The Representation of Landscape in For the Term of His Natural Life and Such is Life

In a discussion of Australian writers of the late nineteenth century, Gerry Turcotte writes: “Their exploration of the anxieties of the convict system, the terrors of isolated stations at the mercy of vagrants and nature, the fear of starvation or of becoming lost in the bush, are distinctly Gothic in effect” (3). Here Turcotte highlights a tendency among late 19th-century Australian writers to use Gothic literary conventions to describe an antagonistic relationship between the Australian landscape and its early European inhabitants. That tendency can be understood more fully by means of a careful consideration of the differences between two representative works: Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life and Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life. For the Term of His Natural Life uses personification to portray the Australian landscape as a hostile presence, complicit in oppressing the imprisoned convicts. In contrast, Such is Life presents a more benign view of the landscape, with its narrator finding the harshness of the Australian bush a source of enlightenment. Though the two novels were written during a similar period in Australian literature, they present two different views of the relationship between the Australian landscape and its early European settlers.Throughout Clarke’s novel, Van Diemen’s Land is described as a “natural penitentiary” with convicts and guards alike the victims of its unforgiving landscape, but this antagonism begins before they have even reached its shores. To the guards and convicts onboard the Malabar, the sea is terrifyingly human:When the sea hisses, it speaks, and speech breaks the spell of terror; when it is inert, heaving noiselessly, it is dumb, and seems to brood over mischief. (Clarke 58)The actual island is no more welcoming. At the start of Book 2, the narrator gives a long and detailed description of the landscape in a chapter titled “The Topography of Van Diemen’s Land.” Included is a description of Macquarie Harbour, where the convicts will soon be imprisoned:The air is chill and moist, the soil prolific only in prickly undergrowth and noxious weeds, while fetid exhalations from swamp and fen cling close to the humid, spongy ground. All around breathes desolation; on the face of nature is stamped a perpetual frown. (Clarke 96)These two passages show Clarke’s characterization of the landscape as an antagonist. Clarke gives the sea the ability to “hiss” and “speak” and to “brood over mischief,” and he gives nature a face stamped by “a perpetual frown,” personifying the landscape as an evil and malign presence, a characterization that is distinctly Gothic in its evocation of an atmosphere of horror and dread.This landscape is particularly threatening to convicts that try to escape. That effect is shown in several episodes throughout the novel, the first being the return of the prisoner Gabbett from “the gloomy depths of that forest which had vomited him forth again” (Clarke 110) after he and several others attempt an escape. The horrors that occur with Gabbett and the others in the forest is hinted at several times throughout the novel before being finally revealed as cannibalism toward the end of the novel in chapter 56, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death.” This episode shows the landscape reducing humanity to one of its lowest possible circumstances: people eating each other in order to survive.Dawes is reminded of the impossibility of escape during his own attempt when he discovers the mutilated corpse left behind by Gabbett:Escape was hopeless now. He never could escape; and as the unhappy man raised his despairing eyes, he saw that the sun, redly sinking behind a lofty pine which topped the opposite hill, shot a ray of crimson light into the glade below him. It was as though a bloody finger pointed at the corpse which lay there. (Clarke 129)Again the landscape is personified as an antagonistic presence, this time preventing Dawes from escaping. He leaves the corpse and escapes from the forest only to find that the sea, “crawling at his feet, seemed to grin at him with a thin-lipped, hungry mouth” (Clarke 130). This personification of the landscape implies that even if the convicts escape the brutalities of their guards, they will still have the equally hostile landscape to contend with. This portrayal of the landscape as an evil and antagonistic force contrasts with the portrayal of the landscape in Such is Life. Furphy’s novel, like Clarke’s, inherits several of the Romantic Period’s literary conventions, but aside from occasional exceptions, these are in the Wordsworthian tradition rather than the Gothic. To Tom, the narrator, the landscape “bespeaks an unconfined, ungauged potentiality of resource; it unveils an ideographic prophecy, painted by nature in her Impressionist mood” (Furphy 65). Tom describes the landscape as a source of optimism: though he and the other characters struggle to survive in a drought-stricken landscape governed by property laws hostile to the needs of the common drover, this challenge is fundamental to Tom’s sense of identity. As he says in a moment of reflection while contemplating a tract of harsh scrubland on his way to visit Rory O’Halloran’s property: “It is not on our cities or townships, it is not in our agricultural or mining areas, that the Australian attains full consciousness of his own nationality; it is in places like this” (Furphy 65).So where Clarke’s characters are oppressed by a hostile landscape, Furphy’s Tom is buoyed by the beauty he sees in the natural world around him; where Tom finds contemplating the landscape to be a source of enlightenment, Clarke shows the landscape of Van Diemen’s Land reducing people to cannibalism. The two novels represent differing responses to the landscape from two writers of a similar period in Australian literature, but both show the influence of the literary conventions of the Romantic Period. Clarke uses a distinctly Gothic portrayal of the landscape as a hostile and brooding presence to emphasize the injustices of the convict system, while Furphy presents a Wordsworthian portrayal of a benign and spiritually enlightening landscape to show a harmonious relationship between the land and its early Australian settlers. ReferencesClarke, M. (2009): For the Term of His Natural Life. Camberwell, Victoria.: Penguin Group.Furphy, J. (1999): Such is Life. Ultimo, NSW.: Halstead Press.Turcotte, G. (1998): “Australian Gothic.” Retrieved from http://ro.uow.edu.au/artspapers/60.