Cloudstreet Analysis: Place and Identity in Winton’s Narrative

Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (1991) is a fantastical and vivid exploration of the lives of the 20th century ‘Aussie battlers’ whose reputations fabricated the Australian identity present in today’s society. The novel resonates the idea that this identity was forged through hardship, tragedy, faith and luck in a country shaped by injustice. I believe that a critical analysis of the text provides a window for true understanding of its multidimensional nature, as it incorporates magical realism and a deep sense of spirituality that highlight the importance of unity and social cohesion of the multitude of characters. We learn vicariously through these characters who share traits we inherently possess and lives we can relate to. The formulation of a sense of place amidst changing times in a landscape mirroring the emotions and mental state of the people is expressed through a uniquely idiomatic Australian vernacular. This produces meaning and cohesion that flows in a logical sequence of events, primarily through dual narration from Fish Lamb, a man split between two worlds.

Winton uses his text to portray a unique view of the lives of two very different Australian families through an unlikely paradox. Existential ideas about self are explored through dual narration by Fish Lamb. Although Fish is intellectually disabled in reality, he transcendentally can see into the minds of all the characters and feel what they feel. This causes him to be the most clear sighted, omniscient figure in the novel in a deeply spiritual sense. Fish is caught between two worlds, the temporal and the metaphysical, “It’s like Fish is stuck somewhere. Not the way all the living are stuck in time and space; he’s in another stuckness altogether”. Since the near drowning in his childhood which tore his two halves of consciousness apart, Fish has longed to return to the water, a recurring motif throughout the novel. The water symbolises healing of not only fish, but of his whole broken family. The whole novel can be depicted as a memory sequence in the moments before he returns to the river and drowns healing his broken spirit. The prequel alludes to the end of the novel and how the transcendent Fish will be the primary narrator; the next four hundred pages are caught in a moment, where Fish tells his story and concludes with his two spirits aligning in a moment of clarity. This final moment is conveyed through magical realism as the two narrative voices become one, “I feel my manhood, I recognise myself whole and human…and I’m Fish Lamb for those seconds it takes to die, as long as it takes to drink the river, as long as it took to tell you all this.” This dualistic narrative technique gives Cloudstreet cohesion and flow, with Fish’s story at the epicentre of all occurrences, as he can relate the feelings and desires of every character through a spiritual connectivity with their souls. The use of this technique causes the reader to develop a deeper understanding of the minds of the characters and their struggles as they find their place in the new Australia.

The landscape and architecture are reflective of the emotional states of each of the members of the two families living in the ‘great continent of a house’, that is number one Cloudstreet and of the wider population. This objective correlative is significant as it creates layers of meaning that are reflective of the whole of Australia not exclusively the microcosm of the Pickles and Lambs. The land of Australia had been stolen from the Indigenous people; they were kicked off their land, killed, reduced to slaves and rejected by society. The continent is riddled with guilt from past wrongs and the horrors inflicted upon the Aboriginal people are exposed through a small, dark room at the heart of Cloudstreet. The room contains the spirit of an Aboriginal slave girl who committed suicide within its walls; her spirit gives the house a haunting life as it moans and groans as she is split between life and death. Winton uses this to portray the importance of reconciliation between white people and the Aboriginals; her spirit cannot be set free until there is union and apologies for past injustices. This indigenous connection forms a basis for much of the novel as many events centre in this room, especially for Fish who as the transcendent narrator can hear the voice of the girls’ trapped spirit as he plays the piano in the room. “Fish lamb clumps the piano, but all that comes from it is the thick unending drone middle C”; This is a metaphor for the relationship between indigenous and white Australians as we try to coexist after unjustly inflicted hardship, trying to progress but stuck between our past and our future, alike the note middle C, neither treble nor bass.

The articulation and diction of the voices of the characters allows them to speak for themselves and for the many different views and perceptions of reality to be communicated. The belief that ‘Lady Luck’ and the ‘shifty Shadow’ have an influence on the events of our lives is expressed by Sam as his choices are based off if he can feel the presence of ‘Lady Luck’, “Luck bounces from one person to another”. This belief in a higher power often results in consequences for Sam as he is an avid gambler who loses everything his family has multiple times which causes significant heartbreak and struggle. The reality of Sam’s addiction and personality is relatable to audiences of all times and this brings his character to life. Juxtaposing this view of reality is the characterisation of Oriel, her self-determination, loyalty to her family and hardworking attitude is the driving force behind her family pushing through times of hardship. Her matriarchal control only wavers when she loses fish and her faith in a higher power is diminished, “Since Fish I’ve been losing the war. I’ve lost my bearins.” The psychological exploration of each of these characters who are wounded by hardship gives an aura of realism and relatability that makes Cloudstreet a significant representation of the enduring struggles of the Australian people through every generation.

Through Tim Winton’s novel, the reader gains insight into the lives of the people who built the foundations for the Australian identity we are proud of today. This identity was forged through hardship, faith and luck in a country that did not belong to us and could not fully progress until past wrongdoings had been reconciled. The importance of unity and social cohesion is emphasised throughout the episodes in the novel and the contribution of each individual in building society is acknowledged. Through a critical analysis of Cloudstreet, I have personally gained a greater insight into what it means to be Australian and made aware of the plethora of individual responses to hardship and personal struggle, consequently further developing my understanding of the human condition.

Finding their Place in Society: The Characters of Cloudstreet

It doesn’t take very long for your life to change forever. The characters of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet are a testament to this, most significantly, Oriel and Quick Lamb, two individuals who had found their place in society. Oriel was the wife of an ANZAC, a farm person, and a “Godfearing” woman. Quick was admittedly the inferior to his brother in looks, intelligence, and likability, a fact that he accepted contently. Following the event of Fish’s revival and subsequent disability, and the move from farm-life to the city, both Oriel and Quick are geographically and emotionally displaced. Oriel struggles to fulfill her role as a mother to a child that doesn’t recognize her, and to feel at home in a house that does not accept her. Quick experiences difficulty in overcoming his survivor’s guilt and in finding a location that provides the same sense of comfort that the farm once did. Quick and Oriel begin their personal journeys to understand the ever-changing world around them and their place within it, an enduring need that plagues them over the twenty-year course of the saga. It is to a great extent that Winton explores this.

Oriel Lamb’s need to find her place in society begins in her youth. After a fire decimated her family and her home, she suffers the same survivor’s guilt that plagues Quick: “Oh how she hated to be a survivor, to be left… she was a leftover from some other time…” The word leftover is particularly powerful within this quote because it exemplifies the lack of connection that Oriel had to the world around her, and this continues through to her adulthood, after Fish’s death and revival. Once brought back to life by his mother, Fish is unable to recognize her. Oriel’s motherhood to Fish ultimately disappears, becoming only memories. This event displaces her immensely, as it is clear that she can no longer belong to the life she once had, and it spurs within her a need to find her place in society once more.

As the Lamb family make the difficult move from the farm to the city, Oriel struggles to feel a geographical sense of belonging. Winton characterizes the hard-working mother as the “sergeant-major” of the successful Cloudstreet shop, which emotionally detaches her from the home itself, and this is further demonstrated when she moves her belongings from the house into a tent in the backyard, in an attempt to find a sense of personal place.

The darkness from Cloudstreet’s past that had kept the stubborn Oriel from fully connecting to the home, however, is finally released with the birth of Quick and Rose’s son, Harry. Oriel begins to soften, allowing herself to feel a sense of belonging to the place that had been her residence for twenty years, stating figuratively that she “found herself needing the walls to hold her upright”. In an effort to convince Sam not to sell the house, she spoke in a tone of endearment, “you might say I’ve come to love this awful old house… We’re halfway to belongin here”. This quote suggests that Oriel has found her place in society, but in fact, it is a need that endures. Oriel remains in the tent until the carefully constructed cyclical end of the saga. With the passing of the child that she couldn’t be a mother to, Oriel is set free, able to move on from her past and connect fully to her home, Cloudstreet, and the people within it: “The little boxy woman and the big blowsy woman folded end to end till the tent was a parcel… then they went back inside the big old house whose door stood open…”

Quick begins his process of searching for belonging young, as his mother was, and before he even arrives at Cloudstreet, his old home and self nostalgically referred to as “his old life”. After having such a close connection with his brother, losing part of him when “not all of Fish Lamb had come back” only intensified the effect of Fish’s death upon the guilt-ridden Quick, and magnified his struggle to find a sense of place. This struggle is only further exemplified in the move to Cloudstreet: “In the new house, Quick has a room of his own for the first time in his life, and he’s not real sure how he likes it.” The monosyllabic rhythm of the line emphasizes monotony and the lack of emotion and connection that Quick is feeling in regard to his new physical situation.

Quick eventually decides to leave Cloudstreet in search of the familiar comfort that his farm life had once provided. Winton dedicates many episodes to Quick’s life in the bush, indicating that much has happened and time has passed, but the distance from Fish doesn’t eradicate the accountability he holds, or allow him to feel a sense of place. It is with a figurative statement that this is clearly defined: “he was miserable, lost, drifting, tired and homesick as a dog.” Drawn back to Cloudstreet to find reconciliation, Quick finally recognizes a sense of physical belonging, as the house assumes ownership of him, “Cloudstreet had a hold on him”.

At this stage of the novel, Winton has developed Quick’s character considerably. Quick has an understanding of who he is and where he belongs, which is significant because it draws attention to the fact that he still has not yet found his place in society. To fulfill that enduring need, Quick continued to search. It is not until he discovers the lifeless body of a young boy in a river that his story comes full circle, and he is able to let go of the guilt that had been tormenting him since Fish: “that boy he’d been… trying not to weep over in front of a crowd. He’d seen himself, Harry, Fish in that dead boy’s face.” After this incident, Quick realizes “There’s no monsters, only people like us.” This liberation allows him to move on with his life, and find his sense of place in society, within his family and at his home of Cloudstreet, concluded metaphorically, “Quick felt safe here, he felt within his boundaries.”

Within Cloudstreet, Tim Winton has characterized Oriel and Quick Lamb as both a parallel and a foil to each other. The idleness of Quick juxtaposes the absolute order of Oriel. Oriel’s stoic front contrasts Quick’s sensitivity. These two individuals, however, share an enduring need to find their place in society, one that stems from, and ends with, Fish. Winton explores this greatly within his episodic saga, the cyclical nature of it drawing attention to the reality that lives can change in a matter of seconds… the seconds it takes Fish Lamb to die.

Family and Identity within Cloudstreet

It is through Tim Winton’s primary characters, including Quick and Rose, as well as the manipulation of other literary elements that concepts such as family and identity are explored within Cloudstreet (1991).

The concept of family is universal to any time period, and Tim Winton’s honest approach to exploring family life within Cloudstreet has ensured the novel’s lasting value to an Australian audience. Winton clearly presents two very different families with contrasting values: the Pickles and the Lambs. Rose and Quick within these families demonstrate a lack of belonging to Cloud street, which is why they are essential in revealing the growth and change that the Pickles and Lambs experience over the twenty-year course of the text. Quick’s survivors guilt following Fish’s near death leaves him lost and with low self-esteem, his connection with his family completely detached, “Jesus I hate this family stuff. It makes me sick. I don’t need this.” The truncated sentences and simple syntax reflect Quick’s poor education and lower-class upbringing, and his rejection of emotion is very similar to that of his hard-hearted mother, Oriel, with whom he has an ever-maturing relationship. Rose’s relationship with her mother is far more unpleasant, however, as she hyperbolically exaggerates her hatred to hurt Dolly, “Hating you is the best part of being alive.” Through Winton’s utilisation of saga, it can be seen that this relationship does change, and Rose ultimately forgives Dolly, “Rose Lamb got up out of her chair, put a knee up on the bed, hoisted herself, and felt the sobs beating up at her from the body beneath… the two women wept together on the sagging bed.” Alliteratively, “women wept” softens the kinesthetic image that physically connects mother and daughter, reflective of the improving relationship between the two. Due to their improved family ties, both Rose and Quick finally feel a sense of belonging to Cloud street, “I can’t bear to think of any of us leaving. We belong to it, Quick, and I want to stay.” Rose demonstrates that the house has ownership over her and Quick, and by choosing not to leave Cloud street, the couple ultimately strengthen and assure their positive relationship with their families, of which will last for many years to come.

The growth of Rose and Quick over the course of the novel, both physically as they age from children to adults and emotionally as they discover their true sense of identity, is enabled due to Winton’s utilisation of saga and his fragmented episodic structure. The episode “The Dance” depicts Quick morose and depressed due to his survivor’s guilt, pinning horrific pictures from the Korean War to “the flaky wall to remind himself that he is alive, he is lucky, he is healthy, and his brother is not.” Descriptive language and cumulative listing emphasise the intensity of Quick’s “misery radar”, which quickly become a defining feature of his identity. It is not until he discovers the lifeless body of a young boy in a river that his story comes full circle, and Winton employs flashback to exemplify the far-reaching impact of the event upon Quick’s identity: “The Nedland’s Monster, the face of evil. That was his son he’d been holding, trying not to weep over in front of a crowd. He’d seen himself, Harry, Fish in that dead boy’s face.” After this incident, Quick realises “There’s no monsters, only people like us” and this liberation allows him to let go of the guilt that had been tormenting him since Fish, ultimately coming to peace with himself. Rose’s struggle to come to terms with her own identity differs from Quick’s as she is more articulate and is better able to communicate her feelings. The characteristically strong and pragmatic woman begins to question herself only when she is compared to other, higher class individuals, “Toby’s friends painted and sculpted or wrote… they spoke with their heads back and their eyes closed and their accents were Englishy.” Winton utilises Australian vernacular in this quote to represent Rose’s connection to Australian culture in her struggle to discover her true identity amongst Toby’s friends. As a cynic, Rose ultimately recognises the superficiality of Toby’s friends and rejects them, just as Australian culture has embraced its own, unique identity and moved away from its English heritage. The importance of Cloudstreet to Australian society is thus once again cemented as it manages to acknowledge Australian cultural history through the universal struggle of individual identity.

Thus, it can be seen that Winton utilises various literary elements to illustrate an authentic portrayal of family and identity, and one particularly pertaining to his Australian audience.

Hardship and Resilience within Cloudstreet

The unique language features of the Cloudstreet (1991), as well as Tim Winton’s characterization and inclusion of contextual elements of Australian history, ultimately create a novel that is embedded within Australian society and is of everlasting value. This is pertinent to the exploration of themes such as poverty and hardship, and the resilient fight for hope and optimism despite such difficulty.

Winton’s portrayal of the Aussie Battler, through the Pickles and Lambs and in particular his characterization of Sam and Oriel, greatly appeals to an Australian audience as something that they can ultimately relate to. The poverty and hardship that both the Pickles and Lambs face over the twenty-year course of the text are highlighted through Winton’s use of saga, as the extreme length of the tribulation is made known. The struggles of the Lambs and Pickles reflect the difficulties of all Australians following WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII, as many Australian families were forced to leave their farms and their old lives in search of employment in the city to avoid destitution. The value of Cloudstreet as a novel is thus reassured as it appeals to the stories and difficulties of those whose experiences resemble the Lambs and the Pickles. Although Sam is fortunate enough to live in the city and have a job working at the mint, his impulsive and gambling nature ensures that he and his family continue to live through penury, “There’s no money, love. We haven’t got a nail to hang our arses on.” The metaphor of “haven’t got a nail to hang our arses on” exemplifies the brutality of the hardship and poverty that the Pickles family is facing, and the use of dry humor reflects the Australian way of coping with it. Profanity also achieves this same effect and identifies the immense impact of ongoing indigence upon Sam’s character through, “I didn’t go through a fuckin’ depression and a war to see my children turn their nose up at food.” Oriel’s childhood hardship, unlike Sam’s, had less to do with food and money and more to do with being strong in the wake of her family’s death, “My father remarried after my mother died… they had a whole squad of babies after they married… I brought them up… I raised her family.” Oriel reflects upon the long-lasting impact of her personal struggles with a nostalgic and pensive tone, demonstrating its significant influence upon her life and later relationships with her own family members, especially as a mother. Winton has characterized Oriel as stoic, but masking a fragile and pained interior, and this comes through with her quiet reminiscence upon an undoubtedly terrible time in her life.

Just as Winton explores poverty and hardship, so too does he present a fight for hope, resilience and optimism despite difficulty, and this is most clearly evident through his characterization of Oriel and Lester Lamb. Lester compares the Lambs’ poverty to that of the Pickles’ but determines the distinct difference between their resilience and resolve, “They’re broke, darl. They’re poor as us. And lazy- look at ‘em, waiting for the boat to come in.” An Australian idiom demonstrates the Lambs’ refusal to allow the hardship to overcome them and Winton implements Australian vernacular to further characterize them as stereotypical “Aussie Battlers”, ensuring their relatability and significance to an Australian audience. Lester’s hope and optimism materializes into an ingenious idea, “We’ll use the front room out there for a shop. God knows there’s enough room. It won’t hurt us to use some of it for enterprise.” It is Oriel’s strength of character, however, that is ultimately displayed after she takes on Lester’s plan, “Even if you couldn’t see those meaty little arms and the sexless ashen bob and the sensible boots on her… there wasn’t a chance you’d escape the sound of her sending the family about its business. People started to call her the sergeant major and they observed the way the shop came to life at the sound of her drill yell.” The war analogy demonstrates the effect of tribulations upon Oriel’s personality, as well as representing the long-lasting impact of living through multiple wars on the Australian identity. This can be further recognized through Winton’s utilization of saga, which illuminates the length of the hardship that Australia faced and emphasizes the optimism and resilience that is embedded into Australian culture.

Hence, the nature of poverty and hardship, and the resilience of the Pickles and the Lamb families is one distinctly explored within Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet.

Spirituality within Cloudstreet

One of the most significant themes explored within Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet is spirituality, and the novel reflects a wide range of differing spiritualities, including the belief in luck and chance, religion, as well as exploring Australian history through Aboriginal spirituality.

As an increasingly diverse and multi-faith nation, Cloudstreet reflects Australia’s changing belief systems and growing secularism, particularly prevalent to its 1940’s-1960’s context. Following the absolute horrors of WWI and WWII, many previously religious individuals began to become disillusioned with their faith. The Lambs are a testament to this, as Fish’s near-death experience prompts them to disregard their belief in God, religious allusion clearly identifying this, “No one believes anymore: the disappointment has been too much.” After “The Lambs of God” could no longer be applied to his name, Lester struggled to completely disconnect from his faith and sought spirituality in knife spinning, “The knife never lies, you know… It always knows best.” The theme of luck and chance arises within this quote and it is an understanding that Lester shares with Sam, who blames his impulsive and irresponsible behavior on “the shadow”, a recurring motif within the text: ““Well the shadow was on him, the Hairy Hand of God, and he knew that being a man was the saddest, most useless thing that could happen to someone.” Winton’s utilization of episodic structure allows each differing spirituality to be showcased and compared to that of others, demonstrating the increasing diversity of faith within society. In representing relevant spiritual issues within Cloudstreet, Winton enables the novel to be able to connect to a wide variety of individuals with varying beliefs and increases the value of the text as a whole.

Spirituality in Cloudstreet is most distinctly explored through the characterization and experiences of Fish. Divided into Spiritual Fish and Physical Fish, the character acts as the narrator for the text and the entirety of the saga is told within the seconds of his dying breaths, “I’m Fish Lamb for those seconds it takes to die, as long as it takes to drink the river, as long as it took to tell you this.” The anaphora of “as long as” exemplifies the length of the saga and allows the novel to come full circle. Before his final release in the river at the end of the novel, Fish consistently yearned for “the water”, and his spiritual approach to it became a passionate devotion, “…he’s hungry for the water, he wants it more than ever.” The motif of the water is ultimately a metaphor for Fish’s release through death, which he thirsts for ever since “only half of [Fish Lamb] came back”. It is only through death that the Physical Fish and Spiritual Fish can be united, and the cyclical narrative can reach its end. Fish’s spirituality, and ability to connect with other spiritual beings such as ghosts and the pig, eventually lends itself to other characters. Much to Lester’s surprise, he recognizes Fish’s communication with the anthropomorphic pig: “The flamin pig. The pig has just spoken. It’s no language that he can understand but there’s no doubt.” Magic realism is depicted through this quote and Lester eventually determines his own understanding of the pig as “Pentecostal”, thus connecting it to his own Christian faith.

The spirituality of Cloud street, the “living breathing house”, is made most apparent through Winton’s introduction of Aboriginal spirituality. Drawing upon Aboriginal social issues of assimilation and racism, which increase the value of the text to an Australian and Aboriginal audience, Winton provides a dark history of Cloud street, “Girls were procured and the house filled. She aimed to make ladies of them so they could set a standard for the rest of their sorry race… the mission girls climbed into bed with one another at night and cried.” This foreshadows Fish’s many negative experiences in the house, particularly in the library, as well as his cries and pain from his communications with the ghosts in that room. Winton further presents Aboriginal spirituality through the character of the Aboriginal man, who interacts with Quick and Sam, and watches over Cloud street in an attempt to rid the negative spirits that reside in it, “Down the street, looking up with bloodshot eyes, a dark, woolly man stands with a stick, beating it slowly against his knee, humming under his breath until the dusk claims him and the library goes back to being vile and dark and fluid.” The negative connotations in this figurative language reinforce the dark history and spirituality that is within Cloud street, which is eternally released with the birth of Wax Harry, “The spirits on the wall are fading, fading, finally being forced on their way to oblivion… freeing the house.” Winton employs cyclical narration to juxtapose the beginning and end of the negative spirituality within Cloudstreet: the spirits awaken with a death in the library and are finally freed from the library with a birth.

In conclusion, Cloudstreet successfully represents the various belief systems within Australian society through the differing personalities of its characters, and thus reflects the nature of Australian society as a whole.