English & EAL

The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

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.


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)


By the way, to download a PDF version of this blog for printing or offline use, click here!


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!

Video Transcription

This video’s takeaway message focuses on tackling essay prompts that include quotations. The extra quote with the prompt can seem superfluous, but often, they can provide hints about how to tackle or challenge the essay topic. It is there for a reason, and if you are familiar with the quote, I would recommend that you try to incorporate it into your essay!

Before we unpack today’s essay topic, let’s have a look at background information.

Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant explores the commonality of the human spirit amidst tumultuous conflict during the First Fleet’s arrival in Australia in 1788. Drawing upon the true experiences of William Dawes, a British astronomer and one of the lieutenants to travel with the First Fleet, Grenville crafts a work of fiction inspired by Dawes’ “two little blue notebooks” detailing his growing understanding of the Aboriginal language Gadigal and his conversations and connection with Patyegarang, a young Aboriginal girl.

The ability for two individuals from completely different worlds to transcend their differences in order to share cherished moments and understandings together is exemplified in The Lieutenant, alongside the rife external and internal conflicts which threaten such relationship.

Today’s prompt is:

“But a man could not travel along two different paths.”

How does Grenville explore Rooke’s conflict of conscience in The Lieutenant?

Start off with focusing on the keywords in this prompt, especially the phrases that resonate with you for Steps 1 and 2 of brainstorming (which I have previously covered in other essay topic breakdowns.)

In particular, let’s have a look at the phrase “conflict of conscience” as this captures the essence of the prompt and what you will need to discuss in your essay.  

Conflict of conscience suggests internal conflict, which implies that we will 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.  

Conflict itself is a central theme of The Lieutenant, however, it is important to recognise that this topic considers conflict through the narrower lens of ‘conflict of conscience’. This means that in your discussion, the relevance to the prompt is crucial to keep in mind to ensure you are actually answering the question!  

But first, let’s analyse the quote:

“But a man could not travel along two different paths”

This quote alludes to Rooke’s realisation regarding the reality of his identity, not only as Tagaran’s friend or “kamara” but also as a soldier or “Berewalgal". The resignation and recognition of the impossible – that is, for Rooke to continue attempting to appease both ‘sides’ without making critical decisions about who and what he ultimately valued more - is evident in this quote. Hence, this quote refers to the conflict of conscience he experiences and provides us with an insight into not only his character but also conflict itself.

Why is it not possible for a man to travel along two different paths?

What would happen if he tried?  

Why was this realisation important for Rooke, especially for his character and development?

These are the kinds of questions coming to mind upon seeing that quote alone, which all provide hints as to how I might tackle this prompt.  

Now that we have looked at a few ideas related to the question, we’ll now move into potential paragraphs for this essay.

Paragraph 1: Grenville’s utilisation of Rooke’s perspective in detailing his thought processes, observations and realisations reveals the facets of Rooke’s character contributing to his internal conflicts.

Remembering this is a ‘how’ prompt, we want to be analysing ways in which Grenville explores Rooke’s conflict of conscience. In this paragraph, I have chosen to focus on the raw and intimate expression of his inner thoughts and consciousness as the ‘how’ aspect.  

The detailed perspective reveals Rooke’s naivety in assuming the possibility of maintaining a peaceful connection with Tagaran and the Aboriginal community amidst turbulent and violent times. Consequently, it highlights his realisations regarding the morality of the conflicts he is involved in, and how despite one’s admirable intentions, “a man could not travel along two different paths” without facing dire consequences for their actions.  

Questions I might ask myself here include: why does Rooke initially try to deny the reality of his situation? What does his preference for a peaceful and accepting approach towards the Indigenous Australians suggest about his approach to conflict?

This cognitive dissonance ultimately contributes to his internal conflict between the value he places in his connections with Tagaran and her community and in his duties and obligations as a lieutenant. As readers, we come to realise the duality of this conflict in Rooke’s mind through the limited omniscient third person perspective, which provides us with an insight into Rooke’s shifting understandings of Indigenous people, conflict and even himself.  

I would then continue unpacking these changing understandings, especially ones relevant to his character which reveal his internal conflicts further.

Paragraph 2: In addition, the stark contrast between Rooke’s approach to his conflict of conscience and other soldiers’ approaches underscores the rationale behind his actions and the stakes ineluctably linked with his choices and morality.  

This paragraph’s analysis revolves around Grenville’s inclusion of a host of different characters and outlooks - from Indigenous Australians to intransigent Colonial perspectives. I would emphasise the importance of juxtaposition between these different perspectives as it elucidates the values and beliefs underpinning each individual’s choices, especially during conflict.  

Although the core of the essay discusses internal conflicts, highlighting the connection between internal and external conflict would add another layer of complexity to your essay. Rooke’s conflict of conscience results in his permanent departure from Australia, and fleshing out the ramifications of dissent and opposition towards other Colonials is key in demonstrating your understanding of the complex and intertwined nature of conflict.

Paragraph 3: Through the detrimental implications of Rooke’s initial conflict avoidance, Grenville’s focus on his subsequent self-awareness to unite his morals and his actions highlights the strength of his character to resolve his internal conflicts to prevent further perpetration of injustice towards the Aboriginal population.  

Here, I am having a closer look at how Rooke's encounters with his conflicts of conscience and the repercussions of his actions in attempting to take a ‘middle-ground’ stance catalyse his development as an individual - in particular, how it solidifies his moral stance and his decision to act in a manner that reflects his beliefs.  

By showing Tagaran how to load the gun but not how to fire it, or by accepting the navigator role but distancing oneself from the group, he endeavours to avoid conflict with either ‘side’. However, passivity is a stance within itself, and in the case of the treatment towards Indigenous Australians, Rooke’s silence in not rejecting the actions of other “Berewalgal” inevitably enables injustice to continue.  

It is only through his understanding that non-committal actions also incriminate him as a perpetrator that his choice to sacrifice his Colonial obligations for taking an active stance to fulfil his moral obligations comes to light. This reveals the role that internal conflicts may have in inciting powerful change and realisations in an individual.  

The complexity of internal conflict can be difficult to discuss, but by using the quote provided in the prompt and asking yourself questions about the implications of the quote, we are able to delve into and construct a sophisticated understanding of The Lieutenant and of conflict itself.

LSG-curated sample essay topics for The Lieutenant

Now it's your turn! Here's a list of essay topics for your studies:

  1. The Lieutenant demonstrates how an individual's true self emerges in the face of conflict.' Discuss.
  2. 'The Lieutenant shows the catalysts for miscommunication and misunderstanding between the First Fleet and the local Aboriginal population.'
  3. 'The Lieutenant presents a society where sustained, amicable relations between the "Berewalgal" and the Aboriginal population were impossible.'
    Do you agree?
  4. “But a man could not travel along two different paths.”
    How is Rooke's conflict of conscience explored in The Lieutenant?
  5. 'Rooke's own differences furthered his understanding of and connection with Tagaran.' Discuss.
  6. "You did not learn a language without entering into a relationship with the people who spoke it with you."
    How is this concept explored in The Lieutenant?
  7. "The intention of evil was there which is all that God see when he looks into our hearts." 'Grenville explores the importance of intention over action in The Lieutenant.'
  8. Why are Rooke's realisations about and outlook on the world an anomaly?
  9. 'The Lieutenant explores how social change can only happen with dissent and non-conformity.'
    To what extent do you agree?
  10. How does Grenville construct morality in The Lieutenant?
  11. 'Rooke discovers that exploration of the self is crucial in shaping one's sense of identity.' Discuss.
  12. 'It is easier to resist change than to enable it.' How does The Lieutenant demonstrate this idea?
  13. 'In The Lieutenant, it is the individual who determines what is possible and what is impossible.' Discuss.
  14. "If he were to go back to that night on the sand of Botany Bay, would he make the same choice again, knowing that this was where it would lead him...?"
    How does Grenville explore how and why difficult choices are made?
  15. 'Intransigence and a sense of superiority ultimately prevent unity in New South Wales.' Do you agree?

8. Resources

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