The Motif of Rebellion in Australian Literature: A Very Short Essay

“Bush all round — bush with no horizon, for the country is flat. No ranges in the distance. The bush consists of stunted, rotten native apple-trees. No undergrowth. Nothing to relieve the eye save the darker green of a few she-oaks which are sighing above the narrow, almost waterless creek. Nineteen miles to the nearest sign of civilization — a shanty on the main road.”

The second paragraph of Henry Lawson’s short story, “The Drover’s Wife” (in While the Billy Boils), describes brilliantly the antagonist of the main character: nature itself. This is a story of courage, of survival, of motherhood, and ultimately, of rebellion against the harsh, destructive and merciless nature. The passage shows us in what conditions the drover’s family must live. The constant use of negatives (“no horizon”, “no ranges in the distance”, “no undergrowth”, “nothing to relieve the eye”) induces a feeling of isolation and desperation. There is no salvation if you go astray in the desert, for there is no one to save you. This is what the people living there must confront every day of their lives. A place that, however, the mother and her children are used to. The paragraph constructs a locale that shouldn’t allow any life to exist. A wilderness that can kill any creature that dares to venture it. And yet, the people’s stubborn and rebellious nature has conquered it. Their rebellion is a silent one that takes the form of trying to live under extreme conditions. Not just surviving, but trying to retain a last piece of normality.

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“I am reconed a horrid brute because I had not been cowardly enough to lie down for them …”

Ned Kelly’s rebellion, on the other hand, is anything but silent. Through his actions and his Jerilderie Letter, Kelly speaks against the injustice of the “big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splaw-footed sons of Irish Bailiffs or english landlords which is better known as Officers of Justice or Victorian Police”. Whether his own bushranger deeds were completely justified, that is an entirely different story. His words, however, carry a power that went beyond his real self. They helped construct the legend of Ned Kelly: a righteous outlaw that did not back down and fought against the tyranny of the rich and powerful. His words are sharp and angry and they rang a cord in many people for generations to come. The reader can feel his pain and frustration, and understand his view that the only way to fight injustice is through injustice, in a sort of Robin Hood kind of way. It is interesting that what was essentially a man of action, without too much education, entered the canon of Australian literature through his rebellious letter, proving that, at least in this case, the pen can be mightier than the sword.

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“She was giving him an opportunity.

But the German did not take it. Unlike other men, English officers stationed there, or young landowners coming coltish from the country for the practical purpose of finding a wife, he did not consider himself under obligation to laugh.”

Patrick White’s Voss presents us a man who rebels against conventionality. The historical figure of Ludwig Leichardt is used loosely for the basis of the main character. Indeed, historical reality plays a broad role in this novel, White being more concerned in portraying his own version of a self-absorbed, arrogant, ambitious man obsessed by the idea of discovering new territories, and of being the first person to draw their maps. If the real Leichardt had indeed some of Voss’ traits, in the novel they are exaggerated to the most upper limit. White is interested in describing a character that conducts his own form of rebellion, against the small-mindedness of the “ordinary” bourgeois people who do not see him as the extraordinary man that he is. Voss is constantly frustrated by the fact that he has to explain himself, and that he has to ask for various favours from people who do not understand him and his mission. He is alone on his journey, as no other person can rise up to his standards, which were created after himself. However, he does not regret it, as he is “reserved for a peculiar destiny. He was sufficient in himself”.

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“They call her a young country, but they lie:

She is the last of lands, the emptiest,

A woman beyond her change of life, a breast

Still tender but within the womb is dry.”

A.D. Hope, in his turn, rebels against his country, in the poem Australia. The poet sees his native land as being “Without songs, architecture, history”, with “…her five cities, like five teeming sores /…/Where second-hand Europeans pullulate”. This poem reminds us of another Henry Lawson story, where an Australian character also rejects his birth country, debasing its wild landscapes, its people and their way of life:

“What’s Australia? A big, thirsty, hungry wilderness, with one or two cities for the convenience of foreign speculators, and a few collections of humpies, called towns — also for the convenience of foreign speculators; and populated mostly by mongrel sheep, and partly by fools, who live like European slaves in the towns, and like dingoes in the bush — who drivel about ‘democracy,’ and yet haven’t any more spunk than to graft for a few Cockney dudes that razzle-dazzle most of the time in Paris. Why, the Australians haven’t even got the grit to claim enough of their own money to throw a few dams across their watercourses, and so make some of the interior fit to live in. America’s bad enough, but it was never so small as that. . . . Bah! The curse of Australia is sheep, and the Australian war cry is Baa!”

“His Country – After All” (in While the Billy Boils)

However, just like in Lawson’s story, the last part of the poem shows a glimpse of hope. Both writers give us the impression that what we read is not a product of hatred toward their land, but on the contrary, an offspring of too much love, a love that was not always reciprocated and turned into bitter disappointment. They expected much more from their country, which let them down repeatedly.

The rebellion turns, in a way, into nostalgia (Lawson) and hope (Hope), as the people reconcile with their past, not truly forgiving it, but remembering it, respecting it, and trying to learn from it. There is no way to escape their past, and no way to forget where they come from. This is, after all, their home.

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