English & EAL

The Lieutenant

Angelina Xu

January 11, 2019

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The Lieutenant 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.


Grenville’s novel follows the life of protagonist, Lieutenant Daniel Rooke in his journey with the first fleet. Rooke’s primary conflict is his choice between his moral conscience and duty as a soldier. Because he is aware from an early age that he is out of step with the world, he tends to be more reasonable in his way of dealing with conflict. His final response to his inner conflict is to stand strongly by what he believes.

The Lieutenant at its core is a journey of self-discovery as Daniel Rooke navigates the immoral waters of British imperialism and its impact on the indigenous Australians. Becoming closer to Tagaran, Rooke attempts to bridge cultural barriers through the transformative power of language. Rooke observes the scissions created by violence and the perhaps misplaced Western superiority and is perpetually torn between his moral intuitions and his obligations and duty as a Lieutenant.

TIP: Have an understanding of the historical context behind The Lieutenant as well as the real life people that Grenville loosely based her novel off of. This means having a grasp on the first fleet, the British colonisation of Australia and important figures such as Bennelong.

Themes with Examples

TIP: I have included some examples from the text but this list is by no means exhaustive, occasionally there is a repetition of examples. It’s important to remember that examples are versatile and can be applied to many different themes and ideas. Feel free to add and explore how other examples might enhance these themes.


Language dictates commonality and communication, yet to Rooke he discovers that central to the power of language is the willingness to cooperate, patience and respect. Throughout Grenville’s novel, however, it is clear that language can not only dispel the lasting vestiges of misunderstanding but it can also form the basis for racism and violence. It is through our language itself that reveals our biases.

The language of racism

  • Weymark refers to the Indigenous men during their first encounter as “mister darkie” etc. each a patronising euphemism concealing his arrogant notions of superiority

The limitation of language to accurately portray and convey a moment

  • “what had passed between Tagaran and himself had gone far beyond vocabulary or grammatical forms” (pg186)

The language of violence

  • “what it said was I can kill you. He did not want her to learn that language. Certainly not from him” (pg224)
  • “Violence had an enlivening effect. As long as someone else was the victim it made the blood pump, gave the world an edge of glamour” (pg239)
  • Gamekeeper. He wondered whether that word had killed Brugden” (pg240)
  • “The gun is the only language the buggers will understand” (pg241)
  • “war was a species of conversation” (pg108)

Assumed cultural superiority of British empire

The hierarchical nature of British Society stands in diametric opposition to the community-oriented system employed by the Indigenous Australians. This hierarchy defines their people by their contributions to “Her Majesty” and shames and “punish[es]” all those who fail to comply with the loose morals and violence condoned by the British colonists. This notion is elucidated through the exploitation of the natives and the nations reliance on oppression and servitude to maintain its imperial status, put simply: their strength is an accident arising from the weakness of others. It is on this foundation that Grenville explores the violent treatment of the natives by the British and even their treatment of their own people.

  • “In the world of Church Street, Benjamin Rooke was a man of education and standing and a father to be proud of. At the Portsmouth Naval Academy a mile away, he was an embarrassment” (pg6)
  • “So we punish…. Every man is the same. If he steals, he is punished… It was interesting to hear that magnificent idea – the product of hundreds of years of British civilisation – spelled out so plain”(pg195)
  • This was justice: impartial, blind, noble. The horror of the punishment was the proof of its impartiality. If it did not hurt, it was not justice.” (pg197)
  • “By god they are savage… Dirty too, look at the filth on them”
  • “they may be savages, we call them savages. But their feelings are no different from ours”
  • Weymark resorts to derogatory name calling, urging on “my black friend” and “Mister Darkie” in his base supplications

Power of conscience

The morality that is ingrained in Rooke from the onset aligns quite naturally with our own moral standards. Yet Grenville encourages readers to explore the difficult choice between morals and disobedience. Rooke faces such a choice. To obey an order to accompany an expedition to capture or kill six indigenous men, this forms the central conflict of Grenville’s novel. As elucidated through both Rooke and Gardiner, moral acts that defy the expectations and “orders of Her Majesty” are deeply frowned upon.

  • “But Rooke, think: this is not a request, it is an order” (pg246)
  • “…spell out the consequences of refusal.” (pg248)
  • “… the service of humanity and the service of His Majesty were not congruent” (pg249)
  • “I am sorry to have been persuaded to comply with the order. I would not for any reason ever obey a similar order” (pg285)
  • “your orders were a most gravely wrong thing, I regret beyond my words my part in the business” (pg285)


Violence is central to the operation of imperialists as the British tightens its grip on the Indigenous Australians. Grenville emphasises that the power sought out by the British empire will always come at the expense of the natives. Violence and force are used to assert power, confirm boundaries around usurped land, promulgate fear and discourage resistance. The gun becomes a symbol of the violence and force of the settle and they show little intention of relinquishing the dominant position that the gun affords them.

  • The punishment for the mutineers of the Renegade reinforces Rooke’s understanding of institutional power and violence as one lieutenant is hanged in a gruesome spectacle and the others dispatched into a nameless void.
  • Weymark is determined to affirm his dominance and establish the white man as a powerful force
  • Brugden’s increased freedom with a weapon results in violence towards the natives which culminates in the kidnapping of the two native men who are “grabbed” against their will
  • Brugden’s unchecked brutality, and Gilbert’s excessive use of force, highlights the colonialists’ use of violence as a means of achieving their goal

Duty, service, obedience and the military life

Conforming to the pressures of the British Empire, Rooke joins the marines and complicitly serves without attempting to question the morality behind his actions. Importantly, he joins the marines not out of patriotic pride, but because he believes it will aid him to pursue his academic curiosities and steer away from violence. Yet it only brings him closer to the reality that lurks behind the ostensibly moral quest of British imperialism.

Character Analysis

TIP: Whilst The Lieutenant focusses on Rooke’s experiences, you can’t neglect the minor characters in the novel, they are there for a reason! Think about how these characters are similar or different, how their stories contribute to Grenville’s overall message and their relationship with the central protagonist Rooke.

Daniel Rooke


  • Lieutenant on the first fleet
  • Awkward
  • Struggles to articulate his thoughts and emotions as he is afraid of being “out of step with the world”
  • From a young age, Rooke’s interactions with others has made it clear to him that he is different. As such this dictates his response to conflict: blaming himself or withdrawing. His connection to Tagaran through mutual empathy demonstrates his ability to overcome conflict through mutual respect
  • Rooke is bound by duty to Her Majesty yet finds his missions in conflict with his innate instinct for moral righteousness

Supporting quotes

  • “quiet, moody, a man of few words”
  • “he had no memories other than of being an outsider”



  • Captain on the first fleet
  • Stands in contrast to Rooke in every respect
  • Storyteller that is obsessed with his narrative
  • Ignores the cruelty and violence of the Imperialist expedition in favour of an interesting story
  • Blinding opportunism that undermines his integrity
  • His tendency to gloss over the violence committed in the name of Her Majesty reflects his loyalty to the expedition

Supporting quotes

  • “man whose narrative was so important to him”
  • “a storyteller who could turn the most commonplace event into something entertaining”



  • Connects with Rooke through their mutual love for learning and language
  • Tagaran voluntarily engages with Rooke in his quest to understand their language, this surpasses the clumsy and mandatory lessons imposed on Boinbar and Warungin.

Supporting quotes

  • “Forthright, ferless, sure of herself, she looked to him like a girl who had already mastered whatever social skills her world might demand”
  • “a clever child like Tagaran was the perfect choice: quick to learn, but innocent. Curious, full of questions but only a child”



  • Gardiner acts as a foil character to both Silk and Rooke, sharing the same trials and tribulations as Rooke however responding differently than Silk
  • Rooke’s friendship with Gardiner establishes the grounds for their later discussions on language, the treatment of the natives and the imperialist machine as Gardiner sets an example of the consequences of going against the duties required of him



  • Brugden is portrayed as an essential element of colonising and the survival of the British fleet. As an embodiment of violence, Grenville suggests that integral to the operation of imperialism is crude and unwavering violence
  • “Brugden, out there in the woods, that powerful chest… He would be an efficient killer”

Supporting quotes

  • “Something had happened out there in the woods about which Brudgen was remaining silent”
  • “The prisoner, taller than anyone else, his powerful frame half bursting out of its thread bare check shirt…”  

Lancelot Percival James


  • Family of slave owners, product of the empire
  • Rooke’s inability to understand James is symbolic of his values not aligning with that of the British empire. It foreshadows his later conflict with the value of the empire
  • James symbolises the derision of the British hierarchy

Supporting quotes

  • “Gamekeeper! The word suggested the society that Lancelot Percival James had boasted of at the Academy… But New South Wales was no gentleman’s estate… and the gamekeeper was a criminal who had been given a gun” (pg91)

Interesting Points of Analysis

Silk’s Narrative

  • Why is Silk obsessed with documenting the first fleet? What does he seek when he writes?

Rooke’s job as an astronomer

  • Initially signing up for the first fleet as an astronomer, Rooke’s job is supposed to be observing comets and stars yet when he arrives he is tasked with a multitude of laborious tasks that hinder his astronomical work. In what ways does this act as a microcosm for the imperialist mission in Australia?

VOCAB: microcosm - a situation or event that encapsulates in miniature the characteristics of something much larger

Rooke’s life in Antigua

  • Why did Grenville include this section? What does it add to Rooke’s journey? Why does Rooke choose to do this?

Third Person Omniscient Narration

  • Written from Rooke’s perspective, whose opinion do we hear the least of? And what unique perspective does Grenville’s choice of narrative perspective offer us?


  • Grenville’s language reflects Rooke’s love for language. Her choice of imagery reveals Rooke’s way of seeing the world. For example, “crescent of yellow sand like a punctuation mark” accentuates Rooke’s tendency to observe his world as a linguist might and  highlights Rooke’s deep connection with language. Likewise, Rooke’s perception of a gun that speaks a language that “does not require listeners” emphasises his natural tendency to think as a linguist. Grenville does not write in an overly complex, dense or poetic way in order to mirror Rooke’s tendency to view things logically


How does the setting that Rooke finds himself in mirror or parallel the emotions that he experiences?

  • Naval Academy (Portsmouth)
  • “just another world that wrenched him out of shape”
  • “sucked out of his spirit and left a shell being”
  • “closed in on itself”, “narrow”, “squeezed tightly”
  • Sydney Cove
  • “There is nowhere in the world that I would rather be”(pg97)
  • "On the northern shore, high dark prows of headlands hung over the water, the sombre woods pressing down into their own reflections. To the south the land was lower, each bay and promontory shining with the glossy leaves of mangroves. Now and then between them a crescent of yellow sand was like a punctuation mark” (pg89)

TIP: Just like the minor characters I mentioned before, meaning and themes come from all aspects of a novel not just plot points and major characters. By including niche examples such as the setting or the narrative perspective, you can demonstrate that you have a really thorough understanding of the text!


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