Fly Away Peter and the Role of Natural Environments
In David Malouf’s novel Fly Away Peter, several key ideas are introduced by being paired with the natural environments that surround the central character Jim. Malouf presents the ideas of the horror of war and the destructive nature of humanity, demonstrating how such aggression affects the natural environment. In doing so, Malouf creates a series of binaries or opposites, contrasting characters and the world around them. The most extreme example of these binaries is innocence contrasted with experience, which is a predominant feature within the characters that interact with Jim throughout the novel. This contrast becomes obvious within the natural environments (grassy, mountainous environment to muddy ditch) as well as how the characters interact: the mutual respect of the sanctuary compared to the defacing of the European battlegrounds. Furthermore the symbolic use of birds in the novel constructs a heavy contrast, with Malouf transitioning from colourful, harmonious birds to bleak imagery of crows overhead. In the three settings of the book (“the sanctuary”, the “quiet section of the front,” and in the trenches) Malouf presents his key ideas through the changes in natural environment.
Malouf initially depicts a peaceful and beautiful natural environment: “the sanctuary.” This is a place where Jim is happy and safe, as if in a second home, and through powerful imagery, Malouf builds an image of paradise. This paradise is free from any harm or suffering, a clear reference to the biblical Garden of Eden. It is made immediately clear that the sanctuary is a beautiful place, “the land in that area gradually rising towards far, immensely blue mountains”, clearly using imagery to captivate the audiences into Malouf’s construction of a perfect place – representing the innocence of Ashley and Jim. Within paradise is peace, with “each section supported it’s own bird life; territorial borders..which the birds were free to cross, but didn’t”. This is paired with the description of beautiful birds and has the effect of building the basis of a powerful contrast, in that case identical to that of a tragedy. It is during Jim’s time working near the sanctuary that he finds out about the war breaking out, which Malouf uses to show the innocence of the youth who are queuing up to enlist which contrasts Miss Harcourt’s knowledge of experience, initially described as “angry” at the idea of Jim leaving to go to war, however she later makes an effort to appear indifferent about it, even to the point of reassuring him that she will “hold the fort”, showing the immense care she has for Jim. In terms of the key ideas however, it serves to show that nature is beautiful without the terrors of war tearing it apart and how it manages to maintain this beauty and peace by not being afflicted by human nature, which later tarnishes the European towns with war; turning beauty to muddy, horrible battlegrounds – a progressive change presented by Malouf.
The following section shows Jim’s life drifting out of control as he feels the world “tilting him” towards the “mouth of hell” and occurs while the company of troops spends some time at the “quiet section of the front”, serving to introduce many aspects of both plot and key ideas through the introduction of experience; a transitional point between environments and sections of Jim’s life, where for the first time Jim is forced to “suppress his black rage”. This section is an introduction to the blatant and raw contrast that will be presented in the third section of the novel, with it being quickly established that it is surrounded in “local people whose farms had been where the war now was” however despite evacuating, life must resume for the locals. Therefore, this section is critical in Malouf’s development and presentation of his key ideas. In order to instigate the building of the idea of the horror of war, Malouf begins to foreshadow terrible things for these soldiers, “These wagons had once taken cattle up to the slaughter house”, also acting as a simile as the wagon ride was an inbetween stage for the cattle at one stage. When Jim arrives, Jim sees locals who, while peaceful, are described as having hostile mannerisms, “They hadn’t left and they weren’t all that grateful for their land being defended from invaders”. These early minor characters are key in the highlighting of the innocence contrasting experience idea as they are the first characters Malouf writes about that have personally witnessed the true horror of war and the barbaric nature of humanity; the nature that they rely so heavily on with their farms have been trampled and destroyed beyond resurrection, clearly outlining the true horror of war that these people have experienced. However, this only adds to the foreshadowing nature of the text.
Malouf presents an opposite view of the sanctuary as he describes Jim’s journey into “the mouth of hell” – the battleground trenches. Once again Malouf utilizes a wide variety of techniques to contrast the two major environments and in turn, highlight the idea of war and nature. Furthermore, this is the section of the novel where Jim’s innocence leaves him and he realises just how horrible the place he is in is. Malouf describes the world around Jim as being mad, as if the ground Jim stands on is dying from the fighting occurring on top of it, “duckboards were a foot under water…a whole earth wall had fallen”, it is made to seem as if the world around Jim is giving up and collapsing. “Jim saw that he had been living, till he came here, in a state of dangerous innocence”, in this Malouf finally reveals the true horror of war and the experience that comes from it – Jim witnesses his friend Clancy being obliterated by a “minnie” along with the removal of Eric’s legs which reacts powerfully with the audience. With the Earth giving way around him and the true nature of humanity is revealed to Jim, Malouf reaches a climax in the presentation of his key ideas.
Malouf has effectively described the natural environment to emphasise the central ideas presented in Fly Away Peter. Through Malouf’s use of contrast between settings, Malouf is able to show his key ideas about war, nature and humanity; alongside Jim’s own discovery and transition from being a part of the innocence to being one of the experienced, which is learnt on his miserable descent into hell. This makes Jim’s life seem even more tragic, with biblical connections in scale and context; adding to Malouf’s idea of the true horror of war.
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