Discuss the extent to which the silent, silence and silences play an important role in Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River.
Early oppositional texts struck an accusatory note and described the suffering of the natives, which was left out of official versions of history (Attwood 1989, Chap. 6). These texts broke the literary silence concerning the bloodshed and displacement of early colonization. The later revisionist mode of writing contributed to a major reinterpretation of Australian history. (Brosch 228)
The settlement in Australia can be described without further ado as a disaster and most descendants tend to leave certain parts of Australian history out. All the human rights we – as evolutionary humans – tried to establish in the course of time were forgotten and displaced immediately. Just like the indigenous people of Australia were displaced in many regions of Australia in the early settlement. It took about 200 years for the indigenous Aborigines to get acknowledged as the rightful owners of the country, which was once taken – or ”took up” – from them. Brosch notes, that ”[t]he plot of the novel resolves around this taking up land, which was something all the former convicts and the free immigrants where encouraged to do, but the phrase glosses over the risk and bloodshed involved” (Brosch 230). The shedding of Aboriginal blood was kept silent about for a long time. Kate Grenville's The Secret River – the secret river of blood – unveils a new perspective of Australian history. Even though a lot of Australian literature already highlighted the problems of encounters between Aborigines and white settlers, this novel shows aspects of these encounters mostly faded out. According to Naomi Sidebotham, Kate Grenville's novel ”brings to the attention of the reader the way
the law permitted and legitimated the dispossession of Aboriginal people and, in so doing, it gives the reader access to the history of the law that was challenged in Mabo” (Sidebotham 159). I will show the relevance of aspects of the silent, silence and silences in Kate Grenville's novel The Secret River and why it is important for ”the Aboriginal people of Australia: past, present and future.”
Before discussing the elements in The Secret River, we need to acknowledge that the publication of this novel lead to severe controversy regarding readers and literary critics.
When Grenville (2005) claimed her The Secret River (2005) would rise above the parochial squabbles of the then raging history wars by getting ‘inside the experience’ of the past, she provoked a strong response from some academic and professional historians. […] However, clearly Grenville’s Secret River (2005) has
invited serious questions about the relationship between history, literature, and public ethics in contemporary Australia. (Rodwell 25)
While the novel is considered a fictional work, at the same time it is full of historical facts and influences the reader to the extent of maybe even rethinking about the past of Australia and the settlement. It offers a new point of view on this delicate topic.
Kate’s silence in the face of the writers’ questions functions as acknowledgement and understanding of the impossibility of reaching an ‘imaginary’ past through material objects. This acknowledgement, in turn, becomes the marginalia to Sal’s journey, commenting on the penal and colonial condition and the nostalgia which plagues Sal. (Boulanger-Mashberg 5)
However The Secret River should be considered as fiction and consumed carefully. Whenever new reasonable perspectives are presented people tend to forget previously announced facts. Also due to the dedication of this novel to the Aboriginal people, and the acknowledgment of a veiled historical record – orally and written – people may tend to move one, which ”may
only be a journey to a new kind of forgetting” according to Mark McKenna (Sidebotham 158).
Kate Grenville's motivation for writing a novel, which focuses on the confrontation of white settlers and Aboriginal people, can be mainly attributed to the research in her own family history, where she found out that her ”great-great-great grandfather Solomon Wiseman, shipped to Sydney in the early 1800s” where he ”must have had contact with the Aboriginals” and later ”turned himself into a wealthy landowner on the Hawkesbury River” (cf. Brosch 228). This is pretty much the story of William Thornhill who ”grew up, in the last decades of the eighteenth century” in London, where ”no one could move an elbow without hitting the wall or the table or sister or a brother” (cf. Grenville 9). After being pardoned and deported for the time of ”his natural life”, William starts a new life in a new land and tries to rise from the dirt to become a wealthy landowner. However, he pays the price and also makes others pay, not in hard cash but in terms of suppression and an act of silencing.
The characters in The Secret River can be generally divided into two groups. At the one hand there are the white settlers, who try to cooperate and interact with the Indigenous people. They recognize the Aborigines as the legitimate owners of the land and encounter them with respect and caution. Mrs. Herring and Thomas Blackwood can be assigned to this party. On the side are Smasher and Sagitty, of whom especially Smasher always brags about his harsh way of treating the Indigenous people, which serves as an extreme and shocking example of failures in the early settlement. His ”mistreatment of Aborigines and his cruel enslavement of an Aboriginal woman” (cf. Kossew 16) is explicitly documented in Kate Grenville's novel, but presumably would have been a historic event, that white settlers maintain 'silence' about, orally as well as in the written record. William Thornhill actually just wants to own his 'hundred acres' and escape from the life – as a poor thief – he lived in London. He eventually turns into a ”hardly recognizable William Thornhill” (cf. Grenville
328). No matter how much he ”achieves” he is never really satisfied with what he has, as we can see when Grenville writes: ”The finished place was not quite what Thornhill had pictured. Something was wrong with the way the pieces fitted together: some were too big, others too small” (Grenville 329). However he is easily manipulated by Blackwood and therefore led to participate in the massacre in the Aboriginal camp towards the end of the novel. Thornhill is kind of naive, which causes the reader to follow the protagonist on every step, but at the same time fret about his actions, which actually do not seem to fit his character.
At the end of the raid of the Aboriginal camp Grenville writes, ”[t]he sun hardened around them. The clearing had a broken look, the bodies lying like so much fallen timber, the dirt trampled and marked with dark stains. And a great shocked silence hanging over everything” (Grenville 323). The settlers come and leave marks, not only on the Aboriginal people, but also on the land itself. And when everyone is dead there is a 'silence hanging over everything'. Dead people do not talk. The Aborigines are eventually silenced once and for all. However, there is also the silence of the white settlers 'hanging over everything', because they already agreed beforehand on not telling anyone about their plans and actions. In fact Thornhill does not even tell his wife Sal about it, which drives them apart even more and leaves a blank space – silence – in their relationship.
According to Brosch, ”[a] 'toxic silence' spreads first between husband and wife, then in the family and in the larger community, which is a response typical of collective guilt,” which in fact is the case. At first, when Will and Sal are still in London, they share everything and do not keep any thoughts from each other. This soon changes when they are in Sydney and Thornhill seems to withdraw more and more into a world he already built in his head. He makes plans without asking Sal about her opinion, but at the same time gives her a little hope that they will return to London some time. Sal seems to recognize the plans his husband has
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