Exploring the Power Dynamics of Different Characters in David Malouf’s Book Remembering Babylon

November 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

In every relationship, there is always a power play between the different parties involved and that determines the influence they have on each other as well as the those surrounding them. In “Remembering Babylon”, David Malouf employs characterization in the opening chapters to develop the relationships between characters which in turn develop the storyline. In developing this relationship, he ascribes different characters to different positions of power. “Remembering Babylon”, is a fictional work (book) by David Malouf set in mid-nineteenth century Australia. It is centered around an English boy, Gemmy Fairley, who is abandoned on a foreign land and is raised by a group of Aborigines. When white settlers reach the area, he attempts to move back into the world of Europeans. Gemmy wrestles with his own identity as the community of settlers struggle to deal with their fear of the unknown which he represents. David Malouf made power a theme within “Remembering Babylon” by using characters and characterization. He explores this power through identity/culture -which includes language and behavior and race. In this essay, I will be exploring David Malouf’s use of characterization to explore the power dynamic of characters in his book “Remembering Babylon”.

The relationship between Gemmy Fairley and the McIvor Family including Lachlan Beattie, Gemmy Fairley and then white settler community and George Abbot will be analyzed to demonstrate the influence of such power.

When Lachlan Beattie is first introduced in the book, there is an immediate show of his hunger for power. He has devised a game (hunting wolves) in which he keeps two bored girls by using “all his gift for fantasy, and his will too, which was stubborn” (Malouf, 1994, p.1). A stubborn will indicates a yearning to have your choice followed by others. We see a much clearer display of his power drive when he encounters Gemmy. Using his stick as a gun, after Gemmy had fallen helplessly at his feet, Lachlan “captures” Gemmy and takes him back to the town site. Malouf makes it clear from Gemmy’s ability to speak English, as well as showing no intention of attack, that Gemmy is perfectly harmless. “Do not shoot…I am a B-b-British object” (Malouf, 1994, p.3). This begs a question as to why Lachlan felt it necessary to capture Gemmy, rather than simply let him run on or better lead him to the townsite. From Malouf’s vivid description, we see that Lachlan expressing his belief of white dominance of this seemingly black, white person. To Lachlan, “His power lay in your recognizing what he possessed it” (Malouf, 1994, p.33). Thus the only means Lachlan is able to gain recognition and a sense of power in the white settler society is through Gemmy.

After Gemmy has been introduced to the settlers, Malouf shows that Gemmy has a rather poor grasp of the English language and as such, is not regarded as being an Englishman but a white aboriginal, referring to him as “…the white black man” (Malouf, 1994, p. 63). This leads to the McIvors taking Gemmy in, where a power-based relationship is established between him and the McIvor family. This is first seen whereby the McIvor children believe they have a right to Gemmy “They felt a proprietary right to him…” (Malouf, 1994, p. 31). Which, as a consequence allows the children to “…lead him around like a dog” (Malouf, 1994, p. 31). As Gemmy continues his stay with the McIvor family he soon realizes that “…with the pretense of arms…. [in conjunction with] boy’s fearful but fearless stance [which] was, more important than a stick or gun…the power [Lachlan] had laid claim to…” As a result of this it “…had made an indelible impression on him [Gemmy]. This, therefore, leads Gemmy to be “…always ready to appease[Lachlan].” And as a result of this Lachlan feels and knows the power which he holds of Gemmy. Thus, like before, Gemmy allows himself “…the man on an invisible leash…” (Malouf, 1994, p. 32) and as stated above, Lachlan power was all about his physical possession. Gemmy Fairley though described the dim-witted character and had no say in adult matters was the most influential character in David Malouf’s “Remembering Babylon”.

He affected each member of white settlement. Gemmy’s power does not come from an action he makes, or any particular traits he shows. His influence or power is derived from two things one is the fear the white settlers have about the unknown which he, Gemmy, embodies. This included losing their identities and culture as white people because of being far from home. And the second is the relationship he has developed with the land and indigenous people living on it. He feels and senses what the white settlers don’t. Because of Gemmy, the settlers including the McIvor family had to continuously evaluate their positions as a “superior” race. At one point, ask themselves if they could lose it, not just the language [as Gemmy lost him], but it (Malouf, 1994, p.35 – p.36). It is clear that some of the white settlers viewed him as a spy for the Aboriginals and thus suspected every move he made. He [Gemmy] had to move to Mrs. Hutchence’s house to avoid being killed by the settlers having been saved by Jock McIvor previously. But the power of the white settlers on Gemmy led him to believe that there is power in his story written down and held by Mr. Frazer and felt stealing would mean regaining who he is. But losses all when the words on his supposed story get watched away by the rain. Balfour’s uses the Gemmy as a catalyst and a checker to the white settler community and in turn uses the white settlers to destabilize the balanced identity of Gemmy.

Another character whose relation and ideology to power will be examined is George Abbot. He is the schoolmaster to the children of the settlement and is not looking to be a leader or a great man, but is looking for the ability to be of a higher class and thus have power through superiority. He drives himself on being the noble and the higher citizen than the rest of the people he is surrounded by, and thus within his mind he is of a higher social rank, thus gaining the respect of his fellow townspeople through social power. George Abbot is not a character constructed to show a powerful man, but a man craving a different power from the normal Australian. He is aiming for an intellectual power that, while useless in the settler community, gives him what he would consider a mental edge over people he deals with. He resents working with Mr. Frazer as “in his eyes, Mr. Frazer is a fool” (Malouf, 1994, p.15), and he also resents the power Mr. Frazer holds for the same reason. This is seen when the both of them collectively try to write down the life story of Gemmy. He puts “a phrase or two of his own” (Malouf, 1994, p.17). In his mind, power comes from intellectual ability, or at least the power he seeks does. One can draw, that Malouf is using this characters to show power’s influence on us.

The construction of characters as a means of exploring power is a tool actively used by David Malouf in Remembering Babylon, where the reader is presented with several instances in which characters share a relationship with one another based on some form of power. Gemmy representing the unknown leads the white settlers and the McIvor family to evaluate who they were at the same time the influence Gemmy to reexamine who he his as he tries to fit into their society ultimately losing his connection to the land and its people. Lachlan and Janet come back after many years to hoping to find something about Gemmy he could reconcile with because of the impact he had on their lives.

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