Dialogue and Themes

Let’s look at the  various characters attitudes to the indigenous population by completing the following table:

Character Attitude to Indigenous People In their own words…

Draw a line which represents a moral continuum between good and evil.  Place these characters on the spectrum according to their views, values and actions.

GOOD                                                                                                                            EVIL


Examine the novel’s end and the way the stories of each of these characters come to a close.  Make a note about each and what Grenville’s novel might suggest about these different views and values..


Power in The Secret River


Here’s a nice passage from Jean–Marie’s 2002 UNESCO paper, ‘Non-Violence in Education’ that might serve well as a talking point for The Secret River (emphasis added):

“Power over objects begets power over others. The desire for possession is profoundly interlinked with the desire for power. While competing for possession of objects, individuals are also struggling to assert their power over one another. So there is an organic link between property and power. Power is often what is at stake in clashes between human beings. Naturally, everyone has to have enough to meet his or her basic needs (food, shelter, clothing) as well as enough power to ensure that his or her rights are respected. Desiring property and power is legitimate insofar as it enables an individual to achieve independence from others. Adversaries in a conflict, however, each have a natural tendency always to demand more. Nothing is enough for them, and they are never satisfied. “They do not know how to stop themselves”; they know no limits. Desire demands more, much more, than need. “There is always a sense of limitlessness in desire,” writes Simone Weil. To begin with, individuals seek power so as not to be dominated by others. But if they are not careful, they can soon find themselves overstepping the limit beyond which they are actually seeking to dominate others. Rivalry between human beings can only be surmounted when each individual puts a limit on his or her own desires. “Limited desires,” notes Weil, “are in harmony with the world; desires that contain the infinite are not.””

Part 1: London [themes and motifs]

Examine how Grenville establishes the following themes and motifs in Part 1: London.  Name the events and characters in their contexts which are associated with each big idea.

  • identity and the significance of a name
  • poverty
  • survival
  • death
  • anger
  • humanity
  • class division and social structure
  • morality
  • role of the church
  • justice and the law
  • power of literacy
  • property and ownership
  • cold and warmth
  • the river

To jolt your brain into gear ask questions like:

What evidence is there?

To whom does it relate?

Is there a pattern to the references or use?

What is being shown about this idea?

What significance does the idea take on in the rest of the novel?

Part 3: A Clearing in the Forest

Read this anaylsis of the relationship between indigenous Australians, early settlers and clothing by Grace Karskens.

Read the following extract from The Secret River p.200:

But the women came up to her and showed her what was in their wooden dishes, crowding around and screeching with how funny it all was.  One had a big speckled lizard hanging limp from the string around her waist, slapping against her knee at every movement.  She held it up, fat and heavy, its legs splayed out from its pale belly, shouting at Sal as if she was half a mile away.  Very nice I’m sure, Polly, he heard Sal say, but you ain’t going to eat it surely? pointing at the lizard, miming eating, pointing at the woman, and they all shouted and laughed at her, copying the way she had gone hand-to-mouth and pretended to chew.  Their teeth were the most astonishing white Thornhill had ever seen, strong and shining in their faces.  Sal was enjoying the joke of being able to say what she pleased.  Ain’t you the saucy one, Polly, what about rats, and how would you go about stewing a nice little pot of worms?

Behind the older women the younger ones hung back laughing behind their hands with each other.  One, bolder than the rest, darted forward and took hold of a bit of Sal’s skirt and then dropped the unfamiliar texture with a little shriek as if it had burned her.  But Sal took a step towards her, holding the skirt out and offering her a handful.  Why, you’re no better than a dumb animal, she said, smiling, and the girl took it for permission, darting in and this time picking up the fabric in her and and feeling it.  Now the others crowded in around her.  One touched Sal’s bare arm , her hand very black against it, first quickly as if it might bite, then laying her whole hand along it and watching Sal’s face, and behind her another was dabbing at her bonnet, the rest screaming encouragement.

Then one of them had Sal’s bonnet off and on top of her own head, sitting white and incongruous on the black curls.  It was the funniest thing any of them had ever seen: Sal was doubled over, and the girl did look a sight, stark naked but for the bonnet crooked on her head, her face under it split with mirth.  The other women all wanted to try it then, so the bonnet was passed from hand to hand, head to head, until the lot of them were staggering with laughter.