in words.”  Their relationship becomes free-flowing and symbiotic, and Silent Joe unquestioningly assists the narrator down the mine, and shoulders his weight when he leaves his crutches above the mine.

The bush and the mine are used by Marshall as metaphors for belonging and alienation. The narrator views Silent Joe as synonymous with the silent, elusive power of the bush: “Like the gums, was remote again….(possessing) the silent eloquence of trees” .  The unspoken bond that the two men share, and its parallel to the landscape, is powerfully signified in the line “I felt the power of his interest drawing words from me as dry earth absorbs water.” Silent Joe is no longer an outsider, but so immersed in his surroundings that he has become indistinguishable from them. Silent Joe is not only a personification of the bush, but even more omnipotent than it; evidenced when he physically defeats it by kicking the “limbs aside, broke the branches of wattles”.

Silent Joe is completely familiar and comfortable inside the mine, whereas the narrator feels distressed in these unfamiliar surroundings: “What the hell did I come down here for?” When he waits in the bucket to be hoisted up to earth, the candle flame suddenly extinguishes. Without being able to see his counterpart, the narrator immediately feels physically and figuratively alone. The burden of the world falls upon his shoulders: “The darkness had a… weight like a blanket of black… drained of all sunlight and song”. However, when he is back on solid earth- helped by the guiding hand of Silent Joe- a sense of empowerment and belonging is restored in him: “It felt good to stand on something that didn’t move, to feel the sun on your face.” In the closing paragraph, the two friends’ part with a simple “Goodbye”. Their spiritual connection is exemplified by the fact that the narrator can’t distinguish between the spiritual comfort that Silent Joe has provided him, or the “kindred tree” that he stands against. He notes wistfully: “It was if a tree had spoken”. Their unity is complete.

The condition of the outsider is defined and represented very differently in Palmer’s short story ‘Josie’. Palmer portrays the character of Josie as an idiosyncratic and tragic outsider, in stark contrast to the other characters, who are entirely homogenous and identical to one another. This clearly differs from ‘Trees Can Speak’, as the character of Josie is never accepted by her conformist peers, and she remains as an outsider at the culmination of the story.

‘Josie’ is written in the first person perspective, yet the narrator never once refers to him or herself as I. The narrator exclusively refers to everyone as “we”; implying that he is an inexorable part of his community, and indistinguishable from everybody else. This is in direct contrast to ‘Trees Can Speak’; where the narrator possessed a very personal and self-reflective voice. In ‘Josie’, the narrator is merely a voice for the (somewhat gauche) collective conscience of the schoolchildren.  The children in the classroom are portrayed as all the same height (“no one was tall enough”), and displaying the same simultaneous movement (“all wanting to get a look out of the window”). The ubiquitous silence pervades their consciousness, and the collective term “no one” is repeated “no one wanted to move; no one wanted to look around”. The children behave in unison throughout the narrative: “Everyone wanted to go past Paton’s on the way home”. It as though the children are the regimented members of an army when they march out of the classroom, their voices all whispering in unison.

The character of Josie is first introduced by the teacher as equally integrated and undifferentiated as the other children, with the words “your little playmate”. Ironically, it is as though her death has temporarily rendered her equivalent to all the other children, even though in life she was always an outsider.

Josie was so insignificant in the minds of the children, that the narrator admits that the community “had nearly forgotten about Josie”. Her family home is viewed with disdain and the children don’t want to “go too near to it”. It stands by the “edge of the railway”, which is symbolic for its marginalised position within the community. After Josie’s death, it’s as if the house becomes suspended in time, staring out from its peripheral position over the judgmental community: “The broken shutter over the front window seemed like a squinting eye”. This is the only place where Josie felt at home, and the children have a feeling that “Josie was somewhere inside”.

Josie is portrayed as non-conformist who would often extricate herself from her unkind surroundings by “lurking” under the school veranda. The regimented group of children would only be temporarily split when one of them was “sent out to look for her”. Josie’s individual idiosyncrasies are viewed as disgusting by the intolerant children, and the narrator unsympathetically states that “No one had ever liked Josie very much”. However, in her death she is freed from the corporeal afflictions that contributed to her alienation; the “things in her hair” and “ringworm”. Her spirit has been set free, and she has become as beautiful as a “yellow butterfly”.

The narrator discuses another outsider in the community, the butcher’s offsider, who evokes fear in the children. The narrator describes him as pleading: “God be merciful to me a sinner”, before he “hits the ground”, and that this ultimately saved him. This could imply that God saved him from death; or in fact absolved him of his sins and welcomed this previously marred and rejected man into heaven.

The young narrator muses about the tragic alienation of death; whether you would be reunited with your loved ones in the afterlife, or left “wandering by yourself as you sometimes were in dreams”. He laments that being isolated would leave you “cold, frightened and hopelessly lost”.  Josie’s death “lying now, white as wax” has made her into more of a physical and spiritual outsider, and she is now even more discernible from her living playmates; as life and death are the ultimate antitheses.

At the end of the narrative, all the children were “thinking about Josie”, and they feel “sad and tender” about her, and for once the dead girl is relevant in the hearts and minds of her peers.  The narrator’s mother says that the parting clouds signify Josie’s entrance into heaven. The mother is the second adult who possesses a voice in the narrative, and like the teacher, she perceives Josie as equal to everyone. However, the narrator wryly comments: “We were glad the angels didn’t know as much about her as we did”; expressing that God would not let such a marginalised and flawed girl into heaven if he only knew the truth.

 

How have the relations between class and gender been articulated in the work of TWO of the writers listed below:

  1. Marjorie Barnard– The Persimmon Tree
  2. Katharine Susannah Prichard– Coonardoo

 

Marjorie Barnard’s evocative and elusive short story ‘The Persimmon Tree’ exemplifies the “emergence of a contemporary national canon largely made up of women”. Barnard explores the connection between class and gender with the extensive use of metaphoric symbols of burgeoning sexuality and contrasting barren puritanism.  Barnard’s gynocentric and sexual imagery was very bold for the era, and it heralded a shift in the way women wrote and their “newfound freedom and sexual independent during the war years”.

The middle-aged narrator initially chooses to live in an austere flat in a “quiet, blind street, lined with English trees… chaste as a cell”. She describes her surroundings as “passionless”, yet she feels contented and familiar within them. Her surroundings are a “shell that fitted without touching me”. The narrator initially shies away from sunlight, preferring shade; and likes to prolong the “end of the night as long as possible”. She is comfortably isolated. The only thing that exists to “flaw my privacy” is the window that is directly opposite her, and with which she develops an infatuation. However, she is glad to see it shut, as it prolongs her isolation. This shut window symbolises the closed-off nature of any sexual yearning or drive. She muses that “Lonely women have something to hide”.

The only human she interacts with is the “silent woman who serviced her”, and this impersonal relationship reinforces the controlled aloofness of her character. She observes, but never communicates with, the people on the street. They are presumably middle-class, predictable as clockwork, and “cut to a very correct pattern”. They possess the same predictable austere and cold personality as she does. They are merely part of the “mise en scene, hardly real at all”. One of these strangers is a woman, who the narrator observes “had” been beautiful once. This stranger possesses a resoluteness and control that the narrator envies. This stranger could be viewed as the narrator’s alter-ego, or a physical projection of what she aspires to be.

This barren landscape directly mirrors the narrator’s interior landscape. The trees are bare, and she initially only sees interest and beauty in the inanimate concrete buildings and not in nature. When the buds suddenly appear on the bare twigs, she removes the only man-made piece and feels “cleared and tranquil as if I had expelled the last fragment of grit from her mind”. It seems that the narrator experiences somewhat of a sexual awakening when she notices the persimmons “shaped like a young woman’s breasts”. Barnard’s language becomes lush and descriptive, and we sense a sexual rebirth that is in conflict with her previous puritanical convictions. She employs phallic images like the “long sprouted can” and the shooting tulip bulbs, and its allure is “almost a shock” to her. She heartbreakingly muses: “why did I always think of autumn in springtime?”; which indicates that in the midst of a season of bearing fruit and rebirth, the narrator was fixated with barrenness and end of life. This may have been her plight until this she experienced this “spring come once”.

She realises that these new thoughts are foreign; “packed in sawdust from California”, and are like “fruit out of season”. This contrasts to the “English Trees” she was previously surrounded by; and is symbolic of her subverting her English middle-class chasteness in favour of sexual freedom. The opening of the window and the breaking of the bud invokes the image of an erotic realisation. Even the shadows that she was so immersed in before have become “intricate and rich”, and it “was no longer an austere winter pattern as it had been at first”. When she lived previously in shadows, she was constantly tired and impressionable; connoting a repressed and unlived life. Now she is enamoured by the sunlight.

The narrator makes many symbolic references to sexuality after menopause. She observes that even when Persimmon trees had dropped their leaves and were bare, they still bore the “dark gold fruit”; implying that sexuality can still exist in later life after fertility has ceased. She laments that men can still experience a sexual twilight: “If a man’s world were in ashes, the spring would still come”. At the culmination of the narrative, when watching the stranger “staring out at the budding trees”, she finds her blood ticking “like a clock”. She has become aware of her ticking biological clock. When she finally observes the body of the woman “whose face was in the shadow”, she sees a reflection herself- a middle-aged woman who is past her prime- she experiences heart-wrenching sorrow and regret: “thought her heart would break”.

Prichard uses a love story in Coonardoo to explore the cultural conflict between the two main protagonists, Huge and Coonardoo. She examines how being a woman automatically renders an individual into a second-class citizen; and that being a woman of Aboriginal descent means that this individual is doubly-marginalized. White male cultural ascendancy is inextricably linked with their dominant economic power and class status, and an entitlement to dispossess the indigenous people of their land. Hugh perceives Coonardoo and the land as one entity, and therefore both his rightful possessions.

The white morality- whether the puritanical sexual morality of Hugh or the predatory sexual morality of Geary- are both depicted in the text to have a destructive effect on the Aboriginal women. The white practice of monogamy is shown to not be synonymous with love, as symbolized by Hugh and Mollie’s doomed marriage. Nonetheless, as Mollie is a woman and therefore has very little voice or agency, she is forced to endure this infidelity in silence.

Mrs Bessie is portrayed as a “benevolent autocrat”, and she consistently battles the detribalization and white infiltration of the tribe.  However, her disproval of the Aboriginal perspective towards sex gives rise to conflict: “Mrs Bessie had fits of loathing the blacks … her white woman’s prejudices were still intact.” Mrs Bessie views some of the tribal corroborees as “immoral… sensing a sadism in them, a whipping up of sexual excitement in the cruelties practiced by old men on boys and girls”.  Thus, she interferes with tribal arrangements by delaying Coonardoo’s marriage to Warieda. This action only serves to cause great disharmony in the uloo; an Aborigine from another tribe initiates a dangerous fight to gain control of Coonardoo; while Geary offers Coonardoo’s father “a rifle, blankets and tobacco for the girl” and attempts to have her kidnapped. Despite her resolute stance of allowing the blacks a substantial amount of cultural independence, Mrs Bessie ironically attempts to assimilate Coonardoo into white society, training her as a house-girl so that she can care for Hugh when she dies.  Mollie additionally exhibits a superior attitude towards the Aborigines, as evidenced by her relentless domestic exploitation of Coonardoo.  Although she too is an oppressed woman, she ironically still embodies the superior class status that the white colonists assumed; vesting her with an assumed right to annihilate tribal customs and exploit the disempowered Aboriginal women.

Sam Geary manifests a very liberal view of interracial sexual relationships, by living with Aboriginal woman, and fathering many half-caste children.  Nonetheless, Geary externalizes the Euro-centric contempt towards Aboriginal women by describing Coonardoo’s condition with cruelty (“And you never saw such an old break-up… rotten with disease”) after she is banished from her land, even though he directly contributed to her ultimately and tragic demise.

Hugh fights to prevent interracial sexual relationships, which he associates with evil and carnality.  Hugh resolves that “Not as long as he lived… would Geary get either Wytaliba or Coonardoo”. Yet Hugh’s middle-class posturing is hypocritical; as he made love to Coonardoo in a time of irrationality, which he rationalises as an affinity to the spirit of the land.

“Coonardoo was a force in the background of his life…. Something primitive, fundamental, nearer than he to the source of things”

Hugh encroaches on tribal custom by taking Coonardoo into his household as his “woman” after Warieda’s death.  Hugh’s belief that his white morality is superior somehow bestows him with the right to interfere in tribal matters.  Yet Hugh’s intrinsic self-denying morality prevents him from expressing any love to Coonardoo, and he sublimates all of her emotional and sexual needs.  His sense of ownership spurs his brutal attack on Coonardoo at the campfire, after he discovers her infidelity with Geary: “You let Geary come into my house. You’re my woman.” Hugh’s behaviour replicates his father’s homicidal violence towards Coonardoo’s mother.  Hugh’s status vests him with the ultimate authority, and he banishes Coonardoo from her own land; and the absence of her spiritual essence causes the land to wither away.  The power dynamics between the Aborigines and the white people are inverted when Warieda and Chitali accompany Hugh to seek medical treatment for typhoid. Hugh’s dependence on them to survive is juxtaposed to his treatment of Coonardoo when she is forcibly exiled after his violent reprisal, and forced to be a defenseless Aboriginal woman among white men.

 

Compare the meaning and value of ‘mateship’ in TWO of the following works:

  1. Gavin Casey- Short Shift Saturday
  2. Barry Hill– Lizards

‘Short Shift Saturday’ explores the themes of mateship, camaraderie and masculinity in Australia during the wartime era; all examples of mythic nationalism and legacies of a male-centric colonial culture. It examines the implications of these themes in the domestic realm; namely their erosion of marital relationships. It displays the (albeit taciturn) depth of friendship between men in times of hardship, and the resulting breakdown of communication with women.

The text is narrated in a heartbreakingly honest voice by Bill. He initially discusses his severely fractured domestic life. Both the adults have assumed traditional gender roles; Annie the unappreciated, lonely nurturer and Bill the burdened breadwinner. Annie’s “shoulder’s (are) bent like an old woman who has run about a kitchen getting early breakfasts her whole life”, and Bill observes that she’d “rather cut her throat” then allow him to miss a meal. The author uses food as a metaphor for love and communication, and illustrates this through Annie’s attempts to bridge the gulf between her and Bill with food instead of words. Bill knows he has the power to hurt her, and he unsympathetically states: “I want to hurt her, and I’m pretty good at it”. It’s apparent that Bill’s penchant for “the drink” has led to extreme marital disharmony. It is only the innocence and unconditional love of his son that seems to sustain their tumultuous marriage. Both protagonists are clearly lonely and find no solace with one another. Bill notices that “There was nothing on the fields for a woman”, and he would rather be around “cobbers who took you as they found you”. However, Bill doesn’t give much credence to his role in her unhappiness; dismissively stating that “I suppose me drinking” has changed her from the hopeful young girl he married years ago.

The resentment and lack of communication between them is palpable. He believes she disrespects him, and she says “You don’t give me much to smile about”. He takes out all of the anxiety he feels at the mines on her, with little regard for her feelings: “I didn’t care about Annie”. Bill’s daily suffering and consequent issues with alcohol are due to the alienation and resentment he feels at the mines: “it’s a rotten unnatural life for a man”; while his workmate Tom remarks somberly: “She’s a cow of a game”. Bill resorts to the drink to make him “bright and normal”.

In the daily milieu of “men crunching over gravel to catch the tram”, Bill and Tom share an inconsequential conversation about football, which both men are not really interested in. The traditional, once interesting “man’s talk” has lost its novelty, and Bill and Tom spend a lot of time burdened by their own thoughts. Bill says that “Tom and I know each other well enough not to have to talk”, denoting the laconic nature of male friendships in the era, and perhaps the breakdown of communication in times of hardship.

Their camaraderie between the miners is revealed when they are confronted with the tragic news at the mine. The old miner Mace is “taking his breath in strangled gasps”. His grotesque appearance, clutching at “anything to help him stand”, causes Bill to jump back “like you would from a leper.” Before Mace developed what they referred to as “miner’s complaint”, he’d been almost physically invincible: a “a big man…six feet of him… neck like a lump of a tree”; and Bill sees a horrifying portent of his future. Bill says “I’d shoot myself” if he ever meets the same fate as Mace.

Bill is further sobered by the news that another miner, Don Bell, is also suffering from the same terminal condition, and is working his last shift. The gravity of the situation is not lost on any of the miners: “No one said anything….There was nothing to talk about”. These men are united in their sweat and toil in the darkness. They wake with the “bad taste of the underground” in their mouths. Their indestructible camaraderie in difficult times is what they live for. The loneliness that results from “dropping their bundle” is akin to a death sentence, as they cannot assimilate to “the surface.” Bill laments: “For some of ‘em (retirement is) a ticket to hell”.

Bill’s fondness for Don (“the kind of chap that can stop you from feeling sorry for yourself”) causes him to again reflect on his own mortality, and it “nearly made me sick”. However, he also realises that he doesn’t know anything about Don “away from the mine”; yet all that mattered was that his “cheery” personality buoyed the other miners. This pretence is reinforced when Bill “has to get into the game again” when Tom visits later. This illustrates the superficial nature of male interaction; but also that the predictability and consistency inherent to their masculine bond was paramount.

At the end of the shift, the sadness of Don’s situation is forgotten, and the miners horse around inside the showers without a care in the world. This suggests that the men’s mateship unfailingly has to potential to lift each other in times of heartbreak.  Tom’s friendship is resolute, and he waits for Bill “like the good sort he is”, and they go to the pub together “to wash the taste of the underground out of their mouths”.  Bill comments wryly: “In a pub, drinking beer, you don’t have any problems”. Bill remarks on the importance of mateship when he later says: “Tom and I were better off than most because we were together”.

When Tom and Bill’s families are in town later that night, they see a man stagger out of the pub, covered in blood and stumbling, and realised it’s Don Bell. “Who says a ticket makes any difference t’me? Good as I ever was” he yells defiantly. Annie’s utter disgust at this masculine posturing is bluntly mirrored by Bill’s admiration for Don’s defiance at “the whole world and a dirty lung”.

Bill thinks that Annie simply “couldn’t understand” his plight, and he so desperately wants to “touch her” and communicate with her; but he is unable to. Ironically, Bill notes that Annie would perhaps be the only person that would remain by his side if he ever developed a terminal illness or lost his job, and he says: “I got a bit of a shock when I realized that”. This suggests that perhaps marital friendship is the most profound and enduring form of mateship. But the weight of his world rests heavily on Bill’s shoulders, and this has caused him to lose the ability to communicate. Instead, he internalises everything: “I’d grown new ways of thinking, and so had she.”

Contrastingly, mateship is exhibited in ‘Lizards’ as predicated on the shared hatred of an enemy, and devoid of any sense of emotional connection. The story is about a young boy living in the patriarchal shadow of his father and his father’s friends, which pushes the boy into a future of espousing political rhetoric; a destiny he’s uneasy with, as he’s intrinsically a loner. Hill examines the masculine ethos and mateship culture in wartime, and the perceived irrelevance and lack of agency of women in that era. Hill illuminates the extreme ideas that can result from a gang of rabble-rousers fortifying each other’s misguided beliefs; while simultaneously ignoring the tragedy that transpires in their own backyards.  “Lizards” is ultimately a parable about isolation, and a boy’s struggle with his own identity in the absence of meaningful friendships.

The narrator Jack is a boy enamoured with Lizards; enjoying their “liquid movements and apparent adaptability”.  Jack proudly shows these lizards off to his father and his father’s friends, as he has a deep-seated desire to gain their approval. His father and his friends are working class, affiliated with the unions, and they spend their afternoons smugly discussing politics and war: “to listen to some of them there you might have thought they were standing on boxes in the backyard”.  Jack’s mother is never mentioned, apart from being an invisible presence in the background, as signified “when tea was served”. A distinctive Communist undercurrent permeates these gatherings, fueled by the men’s dislike for a government who “wished to lock up people like my dad and his mates”.  Jack only exclusively refers to his dad as a collective with his mates, and never alone as an independent entity. This signifies Jack’s early isolation from his parents.  Contrasting to Casey’s portrayal of mateship as a concept predicated on the caring and support of one another, Hill shapes mateship as stemming from something of a gang mentality: a group of like-minded people united in their shared hatred of a common enemy. Jack asserts that even in times of peace “there was an enemy all right, I still felt that”; indicative of the brainwashing of his father’s posse.

Jack’s childhood is void of any meaningful friendships, apart from his fleeting encounter with Mary who chastises Jack for “torturing” his lizards. His lizards are his constant companions, and they are perpetually “transferred from pocket to collar to another box.” Jack believes he is a benevolent presence in the lizard’s life, and he doesn’t understand why keeping them captive (perhaps analogous to the actions of a tyrant who thinks his decisions are for the greater good of the citizens) are harmful, even when “one by one, my lizards began to die”. Jack’s recognition of the implications of the term “torture”, though not understanding its true meaning, is reflected in his father’s struggle to comprehend the implication of certain dangerous polemical ideas that he espouses without fully comprehending their meaning.

Jack’s isolation continues into young adulthood, but he subverts his natural reclusiveness to fervently defend the “assault on all fronts upon our unions”; indicative of the imprint his father’s communist leanings had on him during his formative years. He finds these intellectual battles stimulating, but the pretense of this existence is evident when he states wryly:

“at the same time the experience was profoundly and unexpectedly tedious, as if I had found myself marching backwards, wearing someone else’s heavy trousers”.

Jack returns home “in order to be real again”. Although he is a confident and formidable force in his everyday life, returning home forces him to face his insatiable need to impress his patriarchal elders (a need for “comradely recognition”), and all his feelings of social inadequacy resurface. Despite his many professional successes, his father and father’s friends still dismiss him as “a small boy, with my future before me”, and cannot exchange anything with him other than superficial small talk. Jack says that he should have known that “seeing his mates again was going to be as painful as anything I had known”.

While the group of men sat around cursing an invisible enemy, they blindly consented to a toxic petrochemical factory to operate in their neighbourhood, and were ironically manipulated by the propaganda that this factory was to be harmless and “remote and grand and gleaming”.  Yet the toxic emissions from these factories are gradually killing Jack’s mother, and she is confined to her bed and dependent on drugs manufactured in these very factories. Jack’s father and friends were always playing the part of Communists “intolerant to Ego”; yet Jack poignantly acknowledges that his mother was genuinely the most “ego-less person I know”.  He spent so much time “in a silent dialogue with my dad and his mates, a dialogue that she…was discouraged from joining, that I find it difficult to get a bearing on her being”. Jack missed out on a meaningful friendship with his mother because of his unquenchable desire to impress his father and follow in his burdensome footsteps. He is haunted by the words “Oh, why do we not say the important things … and we are damned because we do not”.