Thomas Keneally | Critical Essay by Patricia Monk

This literature criticism consists of approximately 9 pages of analysis & critique of Thomas Keneally.
This section contains 2,610 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Patricia Monk

SOURCE: "Eden Upside Down: Thomas Keneally's Bring Larks and Heroes as Anti-pastoral," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer, 1982, pp. 297-303.

In the following essay, Monk traces the progress of Halloren's apotheosis in Bring Larks and Heroes as a function of the narrative's inversion of conventional and pastoral tropes, related to characters, settings, and moral tone.

Thomas Keneally can justifiably lay claim to an important place in Australian literature. If, however, there were a single moment in his works by which he might be best remembered, I suspect that moment would be the final paragraph of Bring Larks and Heroes, in which he describes the death agonies of Phelim Halloran:

It was as he had foretold. Every prayer, curse and snatch of song unleased itself up the vent of his body. Oh, the yawning shriek of his breathlessness, above him like a massive bird, flogging him with its black wings; the loneliness ripping his belly up like pavingstones. On his almost closed lids, six-sided pillars of light came down with terrible hurtfulness. It was with such a surpassing crack that his head split open, he being borne presiding through so many constellations, that he asked himself, panicstriken, "Am I perhaps God?"

Halloran's apotheosis—the apotheosis of a spoiled priest from a poor Irish family into a Christ figure—is the final act of a pastoral tragedy set among the transported felons of an early settlement "not meant to be identified with" Sydney, according to the author's note.

Keneally's primary concern in Bring Larks and Heroes is with the culture shock awaiting new colonists whose expectations of a return to Eden are shattered by encounters with the foreignness of trees that shed bark rather than leaves, mammals that lay eggs, and the phenomenon of summer in December. Eden has thus become demonic, and "the busy compilers of journals called it evil at some length." Consequently Halloran, who does not "call it evil because it [is] weird," becomes estranged from the community, and eventually becomes the scapegoat for a crime committed by others. Halloran's inexorable progress towards his sacrificial death and apotheosis can be traced as a symbolic corollary of his steady progress towards his final understanding that the landscape surrounding him is not, in fact, demonic, but only Eden upside-down.

Before I trace that progress of Halloran towards his apotheosis I want to look briefly at what I consider to be the keys to Keneally's inversion of the pastoral convention in Bring Larks and Heroes. There are, in fact, two complementary patterns of inversion existing simultaneously in the novel: the inversion of the picture of the early settlers as the inhabitants of a pastoral setting, and the inversion of the concept of the landscape of that setting as a type of Eden. In the first of the patterns, the settlers, free or transported, see themselves as the innocent inhabitants of a pastoral world, frustrated only by the ugliness, hostility, and inhospitability of the physical aspects of that world. Keneally's inversion shows us that the settlers themselves are the demonic element, bringing death and disease into the landscape. The conventional pastoral, concerned as it is with the depiction of an ideal society, uses the trope of the sheep to represent the people under the benevolent protection of their aristocratic or ecclesiastical rulers, the shepherds. In Bring Larks and Heroes, however, the relationship takes on a thoroughly demonic aspect as the role of sheep is given to convicted felons, and that of the shepherds to their military guards. Benevolence is replaced by bloody and brutal tyranny. Hence society itself is shown not as idealized but as demonic.

The second pattern of inversion concerns itself with an apparently demonic landscape: crops fail, the weather is bad, stock dies, and the settlement is very close to starvation. However, in this case the point of the inversion is to show that this landscape, in its beauty and fertility, is the hoped for and elusive Eden. The key to the understanding of this process of inversion is found in the passage where Byrne catches a sea gull. As the narrator oxymoronically states, "Byrne ate the inedible bird." If you can eat something safely and gain nourishment from it, as does Byrne, then it is by definition not "inedible." Here Keneally points directly to a truth that is also made clear elsewhere in the novel, with regard to Halloran's understanding of his relationship with the natural world: the land can provide food if one is willing to revise one's ideas of food. The Aboriginals survive because their idea of food conforms to what the land provides (gulls or grubs); the Europeans almost starve because their idea of food (cheese, beef, bread) does not conform to what is provided. The wasteland is paradoxically the fertile garden, if only one can learn to recognize its fruits.

The most prominent patterns of inversion, then, are those of character and setting. There is another kind of inversion present, however, albeit one implied to a somewhat lesser extent: the inversion of choice in one's moral actions. Halloran, when we first meet him, is carrying a gun, but without any hope of killing game, because "the full-time game-killers, three men chosen from amongst the transported felons, had not brought in anything since the New Year." The crime for which they have been transported is not named, but the skills required for full-time game-killing would be almost identical with those required in poaching. Poachers, therefore, become licensed hunters on behalf of the community—and the definition of crime is changed to suit the needs of the community. But the inversion here is not simple, for although the poaching/game-killing inversion turns a crime into a community service, the crime of stealing food from the community remains a crime, one which is in fact less unjustifiably punishable in the circumstances of the settlement than in the country from which they have come. Keneally's point is not that circumstances change morality, but that people change it, usually for their own benefit—a suitably demonic concept for a demonic society.

It is Halloran's triumph that he recognize all these truths: that the settlers are the demonic element, that the landscape is really edenic, and that a demonic society produces a demonic morality. It is also his tragedy, for the community cannot tolerate someone who sees things differently. Consequently, he is killed for his vision. This vision is not a sudden revelation but one which develops slowly in the course of Halloran's relationship with the natural world, and with his fellow human beings in the settlement.

To return to the inversion of setting: the novel begins in an apparently demonic landscape, "the world's wrong end," which is, to borrow [Northrop] Frye's definition, "the world that desire totally rejects: the world of the nightmare … as it is … before any image of human desire, such as the city or the garden, has been solidly established." The natural features of the landscape are, however, "far too open to a bland, immense, and oriental sky," and consequently the settlers are also exposed. Yet in spite of this evident vulnerability, the settlers' response is to resist assimilation, and to impose their will upon the land:

although nothing but the worm of death seemed to flourish in this obdurate land, it was the duty of those who served the King … to outstubborn the wayward earth.

Halloran, however, in the midst of this apparently demonic land, is confronted by the possibility, indeed the necessity, of developing a new set of standards by which new values might be determined, for "it seemed that in these poor scrubby woods, all his judgements on what a forest should look like were being scarcely tolerated by the whole pantheon of the gods of this, the world's wrong end."

Halloran's visit to Ann releases her from the "God-abandoned" hutch of Blythe's, for the divine center no longer rests in human dwellings or society, into the temporary freedom of the woods presided over by a new pantheon. Here she is "transmuted by something very close … to pure animal joy"—a transmutation into something more in tune with the land, and one which Halloran (who is described as feeling "cubbish") shares with her. It should be noted, however, that at this point Halloran is still identified with the demonic settlers insofar as the symbol of his superiority, which he has chosen to carry through "this forest," is a gun. His notion of his own superiority to the blacks who are "dying of smallpox" rests on his perception of his superior ability to kill and to resist death.

Having established Halloran's initial identification with human society, Keneally proceeds to present a series of juxtaposed visions of the land as actually edenic (although apparently demonic) and white humanity as actually demonic (although apparently innocently pastoral). The first of these occurs when, standing on the cliff, Halloran sees

set in the jelly-blue, a fleet of jew-fish tend[ing] slowly north. It did make one angry, to see such placid manna a foot or two below the sea-top, passing by the hungry town without a flick of their tails.

Set in juxtaposition to the colonists' indifference to this "placid manna" (no fishing boats are out) is their frantic activity in the lime hunt; considerable time is spent looking for mussel-shells left behind by generations of native people. Ironically, these shells are intended to be used, by the military rulers of the settlement, in the making of the mortar necessary to the construction of a real "brick" building, a building designed to make its inhabitants feel more at home. The hungry colonists ignore the fish, which would satisfy and nourish them, in order to try to make the land conform rather more to what they think it should be like.

The second of these juxtapositions occurs during Halloran's expedition upriver to "the Crescent" with the transported forger Ewers. Here the land begins to seem hospitable to Halloran, even beautiful:

The land looked promising from the jolly-boat, the river went west quite royally, spangled with sun, miles wide. Before its massive kindliness, the coves and beaches, cliffs and islands stood back.

Ewers, with the artist's eye, sees this beauty more immediately than Halloran, to whom he remarks:

If I painted this landscape … those who ever saw it would think that the forests behind the beaches were teeming with fruit and game. They would think that this river led to a kingly town, that Eden lay at the headwaters.

However, Ewers' hubristic vision of the true nature of the land, away from the colony, as edenic, and his ability to make others see it his way, founders at once on his confrontation with Mrs. Daker; the death of his vision is recorded in his recognition that the two of them appear, this time, as a part of a "caricature of the Pastoral landscape." As the bird he is painting, and the beauty of the land which it represents, dies in her crazy hands, it prefigures his own death, described in terms of a "ravaged animal spill[ing] dirt and water down its legs." Although Ewers' death acts as a foreshadowing of Halloran's, the full vision of demonic humanity, as opposed to the edenic land, is presented not through Mrs. Daker but in the scenes in the hospital at the Crescent.

Here the cruelty, filth, and irrational sexuality of demonic humanity is exposed as Halloran, separating the couple copulating on the filthy floor in a ring of bystanders, makes his way to the bed of the criminal patient he has been ordered to escort to headquarters; looking down at the man, he sees his back and upper legs to be a mass of stinking, gangrenous flesh. Later, when he sees this flesh encrusted with flies, Halloran can only rush outside in order that the "clean astringency" of nature can provide some kind of antidote to the effects of demonic humanity. Breathing in the fragrance of crushed eucalyptus leaves, he comes to the moment of unconscious choice—when he aligns himself with the land. It is worth noting, however, that by this point he already has begun to think of it as "the world's south end" rather than as its worse end.

A further such juxtaposition provides the turning point of the novel, for here Keneally presents Halloran's conscious alignment with the forces of the land. This takes place on the occasion of Captain Allen's expedition into the wilderness, an expedition which, although designed to conquer, only proves its own incapacity. The members of the expedition, including Halloran, are in such poor condition that they can only cover fourteen miles the first day, "although the country was easy." Their lack of stamina is made particularly evident in their encounter with a family of natives:

In the early afternoon of that first day, they found themselves being watched by a stock-still native family not unlike denuded acacias at a distance of a quarter of a mile. They were very thin, that family, but loped easily away. The crooked grey thickets consumed them like mist.

The natives are thin, admittedly, but fit; they survive because, in their likeness to trees, they shape themselves to the land. Some time later a moment of conscious choice presents itself, to Halloran, as a kind of "transfiguration":

The generous morning continued to gild them all with an heroic light. Halloran himself gazed across the river, across mangroves to a tableland as blue and hazed and comfortable as chimney-smoke. He felt himself to be very much the center of this world. With his hat off, he found that the tawny drench of light through his eye-lashes was made of gold rods all bearing on him. He was the focus, he was the central screw. Take him out and the hills would fall apart. He contained the world and was not contained by it.

Here he identifies consciously with the land, most significantly with the light which is so conspicuous a feature of it. Yet, it is "an heroic light," and consequently Halloran's identification with it points forward to the "heroic" death he must suffer.

That heroic death is the occasion for the final juxtaposition of land (now revealed as truly edenic) against humanity (now revealed as truly demonic). In the previous episode I have mentioned, it is of considerable significance that the natives are likened to trees rather than to any other natural feature. Not only is the image visually attractive and apt, but also it adds a further item to the sequence of tree images in the novel; one is led steadily forward from the opening scene where Anne, visited by joy, leans against a tree, to the final, symbolic juxtaposition of the tree of life and the tree of death. In this scene, Halloran perceives the trees outside the "death-hut" as part of a single tree of life: "Outside, the white eucalyptus grew, five trees from the one bole, gusting outwards from each other, very much a conclave…. Life arrogant there, outside the death-hut; life astringent in white trees."

At the final moment Halloran dies on the gallows, his neck broken in the drop, Keneally ends with Halloran's question. "Am I perhaps God?" The answer implied by the novel is, I believe, yes. For in this upside-down, hardly recognizable Eden, the tree of knowledge and the tree of life are the same. Halloran has tasted the "cool astringency" of the eucalyptus which has brought him both knowledge and life. At the moment of his physical death he is raised in an apotheosis in which he becomes identified with the natural world. "Borne presiding through so many constellations" and therefore immortal, he passes beyond both demonic and human comprehension, a dying and a living god.

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This section contains 2,610 words
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