Last Updated 27 Jan 2021

Secret River

Category Culture
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Shaira Sanchez 05/09/12 Shaira Sanchez 05/09/12 The Secret River by Kate Grenville Essay Explain the way that narrative devices have been employed by an author to construct a representation of people or places in at least one text that you have studied. You must make specific reference to “The Secret River. ” One of Australia’s finest writers Kate Grenville wrote The Secret River which challenges traditional gender roles of women in the early nineteenth century London and Australia.

The novel has challenged the female stereotype in a patriarchal society through the strong female character of Sal Thornhill. Sal has been the brains of her family through their tough times in London and their settlement in Sydney. Sal is the wife of William Thornhill, a convict. The memory of how the gentry treated Thornhill pushed him to work himself up into the foreign land of Australia to become like that gentleman he had served once back in London, in the water of Thames–the one with the power and the one who looked down on him who represents the working class.

His determination to set off a space for himself in the foreign land eventually placed him and some of the settlers in direct opposition to the Aboriginal people by their desire to finally have control on their own lives. The use of a wide range of narrative devices in The Secret River has vividly taken the readers back to the nineteenth century where power and wealth determines a man’s position in the society. Sal Thornhill has been constructed in The Secret River as a strong female character who challenges traditional gender roles in the early nineteenth century–mainly when women were biologically, socially and intellectually inferior.

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Although Sal was raised in a quite comfortable lifestyle, she still has managed to cope with the tragic events in her life as a mother and as a wife. We see through Thornhill’s limited omniscient point of view that Sal would have to “brighten herself up” because they both knew that Sal would have to offer her service in the cold streets of London to support her family’s financial needs, while Thornhill was convicted for theft. Sal’s staggering sacrifices did not just end in London.

Her character even became stronger when they settled in a place that nothing Thornhill had ever seen–where “trees were tortured formless things” that looked half dead and when Christmas was during the hot days of summer. Women in that time were normally perceived as housekeepers and child-bearers. However, Sal did not just take care of her family emotionally and physically, but financially as well “At the end of each week Sal would count up the takings, from Thornhill’s work on the water and from her own selling liquor, and hide them away in a box. ” which is evident through the descriptive language used.

As a migrant myself, I understood Sal’s attitude towards the new environment that she was in. It wasn’t a part of her plan, but she accepted the circumstances and lived with it half-heartedly. Although her heart was always reminding her of ‘Home’, her mind and body still endured the harsh conditions, all for her family. It wasn’t the usual approach of women back in the nineteenth century to stand up for her family instead of the husband. However, Sal’s character was constructed to challenge the representation of women during that time by being the provider and the child-bearer all at once.

Sal, her family, and the other settlers encountered the ‘otherness’ once they arrived in Sydney–which had two different representations as a race in The Secret River. Australia was not an empty land when the Thornhills and the white settlers arrived. They were not expecting people living in that type of place for thousands of years. These people were as strange as the place through the settlers’ perception. There was one who hung about the Thornhills’ hut and entertained them, dressed only with a faded-pink bonnet on his head in trade for food and a sip of rum.

They called him Scabby Bill who represents the ‘visible’ natives. His drunkenness and his appearance symbolises the detrimental impact of colonialism to the Aboriginals. The other sort of native were the ‘invisible’ ones who stayed away from the settlement. They were represented through Long Jack’s strong character. The settlers did not initially affect them, but they saw them as “snakes or the spiders, not something that could be guarded against” which symbolises as a threat to their dreams. The blacks, on the other hand had a different view of what the settlers referred to as ‘stealing’.

Their belief is that nobody owns the land, not them, not the settlers. This clash of beliefs has lead to the novel’s climax, the massacre, where the ‘invisible’ became ‘visible’. The way Thornhill addresses the natives and were given English names symbolises Thornhill’s attitude being Eurocentric. Thornhill did not want to be engaged to the natives, but he himself implanted the European traditions on them. The settlers did not have the same beliefs towards the blacks, just like the natives were to them which also lead to two different representations–one that respects the ‘otherness’ and one that doesn’t.

A huge contrast in the characters was made in the novel between Blackwood and Smasher. Blackwood was described as a huge deep and silent man who had “a rough dignity about him”. He believed in the concept of “give a little, take a little” in terms of dealing with the blacks. While Smasher’s appearance was constructed as “a naked-looking face without eyebrows” and always craves for attention that is evident through his dialogue that he had “not seen the event (rage) personally” but spreads the story anyway. He believed in the concept of ‘whips and biters’. There was no single respect that was given to the blacks from Smasher.

Of all the characters, Blackwood has the greatest knowledge and appreciation of the Aboriginals and even lived with an Aboriginal woman and had a child. Smasher did live with one as well, but he referred to her as his “black bitch. ” Although the settlers had the same hopes of finding a better life in Australia, they still ended up on two different paths due to the contrast on their attitude towards the Aboriginals. William Thornhill’s character was not constructed consistently in The Secret River as his attitudes and values towards Australia and the Aboriginals changed throughout the novel.

Through Thornhill’s limited omniscient point of view, we sympathise with him by the way the gentry treated him as a waterman in the lower class. He had worked hard but his efforts were not appreciated, thus, pushed him to steal that lead him in his deportation to Australia. Thornhill and the majority of the convicts found a hope for a better life in Australia. It was what they have always longed for–to own a land, to finally have something they can call their own. Thornhill’s change n values was revealed through his dialogue, “Forgetting your manners are you, Dan Oldfield” he said to an old friend who he chose as one his servants. He became hungry for power and authority when he had a taste on what it was like to be on top of the others: on top of his fellow settlers, on top of the Aboriginals.

Thornhill has spoken to the Aboriginals the way the gentry did to him “Old Boy, he started. He fancied the sound of that. ” Thornhill and some of settlers saw the blacks as a hindrance to their one last chance to achieve their ultimate dream, like when Sagitty suggested to “get them before they get us. He has been successful in this goal but behind the high walls of his ‘villa’, was an unfulfilled William Thornhill after losing his friends and ultimately, his son Dick, who sympathise to the indigenous way of life. He became like the gentry, but not quite. He possessed the land, the house, the servants, but not the respect. The scars of his past were embedded on his name–William Thornhill, who was once a waterman, illiterate and an ex-convict. The Secret River has diverse representations of gender, class and race that have been successfully constructed in each character through the use of narrative devices.

Sal represents those women who stood up for their family, in spite of the tagged inferiorities built by the society through the years especially in the nineteenth century and the earlier times. Scabby Bill and Long Jack represent the two different approach of their race on colonisation of the Europeans. Their values differ, just as the settlers’ views had towards them. Blackwood amongst all the others respects the Aboriginals, while Smasher had no heart for these people and treated them like animals.

William Thornhill as the novel’s protagonist did not have a certain representation. His whole character was constructed based on his life back in London that resulted in a change of values as he found himself flourishing in his new ‘Home’. This novel lets the readers engage themselves in each of the representations effectively through Thornhill’s limited omniscient point of view. We tend to judge the differences in gender, in every class and in every race through what the society has already built on people as time goes by.

However, Kate Grenville gave us a wider view of how each of these people ended up the way they were before, and the way they are in present time. As a migrant myself, I can compare myself with Sal, above all the characters. Migration wasn’t a part of our plan, but if that leads us to a better life, why not endure the circumstances? At the end of the day, every sacrifice and effort will be worth it. However, I believe that I will never end up the way Thornhill had– a wealthy man with a ‘villa’, without a peace of mind.

Secret River essay

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