How does Kate Grenville’s novel, The Secret River, complicate simplistic views of the colonial situation?
To some extent the past generations have been reared on a patriotic view of past Australian history, interpreting its history as largely a success. Since history is determined by the perspective of from which it is written, this version of Australian history, the Three Cheers view, was written from the perspective of white working-class males, who consider Australian pioneers to be the simple, honest and humble people. Until recently, a rival interpretation, the Black Armband view, has assailed the generally optimistic view of Australian history by construing the history of Australia as a disgrace. This second simplistic view implies that Australian history has involved continual discrimination against Aborigines and deems that Australians need to seek redress for past wrongs committed against the Aborigines. Black Armband interpretations of Australia’s past might well represent the “swing of a pendulum from positions that had been too favourable, too self-congratulatory, to an opposite extreme that is even more unreal and decidedly jaundiced.”1 In order to avoid simplistic views of Australian history, one must take into account the truth that history involves individuals making their own personalised decisions; and that anyone, black or white, is capable of evil. The Secret River, a fiercely intelligent, disturbing and evocative novel written by renowned author Kate Grenville, is one work of fiction which challenges the simplistic politically motivated representations of the 18th century colonial situation. In particular, the novel challenges traditional interpretations of the Colonial period as a time of ‘settlement’ as well as revisionist interpretations of the Colonial period as time of ‘invasion’. Grenville disputes these dualistic views in a number of ways, most prominently by challenging the accepted stereotype that all white males played a positive role in Australian history, challenging the rival idea that all the settlers were evil and also highlighting the extreme difficulty for the possibility of a compromise between the two groups. A second way in which Grenville challenges the simplistic conceptions of history is by realistically examining the experiences of the Aboriginal Australians in the 18th Century and while doing so, subtly but effectively scrutinizes the myths associated with the squattocracy of early Australia. By satisfyingly demonstrating that the Australian settlement was based on a number of misapprehensions by the English, Grenville positions the reader to question widely accepted and stereotypical assumptions of the colonial state of affairs. Grenville thoughtfully complicates simplistic and dualistic views through her representations of the exploration of the complex and sometimes violent interactions between the European settlers and Aboriginal Australians. By doing so, she subtly challenges the simplistic typecast that all European white males played a positive, heroic role in the settlement of Australia. Smasher Sullivan, "a man who had something horrible about the red skin of his forehead, his naked face"2 , is one such character who exemplifies that some European colonists were consciously involved in shocking maltreatment of the Aboriginal Australians, as he continuously partakes in appalling violence and disgusting cruelty. When first encountered by the reader, Smasher is perceived as a sadistic, small, cowardly man who is the owner of a settlement on Hawkesbury River. When the main protagonist, Thornhill, first comes upon Smasher, Smasher reaches for some 'trophies' in the bottom of his boat. "Look what I done, he called...then he saw that they were hands cut off at the wrist. The skin was black against the white of the bone"3. Later in the novel, when a handful of pioneers are gathered at Thornhill's family hut, Smasher again shows off his barbarous exploits comprising of...
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