In David Malouf’s novel An Imaginary Life, one of the most prevalent influences on the characters’ lives is the particular environment in which they are placed. Malouf explores the issues of the interrelationship between man and his natural environment, and the impact that changes in environment have on human personality. Through the characterisation of Ovid and the Boy, the effects of setting and physical surroundings are fully explored, and consequently issues such as isolation, conformity to society and the development of culture, including education and language, are discussed.
The main character, Ovid, is a vivid example of how lives can be periodically changed according to alterations in the surrounding environment. At the start of the book Ovid is a stranger to his setting, stranded in a culture that deprives him of his language, his customs, and his pride. This shows that identity is primarily constructed according to the society in which people are placed, and much social learning and norms are derived from conformity to the conditions of a particular environment. In An Imaginary Life, Ovid completes a journey of self discovery, learning how to create and cultivate an existence based on interrelationship with the natural world, entering a into partly idealistic and imaginary existence, hence the title.
There are consistent parallels created through descriptions of Ovid’s political status. Due to his ostracism, he is separated both from outside elements of society and ideals that exist in his own mind. In the opening paragraphs, Ovid describes his natural surroundings and the characteristics of the landscape, and ends with the statement:
But I am describing a state of mind, no place.
I am in exile here.
This emphasises the relationship and influence between natural environment and human patterns of thinking, and how often perspectives on life are very dependent upon the state of the environment. This is again reflected in one of his later descriptions, which states:
It [the landscape] is a place of utter desolation, the beginning. I know it
like the inside of my head.
This bleak, pessimistic description is then contrasted to a joyful, beautiful description of a new life: a scarlet poppy. This contrast provides insight into the importance of changes in the natural environment, as the poet is changed from being troubled by the desolate emptiness of the earth, to being ‘drunk with joy’ at the new creation of colour, life and vitality. While in this ecstatic state of mind, Ovid questions what his friends back in the modern Roman society would think of his frivolous behavior, showing that being in unity with the natural landscape lessens the bond between man and the constraints of society. Ovid’s identity is constructed by the environment he is in, as while hunting with the head horseman, he adapts and conforms to the patterns of the rural men. This is portrayed as a positive thing, as the landscape is seen as a mentally healing agent, as Ovid described:
It was as it some fear went out of my breath and left my spirit clear
Following this description is a flashback to Ovid’s childhood, where he is finally able to become reconciled with his past and become aware of problems within the family unit. Changes and challenges within the environment therefore act as a catalyst for reconciliation and healing. Ovid recognises that
…the landscape we have made reveals to us the creatures we long for
and must become.
This shows the link between the way human activity has affected and influenced the natural environment, and the way nature has the ability to educate man about many aspects of human existence. The environment is contrasted many times with the use of language. As the poet learns more and more about the new culture and speech, he compares it to the elements of the environment, stating that