The Secret River Analytical Essay
Early European settlers did not understand that, as the original inhabitants of Australia, the Aboriginal people were entitled to the land, yet they did not claim ownership of it for their possession. However, the Aboriginal people belonged to Australia and its natural environment. Kate Grenville canvasses the concepts of belonging and alienation in her novel “The Secret River” through her manipulation of aesthetic features; symbolism, characterisation, and setting. The literary devices enable the readers to solidify their understanding of the protagonist William Thornhill. Through Thornhill, it is apparent that ownership does not necessarily warrant the sense of belonging. Unlike the Aboriginal people, Thornhill strived to manipulate the realm of land under his possession, yet he was continually alienated.
The symbolism of marks throughout the novel is exploited to emphasize Thornhill’s perpetual attempts to assert ownership on the land. The marks represent the disjunction between man and nature. Thornhill’s belief of entitlement of the land is explicitly portrayed in three incidents; when Thornhill carves a map on the dust to show the Aboriginal men his possession of land (p196); when the dirt is ‘marked with dark stains’ (p309) after the massacre; and the construction of a high stone wall around the perimeter of his property (p318). Thornhill carving a map displays the vain attempt to communicate and influence the Aboriginal men with European philosophy of land ownership. Nonetheless, due to lack of mutual understanding, the massacre ensues, depicting the forceful domination of natural environments and its inhabitants. The resulting stain brands the land, and renders the new European owners as its’ superior; the land enslaved, as opposed to in harmony. The symbolism is reiterated with the construction of a high stone wall. The wall is a barrier between men and nature. Thornhill attempts to control the land. Ironically, his quest for domination results in his alienation from others and his environment. The symbolism illuminates that the sense of belonging cannot be bought, it is achieved through mutual openness and respect, devoid of walls.
Characterisation performs a significant role in further establishing the concept of isolation and belonging. Thornhill’s character is consciously constructed to remain allusive. The name William Thornhill is as ‘common as dirt’ (p11). This causes the reader perceive him as inconsequential. He identifies himself as ‘no more than a shadow’ (p11). The ambiguous characterization of Thornhill communicates his lack of belonging. His shadow-like nature does not have any solid form. Grenville has intentionally depicted him in this manner to illustrate his inability to form connections with others and also himself. Thornhill’s lack of belonging is continuous despite the change in circumstances. He originated from humble beginnings as a petty thief but elevates himself to a man of status through land and money. Thornhill gains respect from others and disguises himself in the form of a gentleman he always aspired to become. Despite his outward success, his internal world remained the same; Thornhill perceived that material success would make him worthy of belonging. However, once he obtained such status, his belief did not come to fruition as he could not solidify his nature and remained a shadow. The gap between his external wealth and internal poverty and self-perception of being a thieving boy remained, resulting in his ongoing isolation. The ingenious characterisation of Thornhill deftly elucidates his unending lack of belonging caused by the mismatch between his external and internal worlds.
Different settings are employed to epitomize the themes of alienation and belonging within the novel. When Thornhill relocates to the Hawkesbury River, he develops a distorted perception towards London; his native land. He glorifies and yearns for it, although he admits ‘there could be no future for the Thornhills back in London’ (175) and his name ‘would carry the taint’ due to his ‘stinking past’ (176). Thornhill’s endeavor to imitate London by constructing an English-style mansion embodies his desire to gain the sense of security and belonging through living in an environment he is familiar with. His values, attitudes, and beliefs constituted from London are engraved within Thornhill and dictate his actions, to the extent that he is unable to embrace his new environment. However, he is disappointed by the look of his house as there was something ‘wrong with the way the pieces fitted together’ and ‘they had become dwarfish and awkward’ (315). Thornhill senses the disconnection between the building and the land. It is evident that the discrepancy between his ideals and the reality eradicates his sense of belonging. Grenville’s deliberate manipulation of the setting, and Thornhill’s response to each insinuates the sense of alienation is derived from the failure to accept the new environment on its own merit; he is separate from the true nature of things which furthers his lack of belonging.
In summation, Grenville’s meticulous construction of the themes of belonging and alienation allows the reader to gain a sophisticated insight on her character William Thornhill and his lack of connection to the land and others around him. Symbolism, characterisation, and the setting of the novel collaborate to elucidate Thornhill and his actions are often motivated from a desire to possess and control. Through her novel, Grenville effectively conveys the message that the sense of belonging seldom arises from ownership, and can only be acquired through mutual respect, acceptance of what is, and the capacity to embrace changes.
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