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Montana 1948 is narrated by David Hayden, now a middle-aged history teacher, reflecting on the summer of 1948 that changed his entire life.
It begins with David noticing that his Native American babysitter, Marie Little Soldier is unwell. Gail and Wesley, David’s parents, attempt to enlist the help of Wesley’s brother Frank, a well-respected doctor in the community. However, Marie reacts to this idea with fear, anxiety and resistance. Gail concludes that something sinister must be happening for her to have such a reaction and she presses Marie for why she is so afraid. Marie then reveals to Gail that she has heard that Dr Frank has been sexually abusing many of his female Native American patients. Gail immediately confides in Wesley who is both the Sheriff of their town and Frank’s brother. This becomes the central source of tension, as Wes must decide between his duty as the Sheriff and his loyalty to his family.
This is all told from the perspective of David, our protagonist, who has to watch his father confront his Uncle Frank about these taboo accusations. Eventually, it seems they reach an agreement with Frank to stop the abuse.
Marie is discovered dead the next day in her bed when Gail goes to check up on her. Later that night, David admits to his parents that he saw Frank go into their home in the afternoon and immediately, Wesley concludes that Frank “is guilty as sin” for murdering Marie. As the Sheriff of the town, Wesley is obligated to arrest Frank, but in order to spare Frank the embarrassment, he keeps Frank in their basement instead of sending him to jail.
Upon hearing this news, David’s grandfather, Julian, orders Wesley to release Frank. Julian accuses Wesley of arresting him out of jealousy and he threatens to use his power within the community to set Frank free. At this point, Wesley realises that the power of his father would only be matched by the law, and he decides that he must officially prosecute his brother.
That next day, David, Wes and Gail wake up to find Frank dead, having used broken glass to slit his wrists and commit suicide. Young David believes that this was the right action and hopes that everything would go back to normal. But as the story goes, this is not the case.
Prejudice, discrimination and the abuse of power
Another key theme is prejudice, discrimination and the abuse of power. Frank’s abuse of the Native American women is both an abuse of his power and responsibilities as a Doctor and a way to take advantage of his personal belief in White “racial superiority.” Julian and Frank embody the toxic, violent and bigoted mentality prevalent during that time period, which Watson deplores as reprimandable and unacceptable. Even at the novel’s close, Frank’s death is symbolic in two ways. Firstly, it means that Frank managed to escape persecution, public denouncement and jail time. But more importantly, he is still revered in the community as a “respected man” and a “war hero. '' Therefore, while he physically passes away, his ‘legacy’ and façade of heroism remains alive.
Law vs Justice
One of the central themes of ‘Montana 1948’ is the conflict between abiding by the law and doing what is just. Due to the institutionalised racism that existed in the 1940’s, Frank’s actions were not considered technically illegal, however, by intuitive standards of morality, his rape of Natives in his practice and his subsequent murder of Marie clearly warrant punishment. Thus, Watson touches on the failures of the judicial system to consistently hand out judgements that are morally fair and instead reveals the flaws within the legal system of the time that reflect widespread and corrupt social attitudes.
Loyalty vs Morality
Watson also touches on the conflict between loyalty and morality. This, as we know, forms the crux of narrative’s tension. Should Wes arrest and prosecute his brother Frank or not? Should he stay loyal to his family or uphold the moral values that he must stand by as the towns Sheriff? Gail, David’s mother, embodies all the virtues of morality that we all stand by and she is appalled by Frank’s behaviour and demands that he be persecuted regardless of his relationship with Wes. In sharp contrast, Julian believes that Frank can be excused for his actions because the victims were merely “red meat” Native American women who he views as subhuman.
Gail is David’s mother and Wesley’s wife. She is a compassionate, idealistic and courageous woman. This can also be seen as she stands up for Marie, despite the prejudices in the society at the time. She also spends a ‘good deal of energy’ protecting herself and her family. She also doesn’t take part in Wesley’s racist jokes. For example, when Wesley makes a joke about Marie, ‘never been to anyone but the tribal medicine man’, David responds with ‘my mother didn’t laugh.’
David is Wesley and Gail’s son and is the narrator of the text. He doesn’t share Wesley’s beliefs surrounding race and forms his own moral perspective. This is demonstrated when he makes a fuss about wanting to wear moccasins (which Gail sides with him on) while his father says will make him ‘as flat-footed and lazy as an Indian.’
Unlike his father, we don’t see David conflicted with his loyalties and he is particularly critical of his father. This is best demonstrated when he ‘was beginning to already think of Uncle Frank as a criminal’ upon hearing sexual assault accusations against Frank. When Wesley spares Gail the details of his investigation into Frank, David believes it could be because he is ‘trying to protect his brother and keeping the number of witnesses to the accounts of his crime to a minimum’. After Wesley arrests Frank and takes him to the basement for imprisonment, David assumes his father killed Frank despite Wesley not being depicted as a particularly violent person in the novel. All it takes is an indistinct noise from the basement for David to conjure up ways his father could have killed his Uncle Frank.
Frank is Wesley’s brother and is described as a ‘witty and charming’ doctor, and war hero who is widely loved by the community -particularly by his dad, Julian. In reality, Frank is a criminal who abuses his power - both a white man and a doctor to sexually assault Indian women - which he believes he can get away with. This is compounded when he states, “I am not concerned about social progress.” Through Frank, Watson demonstrates how some individuals can abuse their positions of power and privilege, and to not lose any sleep over it (‘at smiling ease with his life and everything it’).
Wesley is Julian’s son, Gail’s husband, and David’s father and the sheriff of Mercer county. He dislikes Native Americans and frequently makes jokes about them and stereotypes them. He even uses the fact that Marie Little Soldiers is a Native American to belittle and doubt the credibility of her experience.
Wesley’s conflicting loyalties become more complex and difficult once you consider the prejudices at the time, his job as an officer of the law, Frank’s station in the family and community, Gail’s strong opinions and his constant need to seek validation from his father. An instance that mirrors Wesley’s conflicting loyalties is when he tells Gail, “I wish you wouldn’t have told the sheriff.” When she told informed him of Marie’s sexual assault allegations against Frank. However, in Wesley’s eyes, Frank’s murder of Marie Little Soldier, is where the latter crosses the line. The magnitude of his brother’s crime is too large for him to let his previous conflicting loyalties as a sheriff and a brother hold him back from arresting Frank. After convicting Frank and having to argue about it with his father, we learned ‘for the first time how this experience with his brother was ruining him physically.’
Julian is a bigoted racist man who has an unconditional love for his son Frank and unfairly favours him over his son Wesley. When he learns of Franks charges he exclaims, “What kind of bullshit is this?” He belittles the sexual assaults as Frank just ‘feeling them up’ and ‘assaulting an Indian’. At this point, Julian taking Frank’s side exposes how irrationally loyal he is to his son and suggests that even if the women were not Indian, he may still stand by Frank's actions. He protests that the only reason Wesley convicted Frank was that ‘ever since the war, ever since Frank came home in uniform and he [Wesley] stayed here [home],’ he’s ‘been jealous’. However, this comment seems to say more about Julian’s feelings than Wesley’s - perhaps, this is why Julain felt this inclination towards Frank. After this argument, we see Wesley’s feeling of defeat and heartbreak - that despite Frank being a murderer and a rapist, his father still seemed to pick his side over Wesley’s.
Quotes on Prejudices, Discrimination and the Abuse of Power
“He wears those and soon he'll be as flat-footed and lazy as an Indian" - Discrimination is evident in Montana 1948 where Wesley uses stereotypes of Indians to imply they are inferior to them, and that David shouldn’t be like them.
"She's an Indian- Why would she tell the truth?”
“Your mother and I thought we’d have more to show than just one grandchild … and white- we want them we want them white”
“Screwing an Indian. Or feeling her up or whatever. You don’t lock up a man for that.”
“You know Frank’s always been partial to red meat.”
“Well if Sheriff Hayden says it's so, it must be so.”
“Wesley, your brother is raping these women. These girls. These Indian girls.”
Quotes on Law vs Justice
“Why did my grandfather first run for sheriff? … He wanted, he needed power. He was a dominating man who drew sustenance and strength from controlling others.” This quote shows that many people in society at the time held positions of power such as lawyers or sheriff but didn’t enforce the law or worry about the morality of their actions. Thus creating an unjust legal system that would allow these people to shape how the law is enforced with their own prejudices.
“You know what your Grandad said it means to be a peace officer in Montana? He said it means knowing when to look and when to look away.”
“I think the problem has been taken care of. Frank said he’s going to cut it out”
“Well if Sheriff Hayden says it's so, it must be so.”
Quotes on Loyalty vs Morality
"David, I believe that in this world people must pay for their crimes. It doesn't matter who you are or who your relations are; if you do wrong, you pay. I believe that. I have to."
“I wish you wouldn’t have told the sheriff.”
“I think the problem has been taken care of. Frank said he’s going to cut it out”
“Well if Sheriff Hayden says it's so, it must be so.”
“You don’t lock up your brother. A respected man. A war hero.” “This is a legal matter.” “Bullsh*t.” “Then why have you got him locked up here and not over at the jail? This is your brother here. My son!”
Quotes on Destruction of Innocence
'I had gone back into the house -to the kitchen, to my room, out the backdoor, I had left the porch and followed frank's steps down the front walk - I never would have heard the conversation between my father and mother, and perhaps I would have lived my life with an illusion about my family and perhaps the human community’ - page 33
“The shock of hearing this about Uncle Frank was doubled because my mother was saying these words. Rape. Breasts. Penis. These were words I never heard my mother use-ever- and I’m sure her stammer was not only from emotion but also from the strain on her vocabulary.”
“But I was on a trail that would lead me out of my childhood.”
With contributions from Fae Saberi.
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Things Fall Apart is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Things Fall Apart is set in a fictional group of Igbo villages called Umuofia, around the beginning of the twentieth century. The first half of the novel is dedicated to an almost anthropological depiction of Igbo village life and culture through following the life of the protagonist Okonkwo. Okonkwo is the greatest wrestler and warrior alive in the nine villages and beyond. He has dedicated his life to achieving status and proving his strength to avoid becoming like his father Unoka – a lazy, improvident, but gentle man. Weakness is Okonkwo’s greatest fear. After men in another village kill a woman from Umuofia, a boy named Ikemefuna is given to Umuofia as compensation and lives in Okonkwo’s compound until the Gods decide his fate. Ikemefuna quickly becomes part of Okonkwo’s family; he is like a brother to Okonkwo’s son Nwoye and is secretly loved by Okonkwo as well. Over the next three years, the novel follows Okonkwo’s family through harvest seasons, religious festivals, cultural rituals, and domestic disputes. Okonkwo is shown to be more aggressive than other Igbo men and is continually criticized and rebuked by the village for his violence and temper. When the Oracle of the Hills and Caves decides that Ikemefuna must be killed, Okonkwo is warned by a respected elder to have no hand in the boy’s death because Ikemefuna calls him ‘father’. However, afraid of being thought weak, when Ikemefuna runs to Okonkwo in hope of protection, Okonkwo delivers the fatal blow. Ikemefuna’s brutal death deeply distresses Nwoye who becomes afraid of his father.
At the end of Part One, Okonkwo accidentally kills a clansman at a funeral after his faulty gun explodes and is exiled to his motherland, Mbanta. During his exile, British missionaries arrive in Mbanta and establish a church. Nwoye, disillusioned with his own culture and Gods after Ikemefuna’s death, is attracted to Christianity and is an early convert. This is a heartbreaking disappointment to Okonkwo. When Okonkwo and his family return from exile after seven years they find that the missionaries and colonial governors have established Umuofia as the center of their new colonial government. Clashes of culture and morality occur, and as the British make the Igbo more dependent on them through introducing trade and formal education, the Igbo way of life is continually undermined. When a Christian convert unmasks an egwugwu during a tribal ritual, a sin amounting to the death of an ancestral spirit, the egwugwu burn down the village church. The men who destroyed the church are arrested and humiliated by the District Commissioner, and Okonkwo beheads a court messenger at a village council in rebellion. When none of his clansmen rise with him against the British, Okonkwo realizes his culture and way of life is lost and commits suicide in despair. Suicide is a crime against the Earth Goddess, Ani, so Okonkwo is left to rot above ground in the Evil Forest, like his father Unoka – a shameful fate he spent his life desperate to avoid. The final paragraph, written from the perspective of the District Commissioner, reduces Okonkwo’s life to a single sentence about his death in his planned book The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of The Lower Niger. Achebe has filled an entire novel with evidence of the complexity and sophistication of Okonkwo’s individual and social life and the District Commissioner’s casual dismissal and belittling of him causes us to flinch with horror and dismay. This is a metaphor for the reduction of Igbo culture in the eyes of its colonizers.
The title gives away the plot of the novel and anticipates the collapse of Okonkwo and his society. Things Fall Apart is about the connection between the tragic downfall of Okonkwo, who fate and temperamental weakness combine to destroy, and the destruction of his culture and society as the Igbo way of life is assailed by forces they do not understand and are unprepared to face.
A Full and Fair Representation of Ibo Traditional Life
The first part of the novel presents the traditional world of the Ibo with specificity and vibrancy. The imbedded descriptions of the patterns of interaction, daily routines and seasonal rituals of Ibo life creates an overwhelming impression of community and shared culture. We see the established system of values which regulates collective life and how closely related this is to natural cycles and environments. The Ibo’s moral values are contained in sayings and stories, rituals and festivals. Achebe depicts a comprehensive and sustaining social, spiritual, economic, agricultural, and legal order. (Chapters to consider: 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 10, 12, 19)
While Ibo society is marked by the internal coherence of its organization and the poetry of its rituals, this coherence is partially formed by the repression of the individual and the inflexibility of social norms. Achebe shows the violence, dehumanization, and discrimination vulnerable groups experience in Umuofia due to the rigid adherence to tradition and superstition. This includes the customary abandonment of newborn twins, the sacrificial murder of Ikemefuna in the name of justice, and the discriminatory caste structure that denies inclusion to the osu (Chapters 7, 18).
Obierika’s questioning of the stern logic of some customs suggests that many laws are enacted from a sense of duty and inevitability rather than from a firm conviction in their justice or efficacy (Chapter 13). The cultural demand for conformity places a huge moral and psychological burden on individuals who must reckon with the sometimes heartless will of the gods. This internal tension is epitomized in the character of Okonkwo, discussed below.
Clash of Cultures
When the Ibo are confronted with rival institutions a mirror is held up to their society. Fall Apart honestly considers and reflects on Ibo practices, customs, values, and beliefs. The novel is a frank articulation of the nature of the African past and its relevance to the present and future. Achebe wants to illuminate Ibo culture to dispense with lingering colonial prejudices, but he is not sentimental or nostalgic for the past. Instead he is shifting through it to identify the valuable aspects of Ibo culture to bring into the future and help define Nigeria’s post-independence identity.
Achebe recognises that the colonial encounter which led, swiftly and seemingly inevitably, to the disintegration of Ibo culture revealed its profound weaknesses. Achebe suggests that with the arrival and contrast against another culture, a cultural reckoning was inevitable for the Ibo. However, cultural reckoning and revaluation is not the same thing as destruction and erasure. The British colonialists were a hostile force seeking cultural domination. By pointing out some of the weaknesses of the Ibo tradition, Achebe in no way excuses or justifies colonial domination or diminishes the pain and tragedy of the cultural erasure that occurred.
The anti-colonial position and purpose of the novel is powerfully clear. Achebe depicts the process of colonial initial establishment and the resultant cultural suspension of Ibo society. The British colonizers believed in their inherent cultural superiority and arrived in Umuofia with the intention to “bring civilization” (p.151) to Africa. They wanted to achieve full control by supplanting Ibo religion and culture with their own.
The British arrived quietly and non-confrontationally with their religion and the clans allow them to stay, misinterpreting their silence as peaceability. An Ibo proverb warns that there is danger in silence and nothing to fear from someone who reveals their motivations (Chapter 15). Obierika recognizes how the white man’s strategy disguised their intentions and gave them the freedom to grow and fortify. He explains the political consequences for the clan, now divided by the new religion, they can no longer act as one (Chapter 20). Without strength in unity, the Ibo are vulnerable to further encroachment of British control in their other institutions.
As only a small number of Ibo initially converted to Christianity, the church was only able to establish itself firmly in the villages because of the Ibo’s religious tolerance (Chapter 2, 22). Mr Brown learns about Ibo religion and his willful blindness to its complexity shows how the colonizers justified their colonial rule and imposition through labelling their subjects ‘primitive’. Mr Brown understands that Christianity held no appeal for people well integrated in Ibo society, concluding that “a frontal attack on it would not succeed” (p.132) and thus introduces education as a new method of cultural displacement and erasure. Additionally, trade also increased the Ibo’s dependence on the introduced economy (Chapter 21).
From the very first introduction of the colonizers we understand that violence and fear were tools of oppression and dominance, forcing the Ibo to submit and keeping them unresisting (Chapter 15, 20, 23). Not only do the British impose foreign rule on the Ibo and judge them by standards they do not recognize, the District Commissioner’s personal brand of ‘justice’ is corrupt and hypocritical. When the elders are arbitrarily and falsely imprisoned, he tells them that what they have done “must not happen in the dominion of our queen” (p.141), combining personal corruption with a state apparatus of paternalism, hegemony, and occupation (Chapter 20, 23).
Dogmatic zealot, Reverend Smith, encourages fanaticism in his converts, motivating them to insult and humiliate the clan (Chapter 22). Under Reverend Smith’s wrathful guidance, the colonial agenda becomes transparently aggressive. The grief and pathos of the Ibo’s situation and collective trauma is displayed evocatively in the final episodes as Achebe depicts this painful moment of acute crisis (Chapter 22, 23, 24, 25).
A recurring thematic question in Things Fall Apart is to what degree the collapse of the Ibo and the downfall of Okonkwo are due to their own internal weaknesses or the whims of a pernicious fate.
The Ibo understand fate to be in a dynamic and somewhat ambiguous relationship with personal agency. This is evident in their proverb “when a man says yes his chi says yes also” (p.20) which acknowledges and privileges the role of an individual’s choices in shaping their destiny (Chapter 4). The saying “as a man danced so the drums were beaten for him” (p.135) also relates this idea – fate is a response to one’s behaviour. Okonkwo is warned that killing Ikemefuna, his surrogate son, is the “kind of action for which the goddess wipes out whole families” (p.49).This demonstrates the clan’s belief that the goddess’s (or fate’s) punishments are not arbitrary but the result of individual action (Chapter 8).
Although there is an element of chance in Okonkwo’s gun accidentally exploding and killing someone, his exile carries the suggestion of just comeuppance in its echo of the guns failure to shoot when purposely aimed at Ekwefi (Chapter 5, 13). Likewise, although the arrival of the Christians was unexpected and chanced, Nwoye’s rejection of his father is traceable directly to Okonkwo’s choice to kill Ikemefuna (Chapter 7). The desertion of people injured by Ibo traditions is a blow to the clan that feels equally earned (Chapters 16, 17, 18).
After his exile, Okonkwo believes his chi has turned against him (Chapter 14). He renunciates the wisdom of his elders by denying the active role he had in directing the course of events. His refusal to reflect on the connection between his actions and punishment reflect his fatal flaws: hubris and willful lack of self-knowledge. By refusing to self-analyze and self-correct, Okonkwo loses the opportunity of redemption. Comparably, the Ibo, despite believing in a relationship between action and fate, do not reflect on the cause of their kinsmen’s desertion to Christianity. Achebe provides numerous examples of the clan’s dogma and brutal traditions denying people such as Ikemefuna or twins control over their lives (Chapter 2, 7). It was the shortcomings of the Ibo social and religious order that made members susceptible to the attraction of a competing value system with a more articulated concept of individuality. The Ibo’s cultural lack of self-apprehension meant they could not adjust their traditions to save themselves.
However, just as Achebe shows how individuals in the clan are at the mercy of rigid overarching authority, he shows how the fateful forces of history constrain human agency. The British’s hostile intention to erase and supplant the Ibo way of life is a punishment greater than the Ibo deserve and a force stronger than they can rise to. In his description of the grief and trauma of colonial imposition, Achebe demonstrates his compassion and sorrow for the Ibo as they faced the sweeping and unforgiving forces of change in their moment of historical crisis.
Sample Essay Topics
1. "Things Fall Apart demonstrates how the values and customs of a society help us to deal with the familiar but not with change." Discuss.
2. "Traditional ideas of honour dominate Okonkwo's life and finally they destroy him." Discuss.
3. "Nwoye knew that it was right to be masculine and to be violent, but somehow he still preferred the stories his mother used to tell." How does Achebe explore masculinity in Things Fall Apart?
Now it's your turn! Give these essay topics a go. For more sample essay topics, head over to our Things Fall Apart Study Guideto practice writing essays using the analysis you've learnt in this blog!
Within the THINK strategy, we have 3 steps, or ABC. These ABC components are:
Step 1: Analyse
Step 2: Brainstorm
Step 3: Create a Plan
Let's look at an essay prompt in this video below:
In Things Fall Apart, women suffer the most and are victimised by men. Discuss.
Whenever you are breaking a prompt down. Ask yourself...
What are the key words/ ideas that you need to address?
Which theme is the prompt referring to?
Do you agree with prompt? Or do you disagree with it?
The keywords of this prompt would be women, suffer,, victimised and men. The prompt requires us to address the role of women in the text and the ways in which they suffer in a society that is pervaded by patriarchal values. It also asks us, ‘Who is to blame?’ Are men solely responsible for the maltreatment or are there other causes to their suffering? The word ‘most’ in this prompt is actually there to give us a bit of room for discussion. Yes, women do suffer, but do they suffer the most? Or do men suffer as well?
Now that we’ve thought about the prompt, we can move on to the second step of the THINK part of the THINK and EXECUTE technique. To find out more about this unique strategy, I’d recommend downloading a free sample of our How to Write a Killer Text Response eBook!
Now, before we write our ideas in beautiful topic sentences, it’s often easier to simplify everything first. One way to do this is to work out whether the paragraph agrees or disagrees with the prompt at hand. We could follow this structure…
Yes, the prompt is true because X Yes, another reason it is true is X While it is true, it is limited by X
By elucidating the ways in which women are seen as inferior to their male counterparts, the writer establishes his critique on a society that victimises and oppresses women. From the outset of the book, Okonkwo is characterised as a violent man who ‘rules his household with a heavy hand’, placing his wives in perpetual fear. The frequent beating and violence fortifies the portrayal of him as a man who is governed by his hatred of ‘gentility and idleness’, further showing the terror that his wives are forced to be living in.
"Do what you are told woman. When did you become one of the ndichie (meaning elders) of Umuofia?"
He also sees his wife’s mere act of questioning as disrespect, as evidenced through the ways in which he implies that she is overstepping her role.
“There were many women, but they looked on from the fringe like outsiders"
This simile also shows how women are often marginalised and treated as outcasts, underlining the overarching yearning for social justice throughout the text. This pitiful image of women looking ‘on from the fringe’ also helps Achebe relay his criticism of gender double standards and the unfairness that Igbo women are forced to live with. Achebe’s sympathy for women’s suffering and condemnation of men’s mistreatment towards are also evident through his depiction of a society that normalises misogyny.
‘His mother and sisters worked hard enough, but they grew women’s crops… Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crops’
The personification of the crops, in particular, the men’s crops, the ‘yam’, being the ‘king of crops’ establishes this gender hierarchy in yet another way. More specifically, the position of men in the social hierarchy is highlighted and the negative connotation attached to the ‘women’s crops’ undermine their hard work, rendering it in significant. While women are the main victims of Igbo gendered prejudice, Achebe does not disregard the undue burden that societal expectations impose on men.
‘He was afraid of being thought weak.’
Achebe explores the burdens of unrealistic expectations that are placed on both men and women. This quote exemplifies societal expectations on men to be strong, powerful and fearless leaders who never show emotions. Achebe’s sympathies regarding these expectations show us that this is an important critique in Things Fall Apart that we can analyse.
If you find this helpful, then you might want to check out our Things Fall Apart: A Killer Text Guide where we cover 5 A+ sample essays (written by a 50 study scorer!) with EVERY essay annotated and broken down on HOW and WHY these essays achieved A+ so you reach your English goals! Let's get started.
Like a House on Fire is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
1. Historical Context
Kennedy’s anthology of fifteen short stories, Like a House on Fire, explores the impacts of familial and social issues on an individual’s sense of identity and humanity, illustrating the vast spectrum of human condition. Having lived a majority of her life in Victoria, Australia, Kennedy’s collection follows the stories of various protagonists whose voices are characteristic of Australian culture and society. As the text is set in the backdrop of rapid Australian modernisation, the novel also depicts the paradoxical nature of technology, as various characters are depicted to be torn between confronting or embracing this fundamental change. Despite approaching the stories of characters conflicted by modern and social challenges with both humour and cynicism, Kennedy’s lack of judgement is notable; it is with this empathetic stance that she is able to the universal nature of human emotions to her readership.
Kennedy explores the theme of identity mainly through physical injury, as various characters with physical trauma find themselves to be agonisingly limited within the confines of their condition. In Like a House on Fire, the narrator’s sense of identity becomes intertwined with his subsequently decreased masculinity, as his back injury leaves him unable to physically take care of his family, and his wife begins to undertake stereotypically masculine roles within the household. In tandem with this, Roley’s wife in Little Plastic Shipwreck is rendered humourless and witless due to her brain injury, distorting her once enthusiastic self into one shadowed by her illness; further emphasising the link between physical and mental identity.
Order and Disorder
The inherent tension between order and chaos is continually examined throughout the anthology, particularly in Like a House on Fire, in which perfectionistic order and scatter minded disorder are embodied in the unnamed narrator and his wife respectively. As the two individuals are unable to establish a compromise between their contrasting personalities, Kennedy suggests that this lack of cooperation is the core reason for the deterioration of their marriage, and their subsequent misery. The notion of disorder is also symbolised by the domestic setting itself, as Kennedy depicts various characters who feel pervasive ennui and dissatisfaction within the ‘chaotic mess’ of their household environments.
Each protagonist in the collection is portrayed as possessing some object of longing, whether it be material or emotional. Kennedy utilises scattered verses of prose within her writing to communicate these human desires, building upon their significance poetically. In Static, Anthony attempts to negotiate his own wishes with those of his wife and family, leading him to wonder whether anything present in his life has been created by his own will or merely his eagerness to please others. His desire for various types of happiness, embodied in material concepts such as money or children, suggest that the human condition is built upon the foundation of dissatisfaction; that innate longing is what ultimately defines us as human.
The theme of love is present in each story of the collection, often used as an instrument through which the characters can heal and grow from their physical or spiritual pain. While suggesting that true love endures all hardship in Like a House on Fire, Kennedy also illustrates the various sacrifices one must make in order to protect the ones you love. Such is depicted in Five-Dollar Family, as a new mother makes the difficult decision of leaving her ‘loser’ boyfriend to give her child a chance at the best life possible, despite the unfortunate situation he has been born into.
The vital importance of communication within families is emphasised in the anthology, as the lack of effective communication perceivably exacerbates dysfunctional relationships. The crushing regret of a son is explored in Ashes, as he laments his lack of communication with his father who he can no longer speak to. However, Kennedy empathetically depicts the difficulty of communicating potentially painful messages to loved ones in Waiting, as the protagonist anxiously agonises over the prospect of telling her husband that she may have another miscarriage following an excruciating string of lost children.
In tandem with longing, Kennedy asserts that empathy is vital to the survival and happiness of a human being. This notion is aptly depicted in Little Plastic Shipwreck, in which the death of Samson the popular show dolphin results in Roley’s revelation of his manager’s complete lack of empathy, and subsequently the abundance of his own. Similarly, the salient importance of empathy is emphasised in Flexion, as the cold-heated and harsh victim of a brutal tractor incident repairs his marriage by allowing himself to feel more empathy for those who have supported his recovery and been understanding of his bitterness.
The anthology centres around the concept of family, as both dramatic events unfold directly due to altercations and misunderstanding within the household. By depicting both the dramatic and mundane events that contribute to creating dysfunctional families, Kennedy asserts that kindness and understanding is vital to the maintenance of a healthy and loving family. The power of family is also depicted in Like a House on Fire, as the protagonist’s dissatisfaction with life is instantly washed away by the actions of his children, who remind him that despite his life-threatening injury, his family is his constant source of love and support.
Question 1: ‘Gender plays no role in the tragic identities of the characters in Like a House on Fire.’ To what extent do you agree?
Suggested contention: Despite the ubiquitous nature of hardship, the short stories of Like a House on Fire explore the effect of gender roles on individuals’ sense of self-worth.
Body paragraph 1:
Pain is depicted to have no partiality to either gender in Like a House on Fire.
Much of the trauma explored throughout the anthology is a result of lack of emotional connection or familial misunderstanding arising through individual actions, rather than due to stereotypes associated with gender.
Kennedy suggests that there is no gender more at fault for these issues, but rather that it is mindset that determines one’s identity and fate, especially in relationships. For example, just as the protagonist’s wife in Flexion makes the mistake of cruelly wielding her physical dominance over her husband, the passive boyfriend in Five-Dollar Family is cruel in his apathy toward his girlfriend and their newborn baby.
Body paragraph 2:
Despite this, Kennedy explores the social views that plague men as a result of their gender, compelling to limit their identity to meet these fatal expectations.
The concept of masculinity is explored throughout the collection, often presented as an inferiority complex for many male protagonists due to their physical disabilities. The societal idea that men should be physically strong in order to be able to provide for his family is heavily condemned in Like a House on Fire, as Kennedy depicts the destructive consequences of such on one’s sense of self-worth.
For example, the narrator of Like a House on Fire perceives his own physical weakness as unmanly, and subsequently himself as an unfit and useless father. As he is unable to pick up the family’s Christmas tree, the tree seller looks towards him with disdainful judgment, perceiving the protagonist’s wife lifting the tree to be ‘destroying the social fabric’.
In addition to this, the narrator’s extreme attempt to physically help the family results in the destruction of the precious family nativity scene, symbolising the idea that social constructs of masculinity inevitably ends in destruction, as the narrator’s inability to recognise his physical limitations only exacerbates the problem.
Body paragraph 3:
In tandem with this, the collection of short stories also examines the social limitations placed upon women solely due to their gender.
The difficulty for women to balance their roles of mother and career woman is explored in Cake, in which the protagonist Liz fails to separate one from the other, leading her to feel dissatisfaction in both. Kennedy ostensibly denounces the social expectations of women to be domestic helpers, as Liz faces judgement at work for bearing a child, whereas her husband is exempt from any judgement despite it also being his son.
The complicated and personal concept of pregnancy is further depicted in Waiting, as the protagonist agonises over the fact that she may lose another child due to a miscarriage. As the fear of disappointing others takes over her own pain and anguish, readers of the collection are invited to consider the harrowing expectations placed on women to be successful mothers.
Question 2: ‘Like a House on Fire shows that family relationships are never perfect.’ Do you agree?
Suggested contention: Through the constant depiction of dysfunctional families in Like a House on Fire, Kennedy asserts the importance of communication and empathy in repairing broken relationships, and suggests that perfect families are unrealistic.
Body paragraph 1:
Every story in the collection depicts a family undergoing some kind of hardship, whether it be financial, emotional or spiritual. Through her depiction of broken families, Kennedy suggests that emotional stress and tension within families is sometimes inevitable, even in a loving and supportive environment.
The title of the collection, Like a House on Fire, is emblematic of the dual nature of families, as while the phrase symbolises the chaos and disorder of one’s family dynamic, it also symbolises the love and extreme passion that often coexists alongside it.
For example, while the protagonist in Like a House on Fire reminisces upon the ‘fiery’ sexual and emotional happiness of their marriage, he also deplores their current period of domestic stress, describing it as a ‘house on fire’.
Body paragraph 2:
Kennedy depicts the need for family members to engage in open and honest communication with one another to overcome the effects of trauma.
For example, in Ashes, Chris is only able to find closure by finally understanding the mindset off his parents through effective communication. His newly found ability to express his true emotions to his mother allows him to finally perceive the grief that was masked by her supposedly ‘cruel’ actions, and subsequently finally achieve a stable relationship with her.
Body paragraph 3:
Kennedy also advocates for the exercise of empathy between family members in order to find harmony within dysfunction.
This is apparent in Flexion, in which the seemingly emotionless protagonist and his wife undergo their respective journeys of expressing empathy for the other. As their marriage significantly improves due to their increased understanding of each other, Kennedy promotes the importance of vulnerability and openness within families.
Beyond the Basics:
How does Kennedy’s short story format add to the reader’s understanding of the themes uncovered in the novel?
The range of diverse, Australian voices depicted in the anthology work to portray the vast spectrum of the human condition.
The concise narrative present in each of the fifteen stories work to provide the readership with an extremely personal point of view that emphasises the emotions and mindset of the protagonist, furthering the sense of authorial empathy and compassion.
It is through this almost voyeuristic advantage we subsequently possess as readers, that we are able to fully understand the depth of each character’s humanity and sense of identity, as well as the various struggles that follow the course of an individual’s life.
Kennedy’s ordering of the short stories also contributes to the reader’s depth of understanding. There is no apparent chronological order present in the collection, but rather a varied order of stories, depicting its diverse range of voices. For example, while the key themes and tones of the anthology remain consistent throughout, other factors such as age, gender and life experience of the protagonist vary in order to provide contrasting character viewpoints.
As such, this variation in narrative voice allows Kennedy to present her stories as universal human experiences, emphasising the ubiquitous nature of the themes present in Like a House on Fire.
Finally, the varied structure within each individual story lends an optimistic tone that underscores the entirety of Kennedy’s work. While some stories such as Flexion begin with the inciting event, others emphasise the chain of events that occur in leading up to the key event, as depicted in Ashes. As the undertones of hope and faith are present throughout the collection, the varied plot structure of each story allows Kennedy to assert that no matter the circumstance of hardship, one can always find a glimpse of optimism within its depths.
In Like a House on Fire, Kennedy illustrates that perfect families do not exist, and that family dysfunction is inevitable. To what extent do you agree?
The characters in Like a House on Fire are largely defined by social expectations of their gender. Discuss.
In Like a House on Fire, how does Kennedy show that in even times of hardship, human strength will prevail?
‘The range of narrative points of views used in Like a House on Fire illustrate the characters’ deeply personal responses to life’s challenges.’ Discuss.
‘…As the lifetime habit of keeping his responses to himself closed his mouth in a firm and well-worn line.’ How does Kennedy present communication as a key issue in the relationships in Like a House on Fire?
If you'd like to see A+ essays on these essay topics, complete with annotations on HOW and WHY the essays achieved A+ so you can emulate this same success, then you'll definitely want to check out our Like a House on Fire Study Guide! In it, we also cover advanced discussions on topics like authorial views and values, symbols and motifs and context completely broken down into easy-to-understand concepts so you can smash your next SAC or exam! Check it out here.
After Darkness is currently studied in VCE English under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
1. Introduction (Plot Summary) 2. Characters and Development 3. Themes 4. Narrative Conventions/Literary Devices 5. Sample Paragraphs 6. Additional Essay Prompts and Analysis Questions to Consider 7. Tips
1. Introduction (Plot Summary)
Christine Piper’s historical fiction, After Darkness deals with suppressed fragments of the past and silenced memories. The protagonist, Dr Ibaraki, attempts to move forward with life whilst also trying to hide past confrontations as well as any remnants of his past wrongdoings and memories. The text consists of three intertwined narrative strands – Ibaraki’s past in Tokyo in 1934, his arrival in Broome in 1938 to work in a hospital there, and his arrival in a detainment camp in Loveday (South Australia) in 1942 after the outbreak of war.
2. Characters and Development
4. Narrative Conventions/Literary Devices
‘a mallee tree’ - Aboriginal word for water which symbolises purity, source of life 'if it’s hit by bushfire it grows back from the root with lots of branches, like all the others here. It’s a tough tree. Drought, bushfire…it’ll survive almost anything…I was struck by the ingenuity of the tree in its ability to generate and create a new shape better suited to the environment.'
The tag with 'the character ko…[with] its loop of yellowed string...The knot at the end had left an impression on the page behind it: a small indentation, like a scar.'
'Felt like hell on earth'
'The hollow trunks of dead trees haunted its edges like lost people' - Can also link to the landscape narrative convention
'The scene was like a photograph, preserving the strangeness of the moment.'
Description of the hospital atmosphere where the patient next to Hayashi laid
'Only the windows were missing, leaving dark holes like the eyes of an empty soul'
'The photos reached me first. I leafed through the black and white images: swollen fingers, blistered toes, blackened faces, and grotesque, rotting flesh that shrivelled and puckered to reveal bone. The final photo depicted a child’s chubby hands, the tips of the fingers all black.' - Also foreshadowing death of his and Kayoko’s child
'That afternoon, the sky darkened, and the wind picked up…making the world outside opaque.'
Middlemarch (book) which symbolises Ibaraki and Sister Bernice’s friendship as Bernice was left behind
'Being able to conduct research in this way has delivered unparalleled knowledge, which we’ve already passed on to the army to minimise further loss of life.'
'You haafu fools don’t deserve the Japanese blood in you!'
'You bloody racist!'
'You fucking Emperor-worshipping pig...!'
'Haafu' - Derogatory, racism term used to define those who are biracial (half Japanese):
An interpretation of the language use throughout the text could be Piper’s way of humanising the Japanese people to her readers and notifying them that they also have their own culture and form of communication
Another interpretation of the language use is to show that both the Australians and Japanese are just as cruel as each other because they show no respect to one another and use language in such a brutal way
Ibaraki represents that divide where he can speak both languages, yet still, cannot voice his own opinion or stand up for himself (link to theme of silence)
'The void seemed to have a force of its own, drawing the meaning of the words into it.'
'The engine coughed into life.'
'snow was falling as I walked home from the station – the first snow of the season.' - Foreshadowing the storm about to come in his life
'A black silhouette against the fallen snow.' - Foreshadowing Kayoko’s death
5. Sample Paragraphs
'But as soon as you show a part of yourself, almost at once you hide it away.' Ibaraki’s deepest flaw in After Darkness is his failure to reveal himself. Do you agree?
Christine Piper’s historical fiction, After Darkness explores the consequences that an individual will be forced to endure when they choose to conceal the truth from their loved ones. Piper reveals that when a person fails to reveal themselves, it can eventually become a great obstacle which keeps them from creating meaningful and successful relationships. Additionally, Piper asserts that it can be difficult for an individual to confront their past and move completely forward with their present, especially if they believed their actions were morally wrong. Furthermore, Piper highlights the importance of allowing people into one’s life as a means to eliminate the build-up the feelings of shame and guilt.
Piper acknowledges that some people will find it difficult to open up to others about their past due to them accumulating a large amount of regret and guilt over time. This is the case for Ibaraki as he was involved with the ‘experiments’ when he was working in the ‘Epidemic Prevention Laboratory', in which Major Kimura sternly told him to practise ‘discretion and not talk ‘about [his] work to anybody'. The inability to confide in his wife or mother after performing illegal and mentally disturbing actions causes him to possess a brusque conduct towards others, afraid that they will discover his truth and ‘not be able to look at [him] at all'. His failure to confess his past wrongdoings shapes the majority of his life, ruining his marriage and making him feel the need ‘to escape’ from his losses and ‘start afresh'. He eventually lies to his mother by making her believe that he ‘had gone to Kayoko’s parents’ house’ for the break, avoiding any questions from being raised about his job. As a consequence, he fails to tell his family about his horrid past suggesting that he has accepted that ‘[his] life had become one that others whispered about'. Juxtaposed to Ibaraki’s stress relieving methods, Kayoko confides in her mother after she receives news of her miscarriage, highlighting that when one willingly shares their pain with loved ones, it can release the burden as well as provide them with some assistance. In contrast to this, Ibaraki’s guilty conscience indicates that he will take ‘the secret to his grave', making it extremely difficult for people he encounters to understand him and form a meaningful connection with him. Nonetheless, Piper does not place blame on Ibaraki as he was ordered to keep the ‘specimen’ business hidden from society, thereby inviting her readers to keep in mind that some individuals are forced by others to not reveal their true colours for fear of ruining a specific reputation.
Throughout the journey in After Darkness, Piper engendered that remaining silent about one’s past events that shapes their future is one of the deepest flaws. She notes that for people to understand and form bonds with one another, it is extremely important to reveal their identity as masking it only arises suspicions. Piper postulates that for some, memories are nostalgic; whereas, for others it carries an unrelenting burden of guilt, forcing them to hide themselves which ultimately becomes the reason as to why they feel alone in their life.
6. Additional Essay Prompts and Analysis Questions to Consider
Analyse the role of silence in After Darkness. Compare the ways in which the characters in the text utilise or handle silence. What is Piper suggesting about the notion of silence?
Discuss the importance of friendship in the text. What is it about friends that make the characters appear more human? How can friendship bolster development in one’s character?
Racism and nationalism are prominent themes in the text. How are the two interlinked? Explore the ways they are shown throughout the text and by different characters. Is Piper indicating that the two always lead to negative consequences?
Analyse some of the narrative conventions (imagery, simile, metaphor, symbols, motifs, landscapes, language, etc.) in the novel and what they mean to certain characters and to the readers.
Explore the ways in which the text emphasises that personal conscience can oftentimes hold people back from revealing their true thoughts and feelings.
Character transformation (bildungsroman) is prevalent throughout the text. What is Piper suggesting through Ibaraki’s character in terms of the friendships and acquaintances he has formed and how have they impacted him? How have these relationships shaped him as a person in the past and present? Were such traits he developed over time beneficial for himself and those around him or have they caused the destruction of once healthy relationships?
Be sure to read as many academic articles as you can find in relation to the text in order to assist you with in-depth analysis when writing your essays. This will help you to stand out from the crowd and place you in a higher standing compared to your classmates as your ideas will appear much more sophisticated and thought-out.
Being clear and concise with the language choices is such a crucial factor. Don’t over complicate the ideas you are trying to get across to your examiners by incorporating ‘big words’ you believe will make your writing appear of higher quality, because in most cases, it does the exact opposite (see Why Using Big Words in VCE Essays Can Make You Look Dumber). Be careful! If it's a choice between using simpler language that your examiners will understand vs. using more complex vocabulary where it becomes difficult for the examiners to understand what you're trying to say, the first option is best! Ideally though, you want to find a balance between the two - a clearly written, easy to understand essay with more complex vocabulary and language woven into it.
If there is a quote in the prompt, be sure to embed the quote into the analysis, rather than making the quote its own sentence. You only need to mention this quote once in the entire essay. How To Embed Quotes in Your Essay Like a Boss has everything you need to know for this!
If you'd like to see sample A+ essays complete with annotations on HOW and WHY the essays achieved A+, then you'll definitely want to check out our After Darkness Study Guide! In it, we also cover advanced discussions on topics like structural features and context, completely broken down into easy-to-understand concepts so you can smash your next SAC or exam! Check it out here.
Anna Funder’s Stasiland and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go bring together two complex, poignant worlds of “personal stories” and subjective narration of what once was, an individual's place in history and its aftermath, especially when the world attempts to move on.
Establishing a literary allusion to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in the title, Funder’s narrator of Anna fills the role of Alice as she stumbles upon and explores the absurd and unjust world of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Driven by an almost naive curiosity, akin to Alice herself, Funder conducts extensive interviewing to uncover not only the stories and experiences of the victims of the regime, but also of the Stasi, the “internal army by which the government kept control”. Through her literary journalism, Funder creates an intimate and sensory experience for the reader, extending beyond factual occurrences to capture the “horror-romance” of East Germany, “a country which no longer exists” but its inhabitants, victims and perpetrators continue to live on.
TIP - Research the history of the German Democratic Republic, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall and the influence of the Soviet Union within East Germany, in contrast to West Germany. Understanding the backbone of “this land gone wrong” in which Funder delves into gives much greater context for the significance of her work and ideas in which you can explore in your writing.
Never Let Me Go
Ishiguro delves into human mortality through the platform of a science fiction world, where the focus is ultimately on the prospect of an existence where one’s life is knowingly shortened, and what becomes important with such a backdrop. Readers are introduced to the concept of ‘clones’, existing as live incubators of organs that will be later harvested for others. Perceived by society as less than humans, Ishiguro’s narrative focuses on clones who spent time at Hailsham, a boarding school ‘experiment’ in England which attempted to provide a more ‘humane’ education and upbringing for clones, and their sheltered perspectives on their existence, their mortality and purpose.
Authors’ views and values
Why have Funder and Ishiguro written what they have written?
Funder’s dogged pursuit to uncover and reveal the “portraits” of individuals who lived through the GDR was prompted by West Germany’s dismissal of, and use of stereotypes when these individuals were concerned, and the assumption that “no-one is interested in these people”. She discovers that “things have been put behind glass”, in the forms of museums and metaphorical mausoleums, “but they are not yet over”. Stasiland therefore acts as a work that champions the importance of memory, of remembering and of history, as Sisyphean of a task as this inevitably is because it is “working… against time”. In addition, Funder’s purposeful choice to include the perspectives of the Stasi themselves opens up another realm of understanding to the reader. It allows the audience to examine the Stasi's motives and justifications, their humanity or lack thereof, of the lessons learnt and unlearnt, as a means of framing the entire regime and of framing the spectrum of humanity.
Whilst Ishiguro’s universe differs greatly when placed alongside Stasiland, his characters also belong to a world that no longer exists, as their Hailsham upbringing evolves into a historical artefact, reflective of a world that “wanted [the clones] back in the shadows” and which remained oblivious to the reality of the clones’ existence. Ishiguro gives voice to the clones; the “poor creatures” who otherwise possessed no voice or recognised humanity in this world, and no purpose apart from their utility as organ donors. These individuals are shown to be no less human than you and I, and it is in their sheltered lives, headed towards “wherever it was [they were] supposed to be”, which permits the reader to examine their own life purpose and meaning, and how a clone’s existence is ultimately reduced in not only length, but also ability and capacity.
Both texts confront uncomfortable truths about humanity and reality, the treatment that certain individuals were unfortunately subjected to which resulted in their dehumanising, and which “broke” them, sooner or later.
TIP - Reframe this question for any text you are studying - including text response! There is intent and purpose underlying each and every text that is definitely worthy of thorough unpacking and consideration; the thinking you will do will help to further your analysis and comparison considerably.
Themes and Comparison
What are the big ideas underpinning the texts? How are they explored? What sorts of comparisons can be drawn between the two texts?
At LSG, we use the CONVERGENT and DIVERGENT strategy to help us easily find points of similarity and difference. This is particularly important when it comes to essay writing, because you want to know that you're coming up with unique comparative points (compared to the rest of the Victorian cohort!). I don't discuss this strategy in detail here, but if you're interested, check out my How To Write A Killer Comparative. I use this strategy throughout my analysis of the following themes.
Stasiland: As prompted by the VCAA 2015 exam, the GDR is indeed ‘cruel and absurd’, especially in the methods the nation constructed and enforced this society, as this ultimately broke the souls of innocent individuals, and left questions unanswered and scars unhealed for many. It showcases how what could potentially be described as 'idealistic' in terms of government control can become grotesque, how otherworldly and Orwellian this recent history seems, and how the perspectives of victim, perpetrator, outsider and more are not restricted to the land of the GDR, but to today as well. In addition, as Funder discovers, these perspectives are closely intertwined, in which certain individuals of the Stasi were victimised too, and could not remain in the "group in the know [as] one of the unmolested".
Never Let Me Go: The novel’s context of clones is removed from the reality that readers are familiar with, and as Ishiguro focuses on the clones’ perspectives throughout, there always remains an element that feels 'off' and ’not quite right’ about who they are and the purpose of their existence. Whilst the context of Never Let Me Go differs greatly from a regime with "the most perfected surveillance state of all time", it highlights an unsettling reality, in which scientific advancement has resulted in a society benefitting from the clones' existence and from organ harvesting, but who are also rejecting of the possibility of their humanity. The clones may never be able to perceive and fully understand this cruelty or absurdity themselves, but this does not mean they are not victims of this, for a fate that they could not choose.
Possible points for comparison: The victimisation of individuals in both texts, whether it was internalised or ushered into oblivion is central to the absurd worlds of Stasiland and Never Let Me Go. The clones are in a way, victims from birth, and unable to avoid their shortened existence and purpose, whereas those in the GDR who were subjected to surveillance, interrogation, torture, etc. became ensnared and damaged beyond repair; the aftermath of which they were unable to escape from. However, the closing of Hailsham and the falling of the Berlin Wall spell out different fates in the two texts - those in Stasiland may be "fettered" by their past that is "not ever, really, over", but are provided a future in which there is hope for rebirth in the "green", "lush" city of Berlin and beyond. On the contrary, the clones are only able to move toward their fate, towards "wherever it was [they are] supposed to be" and towards completion. Coupled with the naivety accompanying the clones' existence, their acceptance of what is ahead and the lack of awareness surrounding their victimisation, readers are prompted to consider the cruelty of such existence, and whether there is greater tragedy in having your "soul buckled out of shape, forever", or in never knowing who you really are.
The act of remembering
Stasiland: In discussing and unearthing a recent history of a "bygone world" that many individuals wish to "pretend it was never there", Funder's attempt to create and immortalise "portraits" of East Germans raises questions about how events and lives are remembered and forgotten. Especially when elements of this past in the GDR could not be "pinned down by facts, or documents", the detrimental impact of a lack of recognition and acknowledgement of one's past, especially one filled with trauma, is thereby highlighted by Funder. When the rest of the world deems the GDR and the Stasi to only belong "behind glass" in museums and yet it is "not yet over" for those who are still suffering and carrying scars, physical and psychological, the purpose of Stasiland rings clear and true. Whilst it is a Sisyphean attempt, "working against forgetting, and against time", through Stasiland, Funder ultimately gives a voice to the "personal stories" comprising history, before there are "none left".
Never Let Me Go: Through the lens of Kathy H's narration and the recollection of her memories surrounding her upbringing, readers uncover the pieces of her existence as moments of her past begin "tugging at [her] mind". Memory itself can be fickle, recording and preserving certain experiences but not others, and as time passes, "fading surprisingly quickly" before being lost in the ether of one's past. Ishiguro's continual mention of Kathy's memories of an event, of her years at Hailsham and beyond almost lulls the reader into overlooking this element of the narration - in which the reader's understanding is built upon an uncertain and incomplete foundation of facts; similar to how the clones' "sheltered" understanding of their world came to be. After Hailsham closes, its existence recedes into the memories of the clones, and although Kathy declares that the memories will be retained "safely in [her] head", upon her completion, this will also be lost, and Hailsham will be further diminished in history as a 'failed experiment' and one day forgotten.
Possible points for comparison: The valiant efforts to remember and preserve the once-was is woven into the fabric of both texts, despite the inevitability of forgetting as death and 'completion' claims those who lived through East Germany and Hailsham respectively. When the recent history of the GDR becomes a "lost world", and the importance of remembering what transpired is being superseded by the innovation and process of the present, it opens up room for the same mistakes of the past to be made again. Hailsham was an attempt to create a more idealised and humane upbringing for the clones, and to showcase their humanity in a society which rejected this, and the boarding school's closure reflects a failure in which any previous successes will never be acknowledged. Memory, and by extension, one's understanding of the past is what enables change in the future; in attitude, in approach, in the treatment of others, in decisions, in growth, as an individual and as a whole. With its gradual loss, it may also be ineluctable that history repeats itself in one way or another.
Subjective narration, stories and lives
Stasiland: Stasiland itself is comprised of the stories of human lives, and includes various individuals' tenacity, strength and courage to their vices, cruelty and cowardice. By seeking out not only those who were victims of the regime but also perpetrators, Funder examines the many complex facets of human nature and the irreversible impact of the GDR on East Germans and who they became or were broken into. However, the personal involvement of Anna as a narrator and most importantly, as an outsider to the GDR provides a subjective perspective of this history. Whilst this has received criticism, it is important to consider how the human experience itself is subjective, as is never being able to truly understand another individual's story as the exact experience is theirs alone to hold and perhaps be "fettered" to; both of which are evident in Stasiland.
Never Let Me Go: Ishiguro constructs a narrative in which Kathy H and the clones are assumed human individuals from the text’s introduction, and it is only as the clones uncover how they may be "troubling and strange" that the reader gains a sense of how they are perceived in society as sub-human. However, the pre-determined fate and mortality of these "poor creatures", especially as they are born and 'complete' seemingly without a scope of awareness beyond their exposure during their upbringing and their sole purpose as organ donors - renders their lives even more heart wrenching and tragic - and human. The simplicity with which Ishiguro details the musings and reflections of Kathy H, and in the concluding moment of her imagined fantasy of Tommy, as not "out of control" as she may felt, readers cannot ignore the stark juxtaposition with the circumstances of her existence, in which she ultimately has no control over her identity as a clone. To grasp autonomy, to defy and deviate from being "wherever it was [she] was supposed to be", even for a moment, Ishiguro portrays a courage which is undoubtedly human.
Possible points for comparison: When faced with the stories of lives not our own, but each individual possessing elements which resonate and resemble us, it is much more possible to understand their struggles, their intentions and their experiences. Consider the story behind each face, each character, each name, not only in these two texts but also other texts and even our lives, as we are fundamentally more similar than different when compared to each other, even in the face of separation and distinction.
Ultimately, Funder and Ishiguro's texts probe the existential question of what it means to be human and what defines one's identity, and how it is shaped by experience, fate, intentions and actions. Question the texts, question the characters, question yourselves, and you'll discover worlds and perspectives closer to home than the GDR or Hailsham may initially seem.
Plans are one of the most ignored (and underestimated) steps in the essay writing process. Some people don’t do them simply because they don’t want to, some sacrifice them because they think they’ll run out of time, and some do ‘plans’, but in reality, they’re only a rough mental outline. Each of these situations place too many students time and time again in sticky situations come an English SAC or exam.
Why plans are essential for any good essay
They ensure that you can’t mind blank — it’s all on the paper in front of you!
They ensure that you always stay on topic.
Mental plans or not having a plan at all mean that you don’t have a true direction in which your essay is going. If you’re not sure where you’re going, well, how are you going to get anywhere?
They save you time in writing time.
Instead of wasting reading time, you’ve done most of your thinking right at the beginning of the SAC or exam, positioning you to do really well in your essay because you can focus on constructing some really juicy, coherent analysis in your body paragraphs, rather than remembering your basic points and/or making sure your essay is actually answering the question.
Let’s have a look at an essay topic that I’ve tackled in the past. This one is based on Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant, a current VCE Year 12 English text. To learn more about themes, quotes, characters about this text, and to have a look at an essay topic breakdown, check out this blog post written by outstanding LSG tutor, Angelina!
“But a man could not travel along two different paths.” How does Grenville explore Rooke’s conflict of conscience in The Lieutenant?
Step 1: Highlight key words
Now, it may seem like I've just highlighted the whole prompt, and I understand why you might think that! However, each of the words highlighted convey something meaningful within the prompt. If you're ever unsure about what could be considered a key word, consider whether the prompt would have the same meaning without the word in question.
Step 2: Define key words
In this topic, the main phrase that needs defining is ‘conflict of conscience’. For me, this signals that we must consider morality and the weighing up of right and wrong, especially when tough decisions have to be made.
I’d also take a moment to analyse the quote. This essay prompt is quote-based, so it’s imperative that we discuss the quote and consider the meaning of the quote throughout our essay. For some more detailed info on how to tackle different types of essay prompts, check out this blog post.
Step 3: Start essay plan
Next, I’d start tackling the plan itself. Although it seems like the above steps would take a while, my real-life planning process only takes about 5 minutes. You certainly don’t have to write everything down and you certainly don’t have to make it make sense to anyone but yourself.
Personally, I like to format my plans in dot-point form. I write 1, 2, 3 for each of my body paragraphs and I leave a space underneath each so I can plan each paragraph.
First, I’ll just write rough topic sentences under each, so I can really step back and consider whether my plan of action for the essay’s body paragraphs will do a good job at answering the prompt itself. Again, these are only rough topic sentences — fancying them up will come during the essay writing phase.
Step 4: Important things to include in each paragraph
Once I’ve decided on what each of my body paragraphs will be about, I can them go into a bit more depth for each of them individually.
These are the elements that I include for each:
Essentially, the points that I’ll argue and the reasoning behind the paragraph
The evidence that I’ll be using to reinforce my point(s).
In Year 12, I made a conscious effort to include one literary device or metalanguage example per body paragraph in all of my English essays. This really set me apart from the rest of the state because, in reality, not enough students really focused on the language of their texts, which can really impress examiners.
Strategy: Colour-coded plans
For me, using different colours in my plans helped me organise my thoughts, distinguish between them, and ensure that I had covered everything that I wanted to cover.
Obviously, you can come up with a colour system that works for you, but this is what I came up with:
Green = metalanguage
Red = quotes
Black/blue = everything else!
And that’s it — my four-step but five minute essay planning process. Don’t be afraid to modify this to make it work for you and your needs. However, definitely DO be afraid of not planning — it’s absolutely essential for any good essay.
Hey guys. I've been doing a load of essay topic breakdowns for you guys, and we've been looking at plans for them, so I thought I would actually show you how I actually do a real life plan, one that I would do on paper if I was preparing for a SAC or an exam, as opposed to the ones that I do on YouTube because the ones that I do on YouTube are slightly different. I definitely go into more detail than I normally would. But at the same time I still do use the same concepts as I would when I do read the steps on YouTube. So I'm going to go and show you that today. And before I actually do that, I just want to preface this and tell you guys why doing a plan is so important.
So I know that a plan is something that one, a lot of people just don't do, or two, they tend to sacrifice it if they feel like they don't have enough time, or three, they do a plan in their head, but they don't actually write it down on paper. Now, all of these things are pretty detrimental for you, especially because when you write a plan, it actually helps to secure you and ensure that one, you're not going to mind blank throughout your essay or let me rephrase that, if you do mind blank throughout your essay, you will still have a piece of paper in front of you telling you, "This is what you were thinking Lisa, just go and follow this method or what you've written down here." So that way you don't just get stuck in the middle of your essay and start having a freak out because you've forgotten what you were supposed to write.
Second thing is that it ensures that you don't go off topic. This is something that happens quite frequently. If you don't have a plan, then you have this idea of, "Oh, I'll write this and this", and then somehow halfway through an essay, halfway through a paragraph, you realize, "Holy crap, I have completely veered off the topic or this has gone completely in the other direction from what I intended. This is not what I wanted." So in order to prevent that from happening, just do a plan, please! You will find that it ends up saving you so much time and it just gives you that reassurance that you need in situations where there are so many unpredictable factors, like what prompts you're actually going to get. And your focus and attention should be more about developing those ideas, rather than having a mind blank in the middle of your essay and then having a little bit of a freakout as a result.
So I'm going to base this video on a previous essay topic breakdown in the past, and that is on Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant. I was going to say Lieutenant, because I always accidentally say that, but no, it is Lieutenant. Now, if you are not doing as text as always, don't stress about it because what I want you to take away from this video is how you actually do plans, the thinking that goes behind it and the formatting around it. So let's just get started.
The essay topic that we're doing today is, "But a man could not travel along two different paths." How does Grenville explore Rooke's conflict of conscience in The Lieutenant. So as always, my first step is I will highlight the keywords that I see inside the prompt. Keywords are different for everyone, but these are the ones that I think are most important.
Firstly, the actual quote itself, how Grenville, conflict of conscience. Pretty much in this case I could probably just highlight the entire thing, but for the sake of just defining some keywords, this is what I would do. So the next step is to define key words. I think the only big key word that I need to define here is conflict of conscience. And so to me, the conflict of conscience suggests internal conflict, which implies that we'll need to consider morality and the concepts of right and wrong, especially when a difficult decision must be made and sides need to be taken. So as you can see, I've written these words down next to the keyword and that will just help me ensure that I stay on topic or I stay in tune with what the keyword is about and I don't suddenly change my mind halfway through the essay.
Then what I'll do is, I will analyze the quote itself. So this is unique because this particular essay prompt has a quote inside it, but I'll have to think about, okay, where did I see this quote? Who might've said it and what might it mean? And I'll draw it down a few notes for that. Then I'll pretty much just go straight into my plan. Now, my plans I've written within five minutes, most of the thinking is actually done during reading time. So personally, I've always found that just writing dot points is completely fine. I don't need to go more beyond that. And I'll show you a few examples now of real life year essay plans that I did during that time. And as you can see, they are pretty much just scribbles and if anybody else was to look at my essay plans, they would have no idea what I'm talking about. But you know what, for me it makes complete sense and that's all that matters. You're not graded on your plan, so just go ahead and do it your way. You do you.
So what I'll do is I'll quickly dot down one, two, three, and these represent my body paragraphs. Then I'll just write down very quickly what the topic sentences will be. I don't actually write the full topic sentence itself, but I guess the essence of it, so the key things that I will mention in the topic sentence. By writing down the three topic sentences, this allows me to take a step back and look at the essay holistically and ensure that I am answering it the way that I want to. Then what I'll do is I'll move into each individual body paragraph and write down some things that I think are important for me to remember when I go ahead and write it. So I might write down a couple of ideas that I think are important. I will write down quotes that I think are essential to my discussion. And then what I'll do is I will throw in at least one literary device or a metalanguage that I think is important to discuss.
So in this case, in this first body paragraph, it's limited omniscient third person perspective. By throwing this in, I will ensure that I can show my examiner or show my teacher that I can go on that deeper level. I'll repeat this method with both paragraph two and three. Of course for you, you might need to write down more dot points. You can write fewer dot points, it's really just dependent on every individual. If you are somebody who needs to write down the quotes more, then go ahead and do that. But for me, a lot of the quotes will stick in my head. I just need one point just to bounce off, and then from there, I'm able to pull in all of the other quotes that are necessary.
You also notice that I do things in different colors. Now, I think this is a strategy that I implemented in order to make things a lot clearer for myself before jumping into an essay. So for example, for anything that's a metalanguage based, I'll write it in green. The whole purpose for that is to ensure that in every single body paragraph, I do cover some form of a literary device because that was always really important for me. I thought that it was one of the key things that helped me differentiate myself from other students. So if I took a step back from the plan and I looked at it overall, I could see, okay, there's a green color in every single body paragraph, done. I have ticked off that criteria.
I also used to write quotes in red as well. So red just helped me do the same thing. It helps me take a step back and go, "Yep, there's a bit of red in every single body paragraph. I'm definitely including quotes," which might sound pretty stupid, but it's just that little bit of reassurance that I think really makes that difference when it comes to a stressful situation.
That's pretty much it. It's just five minutes of your time, so we probably don't need to go into it in too much more detail than that. But as you can see from my essay plans, I'm quite minimal. I just keep things as short as possible because that's all I really need because a lot of the information is here, but I just need to reinforce it and ensure that it is concrete when it is on paper.
So for yourself, I would recommend that you start practicing your plans. You can try my method and see if that works for you, but over time, I'm sure that you'll come to find your own way of writing plans that work for you.
Next week I'm going to have another essay topic breakdown for you. Can you guess what it might be? If you want to take a stab, put it in the comment section below, but that's it for me in this week guys. I hope that was helpful for you, and don't forget plans are crucial to an amazing essay.
If you needed any extra help, then my mailing list is always available for you guys. I send out emails every single week just giving you new advice and tips for your studies, so I'll put that in the description box below for you to sign up. Other than that, I will talk to you guys next week. Bye!
The Dressmaker is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Set in Dungatar, a barren wasteland of traditionalism and superstition, isolated amidst the rapidly modernising post-World War II Australia, acclaimed author Rosalie Ham’s gothic novel, The Dressmaker, provides a fascinating window into 1950s Australia. I find it to be one of the most intriguing texts of our time - managing to weave together a historical narrative with humour, wit, and modern-day social concerns regarding patriarchy, class, and the effects of isolation.
The Dressmaker is one of those texts which reinforces why studying English can be so great when you give it a proper chance. This subject isn’t just about studying books and writing essays, it’s also about learning new insight you’ll carry with you throughout your life. Specifically, The Dressmaker offers real insight into some of the most pressing issues that have been around for centuries - how communities respond to crisis, why certain groups are marginalised, and how we should respond to tyranny and intolerance. Ham’s novel is layered with meaning, character development, and a moving plot which really helps us reflect on who we are as people. Not every book can do that - and, seemingly, on a surface level, you wouldn’t expect a novel about fashion and betrayal to do it either. But somehow, it just does, and it’s what makes The Dressmaker one of my favourite books of all time.
Before we move on to looking at The Dressmaker’s plot and delving deep into analysis, it’s really important to understand the main historical context which underpins the novel. By ‘historical context’, all we mean here is the factual background which tells us why Rosalie Ham wrote her novel, and why she chose the particular setting of Dungatar. After all, Dungatar is a fictionalised community, but its references to post-World War II Australia are very real. The main message I want you to take from this section is that understanding 1950s Australia is essential to understanding Dungatar.
Australian Geography and the Great Depression
Before we delve into talking about this historical theme, I’d like to first acknowledge that Australia was colonised against the wishes of its First Nations peoples, and also recognise that sovereignty was never ceded. This discussion broadly reflects the experiences of colonised Australia because that is the frame which Rosalie Ham provides. However, at Lisa’s Study Guides, weacknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which this study guide was written, edited, and published, and pay our respects to elders past, present, and emerging.
Ham’s fictional setting of Dungatar is a perfect example, as it is placed in the Australian Outback. The ‘Outback’ doesn’t exactly have any borders, so which regions of Australia count as part of the 'outback' will be slightly different from person to person. A general rule to help us understand the Outback is that it is way out in the centre of the country, far away from urban Australia. Its main industry is pastoralism, which refers to the grazing of cattle, sheep, and other species such as goats. This is a tough lifestyle, and as such small towns and a lot of room for livestock is preferable. These communities are often isolated, and don’t really communicate with the outside world unless it’s about trading their livestock into the cities. Isolation tends to create its own culture, practices, and social standards.For Dungatar, we see massive economic divides and strict expectations around the role of men and women. For instance, the McSwineys live in absolute poverty, yet Councilman Evan and his family are relatively wealthy. Most of the women in the town either care for children or stay at home, reflecting the outdated idea that it is the role of the man to work, and the role of the woman to be a homemaker. As much as we can look at these ideas and realise how flawed they are, for Dungatar it is a way of life to which they’ve stuck for decades. Changing this way of life would be dangerous for them because it means they have to completely reconsider the way they live.
Part 1: Plot
Myrtle Dunnage arrives in Dungatar after many years, seeking to care for her mother Molly Dunnage.
Myrtle, who now wishes to be known as Tilly, reconnects with Sergeant Farrat, Dungatar’s eccentric local policeman who is doing his evening lap in the town. He takes Tilly through the town and up ‘The Hill’, which is where Molly lives.
While Tilly is caring for Molly, mental and physical illness causes her to believe that Tilly is an outsider who wishes to poison her. Tilly perseveres in order to shower, feed, and clothe the woman, as well as clear out the house.
The perspective changes to Sergeant Farrat, who is patrolling the town centre a day later. He sees a returned William Beaumont sitting in a car. Moving into Muriel and Alvin Pratt’s General Store, Farrat claims to be buying fabric for his house. Their daughter Gertrude, who is reading a fashion magazine, realises that the material he is buying fits with the latest skirt designs across Australia.
After learning about Mr Almanac’s pharmacy, the footballers move into Purl and Fred Bundle’s pub.
The readers are introduced to the McSwiney family, who with Edward and Mae as the father and mother, have 11 children. They’re said to live in the tip at the edge of town.
The following weekend Tilly and Molly leave The Hill to attend the football match played in Dungatar between the two neighbouring towns, Itheca and Winyerp. Lois Pickett and Beula Harridene give her an immediately negative reaction, taking offence when Molly questions whether their cakes are poisoned.
After getting medicine from Mr. Almanac and his assistant Nancy, Tilly and Molly run into Irma, his sickly wife. Her arthritis makes mobility difficult, and as such she is found sitting on the bank of the river, where she asks Tilly not to let the town know that she had been cooking meals for Molly in Tilly’s absence.
Nancy and Sister Ruth Dimm are shown to be having a secret relationship in the back of the phone exchange building before the perspective moves back to Buela Harridene, who demands that Sergeant Farrat investigate the McSwiney children for supposedly pelting her roof with stones.
Tilly sits on the riverbank, remembering her memories and trauma in Dungatar, with the crucial event being when Stewart Pettyman attempted to headbutt Tilly, but she moved out of the way, causing him to ram into a wall, snap his neck and die.
Marigold and Evan Pettyman are introduced to the audience, with Marigold being a nervous individual who is put to sleep by Evan with pills every night and sexually assaulted.
Following Dungatar’s victory in the grand finale, which sends frivolity and celebration throughout the town, a package arrives for Tilly. Ruth reads through all its contents after picking its lock whilst Tilly reluctantly meets with Teddy, who continues to visit her.
Tilly and Molly visit the Almanacs for dinner, wherein Tilly’s medicine causes Irma’s pain to disappear. Although Mr Almanac is unpleasant – stating that Tilly can never be forgiven for Pettyman’s death – the night moves on, Tilly returns home and is visited by Teddy yet again.
Part 1: Quotes and Analysis
“She used to have a lot of falls, which left her with a black eye or a cut lip.”
Here, Ham subtly hints that Irma Almanac’s injuries were not solely due to ‘falls’, as it is also said that once her husband grew old the ‘falls’ progressively ceased. Abuse of women is common in Dungatar, and it is almost expected that women will be subservient to men and do as they demand.
“His new unchecked gingham skirt hung starched and pressed on the wardrobe doorknob behind him.”
Sergeant Farrat subverts social expectations placed upon 1950s men by adoring feminine fashion. However, the fact that he is forced to hide his passion reveals how, in conservative towns such as Dungatar, individuals are forced to suppress their true selves in order to fit in with the broader population. There is no room for individuality or creative expression, as this is seen as a challenge to Dungatar’s social order and the clear separation between the roles of men and women.
“What’s the point of having a law enforcer if he enforces the law according to himself, not the legal law?”
Buela Harridene pretends to care about the enforcement of the law, but her true concern is bending the law to her own will to make those who step outside of their socially defined roles suffer. She is at odds with Sergeant Farrat as he seeks to control the townspeople’s worst instincts, yet people like Buela ensure that vengeance, rumour, and suspicion are still the defining features of Dungatar.
“Well let me tell you if he’s got any queer ideas we’ll all suffer.”
Although this specifically refers to William Beaumont, it alludes to the broader picture that the people of Dungatar believe that any outside ideas fundamentally threaten everything about the way they live. Even before Beaumont has opened his mouth, he is already a threat since he may have witnessed another way of living disconnected from Dungatar’s conservatism.
If you'd like to see the all Chapter plots, their analysis, along with important quotes, then have a look at our The Dressmaker Study Guide.
Themes, Motifs, and Key Ideas
Isolation and Modernisation
One of the central conflicts in The Dressmaker is between the isolated town of Dungatar, and the rapidly modernising surroundings of post-depression 1950s Australia, as we established in Historical Context. Ham uses this dichotomy (meaning when two opposing factors are placed right next to each other) to question whether isolated communities like Dungatar really have a role in the modern world.
Our clearest indication that Dungatar is not only traditionalistic, but absolutely reviles change and outside influence, is right at the start of the novel, when a train conductor laments that there’s “naught that’s poetic about damn [progress].” Here, we see the overriding contention of Rosalie Ham’s novel - that because a community like Dungatar has been isolated for so long, it has become absolutely committed to maintaining its traditionalism at all costs. There are more symbolic reflections of how stagnant the town has become, such as the fact that Evan Pettyman, the town’s elected Councillor, has been in the role for multiple decades without fail - or that the same teacher who ostracised Tilly as a child, Prudence Dimm, is still in charge of the town’s school.
The Dressmaker speaks extensively about social class. By class, what I mean is the economic and social divisions which determine where people sit in society. For instance, we could say that the British Royals are ‘upper class’, whilst people living paycheque to paycheque and struggling to get by are ‘lower class’.
It's also important to introduce the notion of a classist society. A classist society is one where all social relations are built on these aforementioned economic and social divides - in other words, everything you do in life, and everything you are able to do, is built on where you sit in the class structure.
For The Dressmaker, the question then becomes - "how does class relate to Dungatar?" Well, Dungatar is one of the most classist societies around, where societal worth is explicitly based on one’s position in the class structure.
Femininity, Fashion, and Patriarchy
By now, you’ve probably realised that The Dressmaker’s title is significant. Fashion and ‘dressmaking’ are absolutely essential to understanding the life of Tilly Dunnage, and how she interacts with the people of Dungatar. We’ll go into this further, but Ham specifically delves into the power of fashion as a form of expression which empowers people and their femininity, yet she also examines how, in a community like Dungatar, fashion nonetheless ends up being entirely destructive.
Dungatar and Femininity
The idea of femininity describes, on a basic level, the ability of a woman to express herself independent of any man. Others would describe femininity in more definitive terms, but it’s really in the eyes of the beholder. What’s explicitly clear, however, is that, in order to suppress femininity, women in Dungatar are repressed and kept under the control of men. Marigold Pettyman is raped by her husband, Evan Pettyman every night, while the “ladies of Dungatar…turn their backs” when they see the Councillor coming - knowing his crimes, but being too afraid to challenge him. Above all else, Dungatar exists within a patriarchal framework, which is one where men hold structural power and authority, and that power relies on keeping women silent and subservient. In such a society, the role of women in Dungatar is vacuous (meaning that they don’t have any real purpose) - they frill about, spread rumours, and otherwise have no set roles other than to be obedient to their husband.
Fashion as Empowerment
Within this context, Rosalie Ham explores the power of fashion to empower femininity, and, even if it’s in a limited sense, give the patriarchy its first real challenge. Gertrude is a perfect example, as Tilly’s dressmaking sees her eventually transform at her wedding, even though she is initially described as a “good mule” by Sergeant Farrat; symbolically being stripped of her humanity and beauty by being compared to an animal. However, Gertrude becomes the spectacle of the town at her wedding, wearing a “fine silk taffeta gown” and presenting an elegant, empowered image. The townspeople even note that Tilly is an “absolute wizard with fabric and scissors”, and, with the use of the word ‘wizard’, it becomes evident that the women of Dungatar are absolutely unaccustomed to having any form of expression or individuality - a patriarchal standard which Tilly challenges through her work.
Think also about Sergeant Farrat. Even if he isn’t a woman, he nonetheless is able to embrace his feminine side through fashion. Indeed his “gingham skirt” and secretive love of female fashion is utilised by Ham to demonstrate that, even in a patriarchal settlement like Dungatar, fashion is immensely empowering and important.
Fashion and Destruction
However, as always, Ham elucidates that there too exists a dark side to fashion in a town like Dungatar. Ultimately, the women of Dungatar, in their elegant dresses, end up looking like a “group of European aristocrats’ wives who had somehow lost their way”. What this quote tells us is that, despite a temporary possibility for empowerment, the women of Dungatar did not fundamentally change their identities. As “aristocrats’ wives”, they are still tied to a patriarchal system in which, even if they were better dressed, nothing was ultimately done to overcome their tradition for rumour, suspicion, and ostracising outcasts. Indeed, this becomes most evident at the Social Ball, where, despite wearing Tilly’s dresses, her name is “scrubb[ed] out” from the seating list - symbolically expressing a desire for Tilly’s modernising, urban, outside influence to be removed from Dungatar, even as they simultaneously wear her dresses!
Tilly, or Myrtle Dunnage, is the protagonist of The Dressmaker, and an acclaimed dressmaker trained in Paris. Analysing Tilly requires an understanding that she believes she is cursed: starting with being exiled from Dungatar after the accidental death of Stewart Pettyman, and then finding her “seven month old” baby Pablo “in his cot...dead”, as well as witnessing the deaths of Teddy and Molly. In her own words, she is “falser than vows made in wine”, and does not personally believe she can be trusted. This pessimistic perspective on life inspires Tilly to adopt an incredibly individualistic understanding of the world; believing that the only way for her to survive is embracing her individual worth and rejecting toxic communities. Indeed, although Tilly initially arrived in Dungatar to care for her mother - a selfless act - the town spiralling into vengeance only confirmed Tilly’s pessimism. Her modern dressmaking ultimately could not change a fundamentally corrupt community predicated on “nothing ever really chang[ing]”, and therefore the maintenance of a culture of rumour and suspicion. Indeed, in “raz[ing Dungatar] to the ground”, Rosalie Ham reminds us that Tilly is an unapologetically individually-focused person, and will not tolerate anyone, or anything, which seeks to make her conform to the status quo and repress her individuality.
Molly Dunnage is Tilly’s mother, a bedridden, elderly woman whose sickness drives Tilly back into Dungatar. Molly is commonly known as ‘Mad Molly’ by the townspeople, but what this hides is the fact that Molly was not born mentally insane. Rather, after being “tormented” by Evan Pettyman into having his illegitimate child and seeing Tilly exiled from Dungatar, the malicious actions of the community drive her into insanity.Even in her incapacitated and crazed state, Molly holds such love for Tilly that she attempts to stop her engaging with the community, and thus the symbolism of Molly “dismant[ling] her sewing machine entirely” was that, due to her experiences, she did not believe that the people of Dungatar would ever accept Tilly, either as a dressmaker or a person. Molly’s death is ultimately a pivotal event, and awakens Tilly to the fact that only “revenge [could be] our cause”, and thus that Dungatar is fundamentally irredeemable.
Teddy McSwiney is the eldest son of the McSwiney family, Dungatar’s poorest residents. Teddy is a unique case, as although he’s a McSwiney, he is noted for being incredibly well-liked in the town - even going so far as to be described by Purl as the town’s “priceless full forward” in Dungatar’s AFL team. Nonetheless, as we discussed under the Social Class theme, Dungatar remains an unashamedly classist society, and as such, despite Teddy being valued in his usefulness as a footy player and the “nice girls lov[ing] him”, he “was a McSwiney” - discounted from the town’s dating scene or any true level of social worth. Teddy becomes essential to the plot when he and Tilly spark a budding romance. Whereas the majority of Dungatar rejects Tilly or refuses to stand against the crowd, Teddy actively seeks to remind Tilly of her worth - saying that he “doesn’t believe in curses”. However, his death after suffocating in a “sorghum mill” reiterates a sad reality in Dungatar; it is always the most vulnerable townspeople who pay the price for classist discrimination, ostracisation, and suspicion.
Sergeant Farrat is one of The Dressmaker’s most interesting characters. On the surface, he’s nothing but a police officer who manages Dungatar. However, Farrat’s position is far more complex than meets the eye - as a police officer, he is entrusted with enforcing the “legal law”, yet must also contain the influence of malicious individuals such as Buela Harradine who would otherwise use the enforcement of that law to spread slander about individuals like the McSwineys, who she considers “bludgers” and “thieves”. Despite Dungatar’s complications, Farrat considers the townspeople “his flock”, and this religious, Christ-like imagery here tells us how he is essentially their protector. Farrat is, in essence, entrusted with preventing the townspeople from destroying themselves (by now, we all know how easily the townspeople slide into hatred and division!). Here’s the interesting thing though - at the same time Sergeant Farrat is protecting Dungatar, he is also personally repressed by its conservative standards. Rosalie Ham establishes Farrat as a man with a love for vibrant, expressive, female fashion, and from his “gingham skirts” which he sews in private to his time spent with Tilly while she sews, Ham demonstrates to us that Dungatar’s conservatism affects everyone. Even though he tries to defend Tilly as the townspeople descend on her after Teddy’s death, Tilly destroys his house along with Dungatar anyway - signalling that, no matter how hard Sergeant Farrat tried to reconcile his position as protector of Dungatar and his own person, the town could not be saved.
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The Dressmaker is written in the Gothic style, which means it combines romance with death and horror, particularly horror of the emotional kind. The Dressmaker is divided into four sections, each named after a type of fabric Tilly uses in her work. You can use these in your essays to show how important dressmaking and fashion is to the plot’s progression, especially considering each section starts with fabric. The four types are:
A fabric made from cotton or yarn, with a checkered shape. Gingham is often used as a ‘test fabric’ in designing fashion or for making tablecloths. This gives it a rustic, imperfect feel signifying Tilly’s return to her hometown and complicated past. The name is thought to originate from a Malay word meaning ‘separate’, mirroring Tilly’s feelings of isolation from the rest of Dungatar. In this section of the novel, Sergeant Farrat also buys gingham fabric to secretly make into a skirt, symbolising how the town is still rife with secrets and a disparity between the public and private personas of its inhabitants.
A fabric used for bridal gowns. Gertrude is married in this section and her dress, which Tilly makes, is the first instance where the town witnesses her work. Shantung originates from China, matching this notion of exoticism and foreignness which seeing the dress spreads among the townspeople.
A fabric noted for its ability to be used for a wide variety of purposes. This is the section in which the ball occurs and a variety of Tilly’s dresses are unveiled for the town to see.
A richly decorative fabric made with threads of gold and silver. Brocade is used primarily for upholstery, drapery, and costumes. This is a reference to the costumes of Dungatar’s play, the climax of the novel which occurs in this section.
Sample Essay Topics
1. “They looked like a group of European aristocrats’ wives who had somehow lost their way.” Fashion is both liberating and oppressive. Discuss.
2. How does Rosalie Ham represent the power of love throughout The Dressmaker?
3. Gender repression is rife in The Dressmaker. To what extent do you agree?
4. “Damn progress, there’s naught that’s poetic about diesel or electric. Who needs speed?” What is Ham’s essential messageabout progress in The Dressmaker?
Now it's your turn! Give these essay topics a go. For more sample essay topics, head over to our The Dressmaker Study Guideto practice writing essays using the analysis you've learnt in this blog!
We’ve got a theme-based prompt here, which really calls for your essay to be explicitly focused on the theme at hand. That means that we shouldn’t stray from the idea of ‘oppressive communities’. Keep it as the centre of your essay and look at how events relate to this idea - we’ll break it down more in Step 2 so you can properly explore it.
Because there’s a ‘Discuss’ qualifier added to the end of the prompt, a clear and concise contention is really important. What you’re being asked to do is, again, stick with the topic frame. That means that going for the usual “two agree, one disagree” structure is decent, but I wouldn’t suggest it as the most efficient way to go. Instead, what you’ll see that I do with this essay is ‘discuss’ how the topic is present throughout all three of our arguments.
Step 2: Brainstorm
Let’s start by breaking down the key words of the topic.
We have the idea of an ‘oppressive community’, which refers to communities that are built on marginalising certain individuals so the majority can maintain power. This is quite a clear reference to Dungatar, but expect that most essay questions for The Dressmaker won’t directly reference Tilly or the town, even if they’re quite clearly talking about them. Something for which you should look out – don’t let the wording phase you!
The addition of the word ‘fundamentally’ doesn’t change that much, but what it does tell us is that the essay is asking us to agree that Dungatar is oppressive to its core. In other words, its ‘fundamentals’ are based on oppression. I would not recommend trying to disagree with this basic premise, as it means you’re going against the topic in a ‘Discuss’ prompt which, as we discussed above, isn’t the best option in my view.
Step 3: Create a Plan
One of the most logical ways to approach this topic is a chronological structure. By that, what I mean is following the text in the order events occur; before Tilly’s arrival, during Tilly’s time in Dungatar, and the consequences that arise after they make her an outcast once again.
This way, you can stay on topic and look at how Dungatar is oppressive even before Tilly shows up again, how that ramps up as she establishes her dressmaking business, and what Ham’s final message is on rejecting oppressive communities and embracing individual worth.
If you find this essay breakdown helpful, then you might want to check out our The Dressmaker Study Guidewhere we cover 5 A+ sample essays with EVERY essay annotated and broken down on HOW and WHY these essays achieved A+ so you reach your English goals! Let's get started.
We’ve explored themes, literary devices and characters and development amongst other things over on our After Darkness by Christine Piper blog post. If you need a quick refresher or you’re new to studying this text, I highly recommend checking it out!
Here, we’ll be breaking down an After Darkness essay topic using LSG’s THINK and EXECUTE strategy, a technique to help you write better VCE essays. If you’re unfamiliar with this strategy, you can learn about it in our How To Write A Killer Text Response study guide.
Within the THINK strategy, we have 3 steps, or ABC. These ABC components are:
Step 1: Analyse
Step 2: Brainstorm
Step 3: Create a Plan
Let’s get into it!
‘While Ibaraki clearly suffers the consequences of his actions, it is those closest to him who pay the highest price. Discuss.’
Step 1: Analyse
This is a theme-based prompt, and the keywords are: suffer, consequence, actions and highest price. You want to explore both the evidence that supports the statement and also any evidence that may offer a contradiction to the statement. From here you can find the definition of the keywords to help develop some questions to explore.
Step 2: Brainstorm
To suffer is to be affected by or subject to something unpleasant.
Is Ibaraki the only one who suffers? Who else suffers? Kayoko, Johnny, Stan, Sister Bernice.
How do characters deal with their suffering differently? Kayoko and Sister Bernice abandon their relationships with Ibaraki, Johnny becomes agitated and spiteful, Stan becomes depressed.
A consequence is a result of an action.
Are the consequences negative or positive? Johnny being outspoken in the internment camp angers the traditionalist Japanese, but creates a sense of kinship amongst the half-blood Japanese.
Can characters overcome these consequences or learn from them? Ibaraki eventually learns from his mistakes and grows as a result.
An action is the process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim.
Is it Ibaraki’s actions, or lack thereof that lead to consequences? It is often his silence and obedience that cause trouble. For example, not telling Kayoko about his work leads to the failure of their marriage.
Is it only Ibaraki who makes mistakes? Sister Bernice ignores her religion to confess her love for Ibaraki.
What are the factors that cause the characters to act in the way that they do? Ibaraki’s guilt and fear of authority and judgement prevent him from speaking up on multiple occasions.
Highest price refers to Ibaraki’s suffering being above all else.
Is this true? Ibaraki loses his dignity, his friends, his wife, his unborn child, his family, his job and his freedom. However, he does partially regain these.
Who suffers the most? Kayoko has a miscarriage and her marriage to Ibaraki fails. Stan is assaulted by other internees and is eventually killed by a guard. Johnny becomes an outcast in his community and is bullied by other internees.
At this point, you can begin to group your ideas and evidence from the text to support your claims.
Throughout the novel, Piper uses a variety of literary devices including dialogue, simile and foreshadowing to convey her message of every action having a consequence. The most prominent of these is her use of imagery and metaphor which she uses to illustrate Ibaraki’s guilt and the way it impacts his actions. However, the story is not only centred around Ibaraki. Piper also highlights that people will often face consequences no matter what decision they make. She does this through her use of foil characters (characters who are used to highlight a particular trait in another character). For example, Ibaraki’s fear and obedience are emphasised by the courage of Kayoko and Johnny Chang. These characters, alongside Ibaraki, face suffering as a result of their actions.
From these ideas, the main themes I am going to explore are what factors affect the character’s actions, and how the consequences of these actions can lead to negative, but also positive change.
Step 3: Create a Plan
Whilst the novel centres around Ibaraki’s actions and their consequences, he is not the only character that makes mistakes and is forced to face the repercussions.
It is not necessarily Ibaraki’s actions, but lack of action that often results in the suffering of those around him. Consider the reasons for his lack of action: his blind devotion to authority, his fear of judgement, his ongoing guilt and regret from previous situations.
Ibaraki’s lack of action acts as a perpetuating factor for the suffering of those closest to him, but it is not the only factor.
Ibaraki may pay the highest price for his actions. The structure of the storyline to include a chapter from Ibaraki’s perspective years later indicates that these consequences have ultimately led to positive change.
Now it is time to write the essay!
Set during the Pacific War, Christine Piper’s After Darkness explores the difficulties and misfortunes many face during wartime. Depicting the rise and fall of Japan’s war efforts (1), After Darkness highlights that all actions have consequences of varying severity, particularly those of protagonist Dr Ibaraki Tomokazu. Throughout the novel, Ibaraki’s lack of action perpetuates the suffering of those closest to him, however, this is shown to be one of many factors and often initiates positive change within him, allowing his character to develop. Fundamentally, After Darkness highlights that change can only occur if people face the repercussions of their actions. (2)
Annotations (1) In the introduction, it is important to introduce the text withcontext. As After Darkness is predominantly set in 1942 during wartime in both Japan and Australia, it is important to include this in the introduction in order to explore the essay topic with a complete understanding.
(2) Another key part of the introduction is to briefly introduce the topics you will discuss throughout the essay.
Throughout the novel, Piper emphasises the idea that all actions have consequences, however, this idea is not limited to Ibaraki. Across the three novel strands, protagonist Dr Tomokazu Ibaraki’s suffering as a result of his mistakes is depicted through both his internal and external dialogue. Ibaraki makes many significant mistakes throughout his lifetime, one of these being his failure to perform a dissection of a child when working at Unit 731. Despite ‘not [being] [him]self’ (3) when asked to perform the operation, Ibaraki is promptly fired. His termination of employment is not the only consequence of his failure, as shame continues to take over his confidence. This is illustrated when he was ‘unable to go on’ during an operation in Broome, despite being in a completely different scenario. Through Ibaraki’s flashback of ‘Black dots on a child’s belly’, Piper indicates the torment and lasting effects of consequences on an individual (4). Whilst the novel centres around his mistakes, it is revealed that Ibaraki is not the only character who is forced to face the repercussions of their actions. Despite acting as foils for Ibaraki and presenting many different qualities, Australian internees Johnny Chang and Stan Suzuki also struggle immensely to overcome the results of their behaviours. Johnny Chang’s outspoken nature is often shown to cause disruption among the camp, for example, labelling the imperialist Japanese as ‘emperor worshipping pig’s.’ In standing for his beliefs, Johnny creates a tense division within groups, leading to the half Australian internees being treated like ‘outcasts’. Conversely, Stan’s introverted behaviour results in his eventual death (5). Piper’s contention that all actions have consequences is arguably enforced strongly through Stan’s death, as it results from the failure of many characters to act. Ibaraki’s inability to open up, Johnny’s selfishness and Stan’s loss of self are inevitably all factors leading to his eventual demise. This is ultimately reinforced when Johnny states ‘It should’ve been me Doc’, indicating he has finally realised his role in the tragedy.
Annotations (3) In order toembed quotes, words, prefixes and suffixes can be added to ensure the sentence flows correctly. However, you must indicate that you have edited the quote by placing your changes in squarebrackets. Here, the original quote was ‘not myself’ but it has been changed to fit the sentence.
(4) Whilst it is important to include quotes, it is even more important that you analyse how the author uses the quote to convey a message. In this case, the example of one of Ibaraki’s many flashbacks is used to bear Piper’s belief that one cannot escape the repercussions of their actions.
(5)Comparison is a powerful way of exploring the author’s ideas throughout the text. Here, Johnny’s outspoken nature is contrasted with Stan’s ‘introverted behaviour’, yet both concede repercussions. This supports the idea that all actions have consequences, no matter their nature.
Ibaraki’s lack of action acts as a perpetuating factor for the suffering of those closest to him, however, it is not the only factor. After Darkness shows the faults in many of Ibaraki’s actions, suggesting his mistakes lead to the misfortunes of many of those around him but this is only partially true. Stan Suzuki’s death is a pivotal moment in the novel where Ibaraki begins to truly express his emotions and open up about the pain he feels (6). Ibaraki realises that he ‘could have done something’ when opening up to the investigators of Stan’s death, leading to the conclusion that Ibaraki is to blame. Piper illustrates that suffering results as a combination of factors through the later revelations of Johnny’s escape attempt and the instability of the ‘trigger-happy’ guard who shot Stan. This idea is reinforced through the breakdowns of Ibaraki’s close relationships with Kayoko and Sister Bernice. Whilst Ibaraki’s emotionally distant nature catalysed the loss of these significant relationships, it was not the only factor. Both Kayoko and Sister Bernice are structured with similar characteristics in the novel, one being their confidence and strength in their beliefs. Nevertheless, both women lack this characteristic when it comes to their relationship with Ibaraki (7). Ibaraki admits his separation from Kayoko is his ‘greatest regret’, and whilst the first-person perspective does not give an insight into Kayoko’s side, she is shown to lack her usual self-assuredness. Similarly, Ibaraki’s allowance of ‘silence [to] stretch between…’ him and Sister Bernice is hurtful and a failure on his behalf, yet she still willingly confesses her feelings, aware of the risks involved. This is evident when ‘her eyes dart away from [his]’, implying she is ashamed of her statement as it contradicts her religion and the terms of their work relationship and friendship. This results in an abrupt end to their friendship as the embarrassment of the repercussions of her actions overwhelm Sister Bernice. Whilst the series of mistakes that Ibaraki makes throughout the novel show that his actions cause grief for both him and the people around him, they also highlight that the misfortune of others is not always the fault of one individual.
Annotations (6) Referring to specific events in the text is extremely useful to support your ideas and claims. However, it is important that you avoid over-explaining the event, as this will lead to you retelling, rather than analysing the text. See How To Avoid Retelling the Story for more tips.
(7) An often-overlooked literary device is the use of foils. A foil is a character that is used to highlight a particular trait in another character, often a flaw. In this case, Piper uses the similarities between Kayoko and Sister Bernice, and the ultimate failure of their relationships. This highlights Ibaraki’s repetition of his mistakes, which we can attribute to his ongoing guilt.
Ibaraki ultimately pays the highest price for his actions; although this is shown to result in positive change. Through her descriptions of Australia and Japan, Piper uses the juxtaposition of light and dark imagery to illustrate how suffering can lead to learning and growth. Facing racism in Broome when labelled as a ‘Bloody Jap…’, trauma from his experiences in Unit 731 and hardship during his internment at Loveday, Ibaraki is constantly a victim of circumstance. Even so, the pressures and torment of these events force him to seek the support of others. The colourful descriptions of the ‘pink spur of land crested with green’ foreshadow the positive change to come for Ibaraki (8). This becomes evident when Ibaraki finally opens up to Stan in the infirmary about his separation from Kayoko. Ibaraki’s development as a character continues as he learns to trust despite the unfair circumstances of being interned. Although memories of trees haunting the river’s edge ‘like lost people’ and the bark of red trees appearing ‘like blistered skin’ continue to plague Ibaraki’s conscience, they force him to confront his past and in turn begin to heal. Through the retrospective novel, Piper describes Japan as where ‘darkness crowded the corners’ and Ibaraki worked ‘in the basement’, indicating his misguided obedience and attachment to silence. This not only illustrates (9) Ibaraki’s trauma, but emphasises his drastic development through his experiences. The importance of the consequences Ibaraki has faced throughout his lifetime are reinforced in the final pages of the novel after he reads Sister Bernice’s letter and has an epiphany. The discovery that he had ‘clung to the ideal of discretion’ creates a sense of hope for Ibaraki’s future and emphasises his newfound understanding of life through the consequences he has faced. (10)
Annotations (8) Ensure you don’t just randomly place quotes throughout the essay, but instead, analyse them to give them meaning. An easy way to do this is by including the quote, its connotations and what emotions or ideas they provoke, followed by why the author has used it. In this case, the quote was the ‘pink spur of land crested with green.’ Its connotations were positive such as colour, happiness, and hope. These connotations were used to foreshadow positive change.
(9) Using a variety of vocabulary such as ‘illustrates’, ‘explores’ and ‘demonstrates’ shows that you are not only identifying what the author is doing but that you understand how and why they have done it in this way. This is ultimately the goal of a text response essay.
(10) It is important to ensure the flow of your essay to show sophistication in your writing. It is not only the ideas you have, but the way in which you convey and explain them that ultimately indicates your understanding of the text. A simple way to do this is to use a summary sentence at the end of each topic that subscribes to the idea and links to the previous or following paragraph.
Essentially After Darkness highlights the necessity of facing consequences for our actions to promote learning and growth. Whilst Ibaraki and many other characters suffered as a result of their behaviour, Piper asserts that Ibaraki is not the overall perpetrator but ultimately pays the highest price of all. (11)
Annotations (11) Just like the introduction, the conclusion is a brief summary of the discussion topics throughout your text response. Most importantly, after exploring all of the evidence you must form a stance in relation to the essay topic. Many students believe that this needs to be a simple and definite yes or no, which is not the case. Instead, I have suggested that Ibaraki is not the only one to blame for other character’s suffering, but that ultimately, he paid the highest price. Check out 5 Tips for a Mic-Drop Worthy Essay Conclusion if you need more help finishing your essay off with a bang!
If you found this essay breakdown helpful, then you might want to check out our After Darkness Study Guide which includes 5 A+ sample essays with EVERY essay annotated and broken down on HOW and WHY these essays achieved A+ so you reach your English goals!
After Darkness is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out ourUltimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Ransom is usually studied in the Australian curriculum under Area of Study 1 - Text Response. For a detailed guide on Text Response, check out our Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Plot, Analysis, Important Passages and Quotes
Priam is an elderly king of Troy. As a child, his sister Hesione saved him from slavery, and had his named changed from Podarces to Priam, the name meaning ‘the ransomed one’ or ‘the price paid'. After the death of his son Hector, Priam envisions himself in plain clothing, riding a plain cart to Achilles who is effectively holding Hector ransom. His vision is the catalyst for the novel’s events, for his journey is one of learning and self-development. Though the royal family is doubtful of his plan to save Hector, Priam is resolute and insists that he needs to try his best to confront Achilles as a father, rather than as king. After many decades as king of Troy, Priam is determined to reinvent how he will be remembered; as a king who performed an extraordinary act of heroism in order to save his beloved son.
Achilles is known as the greatest warrior of the Greeks. The death of Patroclus, his closest companion and hinted lover, drives Achilles to insanity. Hector murdered Patroclus and, as a result, Achilles takes revenge by killing Hector. He then drags Hector’s dead body along the walls of Troy for the next 11 days. Achilles loses his sense of humanity as he is possessed by his rage, hatred and grief.
Somax is representative of the ‘common man’ in Ransom. He is chosen to escort Priam to Achilles. His simple and plain presence is contrasted with Priam’s royal status. He often engages in useless chatter and performs daily activities in a way that is foreign to the king. Although Somax is far from royalty, his great deal of affection for his daughter-in-law and granddaughter teaches Priam about love, family and life.
Beauty is Somax’s favourite mule. She accompanies Priam and Somax on their journey to the Greek camp where Achilles resides.
Somax’s other mule who carries the cart to Achilles’ camp.
Hecuba is Priam’s beloved wife and mother of Hector. She is initially uncertain of Priam’s vision to save Hector. However, after hearing Priam’s sentimental reasons, she shows support and urges him to first share his plan with their family and the kingdom’s council before he departs.
Hector is Priam’s son and also the leader of the Trojan army. He is kind, brave and noble without any cruel intentions, unlike his rival Achilles. During a battle between the Trojans and the Greeks, Hector kills Patroclus. This results in Achilles challenging Hector to a battle, resulting in Hector’s death and Achilles’ triumph.
Neoptolemus is Achilles’ son. Although he is mentioned throughout Ransom, he makes his first appearance at the end of the novel where he savagely slaughters an old and defenseless Priam in an effort to avenge his father’s death.
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Ransom explores who we are and what it means to have an identity. As the leader of Troy for many decades, Priam has always viewed himself as a king. It appears as though Priam has been unhappy with his identity for quite some time, is physically weak, and feels as though he cannot protect his kingdom as efficiently as he used to. However, the death of Hector is a catalyst for Priam as he realises that he needs to become a ‘father’ rather than the ‘king’ he had become so accustomed to. His search for Hector is also a search for himself, to reinvent who he is and how he wishes others to remember him.
Meanwhile, Somax is designated as the king’s herald, with the name Idaeus. He secretly notes his unhappiness with this name appointment, since he is ‘Somax, not Idaeus'. The name ‘Somax’ is associated with many significant events in his life including his marriage and family, yet the new unfamiliar name strips him of this identity. Somax’s confidence and pride in his identity is starkly contrasted with Priam’s pursuit for an identity transformation.
Malouf demonstrates that it is never too late to change one’s ways. Priam’s determination to change how he is remembered – from just another king leading a regal life to a hero who went to extraordinary lengths to regain his child – demonstrates that change is within our grasp. Even though his beautiful wife Hecuba and the rest of his family have reservations about his desire to confront Achilles, Priam is resolved in taking a ‘chance', rather than achieving nothing by remaining within the walls of his home. Unexpectedly, this one idea propels Priam into a multitude of other changes. His journey with Somax teaches Priam a far greater deal than he had anticipated, for he learns to appreciate the value of the human connection and other daily simplicities in life.
Although Achilles is driven by hatred and anger after Patroclus’ death, as with Priam, he manages to change his ways. He is touched by Priam’s pleas and consequently accepts the ransom and returns Hector’s body. He is able to reach this state of peace by releasing his immoral intentions and even offers to hold a ritual for Hector’s body in the Greek walls that very night. This transformation, from a human who responds to grief with vengeance to someone who releases and forgives, demonstrates the benefits we can gain from amending our ways.
Revenge, Guilt and Peace
Revenge is portrayed as a never-ending vicious cycle until both parties reach a negotiation or peace. After Patroclus’ death, Achilles hunts down Hector in order to avenge his best friend’s early death. Although he is successful in murdering Hector, Achilles does not follow the custom of leaving the body for the grieving family to bury. Instead, Achilles feels the need to mutilate the body day after day without any sense of remorse or regret. His additional need to inflict harm on Hector’s body indicates that revenge will not bring closure. His sense of loss is shown as he reflects feeling empty inside, to the point where he no longer feels like himself, but someone else altogether.
Although Achilles and Priam ultimately find peace within themselves, many years later Achilles’ son Neoptolemus murders Priam, bounded by the same hatred and pain depicted by Achilles. Neoptolemus’ subsequent guilt and regret is carried with him throughout the rest of his life, demonstrating that again, revenge is not the answer to any problem.
Chance and Fate
The role of the gods is heavily woven into the events that unfold in Ransom. Priam only begins his transition and journey after envisioning the goddess Iris, who suggests that he take a ‘chance’ and try to save Hector from Achilles’ camp. During his journey, a jovial young man who joins the travellers is revealed as Hermes, a god who has come to safely guide the elderly men to Achilles. The power of the gods in controlling human fate is illustrated during the scene where Hermes saves the travellers from being swept away by a stream.
Nevertheless, it can also be argued that it is the characters’ decisions that lead them to their fate. Although the gods may have instilled in Priam the idea that he should rescue Hector, it is the king’s determination which is a main driving force for the journey. Even when confronted with doubt and hesitancy from his family, it is Priam who pushes onwards to fulfil his vision. Whether his actions were already predestined or of his own agency is up to you to decide.
Nature Versus Man
Man’s presence on earth is shown to have little significance in comparison to the power of nature. While the events in Ransom teach the characters many valuable lessons, ultimately these meaningful moments in the humans’ lives disappear as one reaches their fate – death. Time moves on beyond our lives as we are forgotten over decades and centuries while nature prevails. Priam’s desire to be remembered by others highlights how little significance a life possesses unless one behaves extraordinarily. Malouf demonstrates that in the end, life just is – we are granted by nature to have a brief existence, yet in the end, nature and time will move forward without us.
Commoners Versus Royalty
Although royalty is portrayed to be blessed with power and authority, it is ironically the commoners in Ransom who appear to have the ‘richest’ (and more fulfilling) lives. For the first time, Priam is exposed to the different interests and values of the common man and is intrigued by the simplicities of life. It is Somax, a mere old man from the marketplace, who teaches Priam more about life than he had imagined possible.
Jove’s eagle is a representation of a bird renowned for its keen sight. The presence of Jove’s eagle during Priam and Somax’s departure hints that the gods will safely guide their journey as the bird behaves as a lookout. Furthermore, the symbol of the eagle’s powerful vision is contrasted with Priam’s ‘blindness’ at the beginning of the journey since he is yet to experience the outside world. It is during the journey that he learns about himself and others, and thus, improves his ‘sight.’ Coincidently, Jove’s eagle is no longer mentioned when Priam is endowed with his new insight.
The royal cart is ‘a fine new one, the marks of the adze still visible on its timbers. The twelve-spoked wheels are elaborately carved and painted, a wickerwork canopy covers the tray'. On all occasions, the king had used this elegant cart to alert others that royalty was present. The use of this cart demonstrates how Priam has been encapsulated in his own royal sphere since everything is meticulously chosen and designed specifically for the king. Nevertheless, his demand for a ‘common work cart’ depicts his determination for a simple approach to Achilles, as a father to another father. This simplicity highlights Priam’s desire to become just another man and father, anonymous in the plain cart with the hopes of retrieving Hector.
Priam as a Child
At the beginning of the journey, Priam is characterised with childish traits. When Somax urges Priam to dabble his feet in the stream, words such as ‘obedient toddler', ‘three uncertain steps', and ‘happy smile’ reflect the actions of a young child trying new experiences. This childish nature is contrasted with Priam’s old and frail age, which demonstrates that although he has lived a life in royalty, his lack of exposure to ‘real life’ has left him crippled of the simplest experiences such as the cooling effect of feet in water and eating delicious homemade cookies.
The cakes Somax brings along during the journey highlight Priam’s lack of knowledge of even the simplest things. For Somax, the little griddlecakes are a regular and delectable snack, yet Priam 'ha[s] never seen them before'. Priam’s unfamiliarity with the cakes represents his isolation from the ‘real world’ since he has been deprived from things that even commoners view as ordinary.
Futhermore, Somax’s lengthy chatter about his daughter-in-law cooking the cakes with the ‘batter bubbling and setting and turning a golden brown’ prompts Priam to think about the activities in his kingdom that occur behind closed doors. He had previously never noticed that there was so much preparation and work that went into the food that appeared at his table, let alone the ingredients and thickness of a batter. These matters had been of little concern to Priam, yet he realises that even the ‘common and low…activities and facts of life, had an appeal'.
Although Achilles drags Hector’s body across the walls of Troy for eleven days, each morning he would return to find Hector’s body healed of any wounds, and absent of any physical damage to his body. This is a cruel reminder of the god’s ability to ‘toy around’ with the Ancient Greeks’ lives. Hector’s body also symbolises how revenge is not the answer to any conflict, since dealing with a tragic loss through revenge does not gain anything but more pain and suffering.
Although Priam initially believes he understands the distress of losing a son, Somax’s experience of losing his son is driven with emotions that Priam had never previously experienced. When sharing the story of his son’s death, Somax sniffles, an ‘odd habit’ according to Priam. The use of ‘odd habit’ to describe Somax’s sadness demonstrates how Priam has never truly felt the loss of his son, but only the loss of a royal relationship between king and prince.
Later on, Somax once again ‘snuffles’ and ‘rubs his nose’ at the thought of the ending to their journey. Similarly, Priam makes ‘small sounds', presumably crying as well. The transformation of Priam from someone who failed to empathise with Somax’s tears at the beginning of the journey to a man filled with emotions demonstrates that Priam undergoes both a physical and metaphysical journey where he undergoes self-development and appreciation of the world around him.
4. Plot, Analysis, Important Passages and Quotes
Achilles, the greatest warrior of the Greeks, stands next to the sea while reminiscing about the past. After his mother’s death he had ‘entered the rough world of men’ (p. 6) where wars and battles prevail. Every morning, he feels the need to ‘tramp to shore’ (p. 10) since he is haunted by the death of his ‘soulmate and companion’ Patroclus, and his raging hatred towards Hector, killer of Patroclus and thus, the ‘implacable enemy'.
When Achilles was a child, his cousin Patroclus came to live with the young Achilles since the former had killed the son of a high official of the royal court due to a ‘quarrel over a game of knucklebones’ (p. 11). In need of asylum, Patroclus came to live with Achilles’ family. As the years passed, the pair grew closer to the extent where Achilles believes that ‘he had mated with Patroclus’ (p. 15).
When the tide of the battle was against the Greeks, Patroclus disguises himself in Achilles’ armour in order to instill fear in the Trojans and cause them to return to the safety of their walls, thus providing temporary relief for the Greeks. In his last act for his closest friend, Patroclus is killed in battle*. The death of Patroclus left Achilles with an overwhelming sense of loss and also burning animosity. Achilles whispers that he will join Patroclus soon, but firstly, he has to avenge Patroclus’ killer, Hector.
Hector, the son of Trojan king Priam and leader of the Trojan army, wore Achilles' armour as a sign of triumph and disrespect for the Greeks. In a dramatic battle between Hector and himself, Achilles was successful in killing his enemy. Achilles’ Myrmidons then stripped Hector of his armour and ‘without pity…plunged their swords into Hector’s unprotected flesh’ (p. 24). For Achilles however, this was not enough. Still fuelled by his pain, Achilles ties Hector’s body to a chariot and drags it ‘up and down under the walls of Troy’ (p. 26) as the dead warrior’s royal family devastatingly watches on. Achilles feels like a ‘dead man…feeling nothing’ (p. 26), unable to seal the void left by his beloved friend.
The next day, Achilles is furious to find Hector’s body ‘smoothly sealed and the torn flesh made whole again'. His men cannot bear to look at him as he drives the chariot with Hector’s body along the walls of the Trojans once again. Afterwards he quickly falls asleep, into ‘oblivion’ (p. 35) as he struggles with the shame and guilt of his actions. He is ‘waiting for a break…something new and unimaginable’ in his life.
The Human Side
Along with the conflict between Greece and Troy, Ransom also delves into the consequences of those affected by the war. As the greatest warrior of all Greeks, Achilles has lived his life as a fighter. Nevertheless, his pathway in life has led him to believe that ‘such a life is death to the warrior spirit’ (p. 7). While warriors are known for sacrificing their lives in the battlefield, Achilles does not literally refer to warriors confronting death each time they fight for their team. In fact, ‘death to the warrior spirit’ means to metaphorically lose what it means to ‘live’ when one experiences bloodshed in each war. Growing up surrounded by ‘the rough world of men’ (p. 6), Achilles develops traits of aggression, cruelty and vengefulness in order to become an implacable man of war. As a consequence, Achilles only knows how to deal with Patroclus’ death with a fighter’s mindset. Instead of grieving openly, ‘he never permit[s] himself to betray to others what he [feels]’ (p. 5), thus detaching himself from the natural human process of grieving. In order to deal with his friend’s tragic ending, Achilles' ‘soul chang[es] colour’ as drags Hector’s body for eleven days without any sense of regret or remorse, and thus, is referred to as ‘death to his human spirit’ since he was no longer ‘a living man’ (p. 27). He faces Patroclus’ death with the same warrior traits of aggression, cruelty and vengefulness, depriving himself of any ability to humanely mourn his close friend’s death.
Furthermore, Achilles grieves for his mother in the opening passages of Ransom. During this time of loss, his mother symbolises Achilles’ need to be nurtured. The imagery of the sea surface as a ‘belly’ and ‘a membrane stretched to a fine transparency’ (p. 3) represents his mother’s pregnancy where he ‘had hung curled in a dream of pre-existence’ for ‘nine changes of the moon’ – or in other words, nine months of pregnancy. Achilles is characterised as a foetus, for his position is ‘chin down, shoulders hunched’ as though he is inside a womb. Although Achilles is a fighter, he hides the fact that he wishes to be ‘rocked and comforted’ by his mother, thus demonstrating that even beneath the surface of a cold-hearted warrior, the current of human emotions can cripple a man’s confident veneer.
If you'd like to read more of my analysis, feel free to access a sample of our ebook A Killer Text Guide: Ransom. In this ebook, I cover Plot, Analysis, Important Passages and Quotes so you can prepare for your SAC and exam. I've also included 5 Sample A+ English essays on Ransom, complete with annotations so you know exactly what you need to do in your next essay to achieve an A+.
We’ve explored historical context, themes, essay planning and essay topics over on our Like a House on Fire by Cate Kennedy blog post. If you need a quick refresher or you’re new to studying this text, I highly recommend checking it out!
‘Liz sits there helpless’
• From the beginning of the short story we can see that Liz isn’t, or doesn’t feel in control of her situation. The step by step process where she needs to ‘put the key in the ignition and turn it. Fire up the car and drive away’ showcases how the smallest details of starting the car, something that should be so simple instead requires immense mental effort on her behalf.
‘And he’s in there, alone, where she’s left him’.
• Her guilt bubbles to the surface here because it’s as though she’s the villain here, and she’s to blame for leaving him alone.
‘Abandoned him to a roomful of rampaging strangers’
• What’s really interesting here is her description of the other children. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity for Daniel to befriend others and have a great time, she describes them as ‘rampaging strangers’, giving us a sense that Daniel is subject to an unfamiliar environment that is wild, frenzied, rioting.
• These "fighter” phrases reveal Liz’s anxious mindset, as she imagines a world where her son is almost in the wilderness, every man for himself, as though it’s the survival of the fittest - and which Liz so fearfully express, “not that there’s going to be anybody with enough time to notice that Daniel needs help”, is not an environment where Daniel belongs.
“She digs in her bag for her lipstick, her fingers searching for the small cylinder, and pulls out a crayon, then a battery, then a tampon, then a gluestick.”
• Her everyday objects are splashed with Daniel’s belongings - the crayon, the gluestick, and demonstrate how intertwined her life is now with her child. This foreshadows her return to her pre-baby life - that things will not be the same.
“The smell of the place, that’s what throws her, the scent of it all, adult perfumes, air breathed out by computers and printers and photocopiers.”
• Even her sense of smell betrays her being away from Daniel. There’s a sense of alienation, of nausea that shows readers like us that Liz doesn’t feel like she belongs. This is in contrast to later in the story when she is reunited with Daniel and is comforted by ‘inhaling[ing] the scent of him again’.
“Same computer, same shiny worn spot on the space bar…"
• The repetition of ’same’ actually heightens how much has actually changed for Liz. Her entire world is now Daniel, whereas everything in the office is as it used to be. Therefore, there’s this sense that the people’s lives in the office remain unchanged, highlighting again Liz’s alienation.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, they’re right, of course they are.”
• This sarcastic internal monologue reflects Liz’s current state of mind, where she’s experiencing a disconnect from her coworkers, and ’the land of the living’.
"Delete, she presses. Punching the key like a bird pecking. Delete, delete, delete.”
• We can feel Liz’s exasperation at this stage. The simile ‘like a bird pecking’ automates Liz’s actions in the workplace, as though she is doing it by switching to a ‘mechanical form’ of herself. The repetition of ‘delete, delete, delete’ gives us the sense that she’s frustratingly attempting to ‘delete’ her self-acknowledged, perhaps over-the-top anxiety surrounding Daniel, or trying to delete herself out of her situation. Whichever is unclear and left up to interpretation. Perhaps both ring true.
‘Returning to work after maternity leave’
• Liz’s narrative interspersed with new mum’s pamphlet. The juxtaposition of the pamphlet’s words ‘being a stay-at-home mum can begin to seem mundane and repetitive’ is contrasted with Liz’s love of motherhood - she is at odds with what society tells her she should be feeling.
‘[Daniel]’d have his thumb in his mouth right now. Not smiling, that’s for sure.’
• There’s a self-projection of anxiety here with Liz assuming that the childcarers are unable to look after Daniel properly, and that he’s suffering.
‘God, these endless extended moments where you’re left in limbo, the time dangling like a suspended toy on a piece of elastic.’
• This simile highlights how her mindset is completely consumed with Daniel, as she likens her daily experiences with objects and things related to Daniel and childhood. She struggles to switch between her identity as a mother, and her previous identity as a colleague in the workplace.
‘Caroline, Julie and Stella had laughed dutifully enough, but their faces had shown a kind of pained disappointment, something faintly aggrieved.’
• Perhaps this is Cate Kennedy's commentary on society and motherhood. The expectations others have on you as a new mother, and how you should be feeling.
‘He doesn’t run over when he sees her’.
• The opening of this chapter is blunt and brutal. Liz has longed to see Daniel all day, her anxiety getting the best of her, and yet at the moment of their reunion, it’s not as she expects. In this sense, we can to feel that Liz is very much alone in her anxiety and despair and, not the other way around with Daniel.
’She’s fighting a terrible nausea, feeling the sweat in the small of her back.’
• Unlike other stories in this collection, her pain isn’t because the absence of love, but because of its strength. Her love for Daniel is so intense that it’s physiological, making her unwell to have been away from him.
• The symbol of cake represents her pre-baby life, a time when she was concerned with the ‘account of Henderson’s’ and ‘delete fourth Excel column’. Her priorities have now shifted, and the celebrated ‘cake’ tradition in the workplace, one that is at the centre of several conversations, is no longer to significance to Liz. Her husband, Andrew’s attempt to celebrate Liz’s first day back at work with cake is highly ironic. The societal expectation that Liz is happy to be back at work even extends to her husband, and heightens how Liz is very much alone in her experience.
If you found this close analysis helpful, then you might want to check out our Like a House on Fire Study Guide where we analyse EVERY story in the text and pinpoint key quotes and symbols!