English & EAL

The Secret River: A Clearing in the Forest

Lisa Tran

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In the year of 1813, the family made their move to Thornhill’s Point. During their first day, Willie and Thornhill began to plant a cornfield to mark their territory. When they realised that someone had already dug the soil before them, Thornhill’s dreams collapsed, believing that someone else had already claime the land. He then noticed that the ‘dirt was not dug in a square, the way a man with a pick would do’ [pg 140] and lightly exclaimed that it may be ‘wild hogs or such’ [pg 141]. However, both Thornhill and Willie silently acknowledged that it very might well have been a native’s work.

Later that day, Thornhill grew aware of two natives watching him. Although a language barrier prevented conversation, it was clear from the native’s actions that the Thornhill’s were unwelcomed on their land. Thornhill offered them pork as a peace offering only to have the natives throw the food to the ground in disgust. Determined to maintain his area, Thornhill slapped one of the men but the consequential sound of spears lifted in the forest frightened the family. Having established their point, the two men returned into the forest. That night, Thornhill’s brave façade, ‘they gone and buggered off now’ [pg 148] is engulfed in his silent fear.

Despite the native’s warning, throughout the next few weeks the Thornhill’s built a home for themselves. Thornhill noticed for the first time that Sal quietly suffered from loneliness, and that even Sullivan’s visit during their fourth week was comforting for her. For Sal’s sake, Thornhill invited others neighbours to visit. There was Birtles, also known as Sagitty who had been caught in larceny and served time in Van Diemen’s Land. He now grew grains that were sent to the market. Webb, who everyone called Spider, was ‘caught in Smithfield Market when a man recognised the silver buttons on his coat as the ones his master had missed from the house a week before’ [pg 164]. As an emancipist, Spider grew corn that was repeatedly stolen by the natives. Loveday made his living by selling pumpkins and melons. The only other woman present was Mrs Herring who was ‘the nearest thing…to a surgeon’ [pg 166]. Their conversation revolved around the natives, with the visitors sharing their personal encounters. Smasher began to reprimand the natives for thieving, yet Blackwood, who had just arrived, pointed out the hypocrisy of Smasher who had ‘ain’t never done no thieving….Oh, my very word no’ [pg 169]. The mood of the crowd changed from sociable to solemn, for the tension between Blackwood and Smasher was conspicuous. Blackwood left soon after, and the tales drifted to a close.

Knowing that he had a large sum left to pay off his vessel, Hope, Thornhill applied for convict servants to be assigned to him. On the day when a new fleet of convicts arrived, Thornhill once again encountered Captain Suckling, who had been present during Thornhill’s arrival to New South Wales. Although Thornhill had become an emancipist, Suckling continued to regard him with contempt. Thornhill chose Ned and Dan, the latter was pleased to see Thornhill since they had worked together back in England. However, Thornhill was uninterested reuniting his friendship with Dan as he wished to distinguish himself from the convicts. As a result, he blankly rebuked Dan to call him, Mr Thornhill, thus respecting his new employer.

The next day, he watched the men slaving away and ‘remembered how it felt to be sweating and panting’ [pg 180] but felt triumphant in that he had the authority to refuse their pleas for water. Thornhill continued to coerce the men to work under the harsh sun, wearing his ‘superior Suckling smile’ [pg 178].

Everyday Sal would mark the same tree, counting down the days until they could return to England, as Thornhill had promised. Thornhill felt the gulf between them, for he was keeping her prisoner of his dreams – to make a living on Thornhill’s Point. Soon after, Sal fell ill. No doctor would come and inspect her regardless of Thornhill’s ability to pay because she was ‘only the wife of an emancipist’ [pg 183]. Only their neighbour, Mrs Herring, came to care for her. Sal, who did not appear to fear death, informed Thornhill to face her towards England if she were to die. Although Thornhill blamed himself for her lack of proper health care, even in spite of her illness, he ‘could not make himself say the words he knew she longed to hear: we will go Home’ [pg 184]. Fortunately, after many visitors and remedies, Sal did recover. Thornhill was grateful but disappointed to know that her first thoughts were whether or not the marks on the tree had been kept up to date.

Encountering Conflict Analysis

Peoples’ reactions to conflict

As shown from the gathering at Thornhill’s point, ‘the blacks seemed all anyone could talk about’ [pg 164]. Every person in the neighbourhood had been affected by his or her own encounter with the natives. While the general consensus was that the natives were ‘thieving buggers’ [pg 167], people’s reactions to their stolen belongings were varied. While Smasher took liberty to punish the natives, as shown in The Secret River – London, where he dehumanised them by creating a scarecrow with a native’s body, Mrs Herring approaches the situation with more compassion, allowing them to ‘help themselves now and then’ [pg 166]. By comparison, Loveday used his experience with the natives to elicit laughter from the crowd, since he eagerly anticipated ‘return[ing] to England where a man could attend to the call of nature without getting a spear up his backside.’ [pg 165] Although all members of the crowd experience tension with the natives, their different responses to the conflict sets them apart from one another.

Sal and Thornhill’s conflict

Sal’s undivided love for Thornhill compelled her to agree with Thornhill’s proposal of five years in their new residence. Though she never complained nor voiced resent, her silent personal conflict with the environment is irrefutable through her daily markings on the tree. Her routine effort to record each passing day highlights the desperation to return ‘home.’

Additionally, Sal ‘never spoken of her loneliness’ [pg 157], which demonstrated her courage and resilience while supporting her husband’s goal. Even Smasher’s presence was comforting for her, which was a shock to Thornhill. Although Thornhill realised the extent to which Sal suffered in the new environment, for they were seemingly even further away from England, he could not bring himself place her desire before his – to return to England. Tragically, his yearning for a successful life on Thornhill’s point was more important than Sal’s wish even when she was ill and at the face of death.

Conflict with social hierarchy

Although Thornhill advanced from a slave to emancipist, his battle with social status still continued. Amused at the thought of controlling two men’s lives in his own felon hands, ‘he had pictured how he would stride and point at the men he wanted,’ [pg 174] much alike the gentry he had enviously viewed from the distance for all his life. He promptly and readily falls into the role of gentry, displaying his own ‘superior Suckling smile’ [pg 178] while enjoying the new authority he exerts upon the ‘life and death’ [pg  177] of Dan and Ned. It was a pleasure for Thornhill to be a part of the ‘gentry’ he had so despised for it shifted him away from the past he was so desperate to escape and into the new legitimate living he had created.

While Thornhill enjoyed the role of gentry, Captain Suckling was a brutal reminder of Thornhill’s past. Suckling’s treatment of him, as ‘he shooed Thornhill away with both hands as if he were a dog’ [pg 173] reinforced that Thornhill would always be the felon from England many years ago, regardless of his position in the present. This showed that Thornhill, try as he might, would never be a part of the gentry, since he could not shred the imprint of history. The fact that Thornhill needed to make ‘himself stony’ [pg 172] demonstrated how Suckling’s contempt was freshly painful for the Thornhill who had come so far since being a convict, yet would always have a ‘felon’s face.’

Key Passages

Thornhill’s inner conflict with owing land

‘He took off his hat with an impulse to feel the air around his head…It was astonishing how little it took to own a piece of the earth.’ [pg 133-134]

‘He had dreamed of this place, had allowed himself to love it too soon…It flew briefly, weighted by its root, and fell back into the dirt.’ [pg 140-141]

Thornhill’s inner conflict as a convict

‘He knew what it was like to be Dan…There, and only there, a man did not have to drag his stinking past around behind him like a dead dog.’ [pg 175-176]

Conflict between Aboriginals and convicts

‘Then he saw that he was being watched by two black men…the next there was only the forest, and a bird trilling as if nothing had happened.’ [pg 146-147]

‘They had scalped two men alive up at South Creek, he said, and taken a child from its cradle, slit its little throat and sucked it dry…Smasher had filled the place with noise, but he had left behind its mirror-image, a silence in which his violent stories echoed.’ [pg 157-158]

Conflict between gentry and convicts: Suckling and Thornhill

‘It was a nasty surprise to find that Captain Suckling, late of the convict transport Alexander, was down on the wharf in his silver buttoned waistcoat…It seemed that a man had to go on paying.’ [pg 172-173]

Conflict between gentry and convicts: Thornhill and Dan/Ned

‘Thornhill had looked forward to this moment…You would do well to remember.’ [pg 174-175]

Important Quotes

Thornhill’s inner conflict with owing land

‘It was a place of promise to him now, the blank page on which a man might write a new life.’ [pg 130]

‘His own. His own, by virtue of his foot standing on it.’ [pg 133]

‘My place, Thornhill’s place.’ [pg 139]

‘Ain’t nothing to me if it’s dead or alive, he said breezily. Long’s it says William Thornhill got here first.’ [pg 149]

Thornhill’s inner conflict with his past

‘He saw what he had never seen before: that there could be no future for the Thornhill’s back in London.’ [pg 175]

‘The Hawkesbury was the one place where no man could set himself up as better than his neighbour.’ [pg 176]

Conflict with land

‘…only a laughing jackass hidden in the trees, its mockery coming clear over the water to the family in the boat.’ [pg 127]

‘He [Thornhill] had to fight the feeling that the place was mocking him.’ [pg 132]

‘While [Sal] went on sitting in the boat she was, in a manner of speaking, attached to the place she had come from.’ [pg 135]

‘His voice had no resonance in this air. He cleared his throat to cover the puny sound.’ [pg 153]

‘Even at dawn the sun was an enemy to avoid and by mid-morning the inside of the hut was unendurable.’ [pg 182]

‘It seemed she was not afraid of death or pain, but was filled with terror of being buried in this thin foreign soil, under the blast of this other sun, of her bones rotting away under those hard scraping trees.’ [pg 184]

Conflict between Aboriginals and convicts

‘…but in Sal’s silence he heard her knowledge that the blacks did not have to be seen to be present.’ [pg 128]

‘In some sideways part of his brain there was an image of getting into the pocket himself, in the warm and the dark, and curling up safe.’ [pg 142-143]

‘My place now…you got all the rest.’ [pg 144]

‘In the scheme of things, he was surely an insignificant splinter of this whole immense place.’

‘There were too many people here, and too little language to go around.’ [pg 146]

‘…the figure became nothing more than a couple of angled branches.’ [pg 152]

‘They’s vermin…the same way rats is vermin.’ [pg 164]

‘Riding the Hope as hard as it would go down the coast, he was haunted by what a frail figure Sal had been, standing on the rise and bravely waving.’ [pg 171]

Conflict between Thornhill and Sal

‘But he could see that to his wife it seemed harsh and unlovely, nothing but a sentence to be endured.’ [pg 130]

‘But seeing it through her eyes, Thornhill knew what a flimsy home it was. By contrast, the hut housing the sign of the Pickle Herring had been as sold as St Paul’s.’ [pg 135]

‘His blind passion for a piece of land had let him leapfrog over this in his mind: Sal here, making a life where only the flicker of their own fire was human.’ [pg 136]

‘Like any other prisoner, she had a place – the smooth bark of a tree near the tent – where she marked off each day.’ [pg 150]

‘The thing about having things unspoken between two people, he was beginning to see, was that when you had set your foot along that path it was easier to go on than to go back.’ [pg 155]

‘Hated himself, for bringing her here.’ [pg 183]

‘But even in this moment, when the thought of life without her was a blank like death itself, he could not make himself say the words he knew she longed to hear: we will go Home.’ [pg 184]

‘But he had to work to keep the disappointment off his face that the marks on the tree were her first thought.’ [pg 185]

Sal’s inner conflict: fear of the Aboriginals

‘She was afraid of the children wandering and being lost in the forest, and in the absence of anything to function as a fence she tethered Bub and Johnny to the tally-tree on long ropes.’ [pg 151]

Sal’s inner conflict: with loneliness

‘Thornhill saw for the first time how much she missed having people around her.’ [pg 157]

‘She had never spoken of her loneliness.’ [pg 157]

Conflict between Blackwood and other convicts

‘There was an authority about him so that even boastful Sagitty went quiet, watching Blackwood glumly and fingering the beard around his mouth.’ [pg 167]

‘Give a little, take a little.’ [pg 169]

Conflict between gentry and convicts: Suckling and Thornhill

‘[Suckling] flicked about himself importantly with the handkerchief.’ [pg 172]

‘I never forget a felon’s face…his voice was rich with satisfaction.’

‘Suckling snorted and flinched.’ [pg 173]

‘He had thought then that it was all apart of the price a boy paid for getting up in the world.’

‘He had pictured how he would stride and point at the men he wanted. But he hung back now, so he would not have to face Suckling’s smirk.’ [pg 174]

‘He might be entitled to stand in power over him, but in the eyes of men like Suckling, he and Dan Oldfield were the same.’ [pg 175]

Conflict between gentry and convicts: Surgeon and Thornhill

‘Sal was only the wife of an emancipist.’ [pg 183]

Conflict between gentry and convicts: Thornhill and Dan/Ned

‘He thought of the way Suckling smiled, not showing any teeth, and tried it himself.’ [pg 175]

‘His own pleasure in it, as he had bullied Dan on the wharf, had come as a surprise to Thornhill: he had not known that he had it in him to be a tyrant.’ [pg 177]

‘Thornhill felt his mouth shaping that superior Suckling smile.’ [pg 178]

‘He realised now how begging made a man ugly and hardly human: easy to refuse.’ [pg 180]

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