The Secret River explores the clash of civilizations that began when Captain Cook first stepped foot on the land that become known as Australia. Throughout the novel, Grenville juxtaposes British and Aboriginal understandings of several important social concepts: personal property, clothing, hunting and farming, family relationships, and relationship to the natural environment. The incomprehension with which each culture regards the other leads to the majority of conflicts in the novel. The British concepts of private property and settlement, backed up by the guns and might of the Empire, eventually win the battle between the two civilizations.
Grenville presents Aboriginal culture as a lost idyll. Although the novel focuses on William's journey from the gutters of London to Australian gentry, Grenville places almost equal weight on the Aborigines and their way of life. She is careful to refute the label of savage that the settlers give to the Aborigines. Grenville conveys the richness of their culture and their deep attachment to the land. She contrasts the over-consumption of Western civilization with the Aborigines' understanding of the delicate balance of nature. Grenville suggests that the white settlers could have learned much from the Aborigines and, by extension, that the modern world with its disregard for the natural environment should open its eyes to the wisdom of native peoples.
Alternative Path of Australian Development
Grenville sets up two paths to the development of Australia, embodied in the characters of Smasher Sullivan and Thomas Blackwood. Smasher Sullivan represents the path of racial, social, and physical domination of the Aborigines that the British did follow in their colonization of Australia. Thomas Blackwood, on the other hand, represents the choice of peaceful co-existence that was originally available to the British colonists if they had not been blinded by racial prejudice and greed. Grenville gives the reader a glimpse of the possible development of future generations of Australian through the character of Dick.
The theme of social hierarchy and its levels of power runs throughout the novel. Beginning with William's first visit to Christ Church through to the placement of the stone lions on the gateposts of Thorhnhill's Point, Grenville explores the impact of social ranking on individual development. The humiliation that William experiences as a waterman in London marks his character for life and informs the choices he makes throughout the novel. He craves the thrill of wielding power over another person. For William and the other settlers (the majority of whom are convicts), their status as white men gives them permission to look down on other human beings (the Aborigines), for the first time in their lives. Their treatment of the Aborigines is informed by their understanding of how one should treat a racial and social inferior.
The story of modern Australia is essentially a story of self-creation. The convicts sent from England were given the chance to receive a full pardon and start their lives over. The Secret River tells the story of William Thornhill, one of those first settlers who arrived in New South Wales as a convict and an outcast and who eventually carved out a place for himself in Australia's incipient ruling class. The structure of the novel reflects the importance of this theme. Grenville opens the novel not with William's youth in London but with his first night in New South Wales. She ends the novel with William sitting on the veranda of his grand house, Cobham Hall. He has re-written the story of his life both physically and metaphorically.
The British Class System
The Secret River examines how the harsh British class system of the 18th and 19th centuries condemned people like William to a life of crime. Grenville exposes the harsh choices that people of William's class faced in order to survive. It was not a question of good or bad but of starvation or theft. In her chronicle of William's life in London, Grenville wants the reader to understand that the convicts who first settled modern Australia were not bad, just desperate. Australia has chaffed under its moniker as a land of convicts since its inception. Grenville's empathetic account of William's life represents an attempt to embrace Australia's convict past and give it a human face.
The Disorientation of the Immigrant
Through the character of Sal, Grenville explores the disorientating experience of the immigrant. While she works hard and rarely complains, Sal has a difficult time settling in to their new life in Australia. The very trees with their greyish leaves tell her she is no longer at home. Sal feels the wild continent pressing in on her from all sides, and she misses the smells and sounds of London. While William thrives in the new land, Sal finds it harder to adjust because she did not suffer the same level of humiliation as William. Sal clings on to her memories of Britain, recreating her life in London as much as possible. Grenville uses Sal to explore the persistence of British culture in Australia and the lingering concept that Britain was Home.
The Secret River Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Secret River is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Christ Church in England had lions on its gateposts. The lions were a symbol of Thornhill's mother, and the way he remembered her. Thus, he chose lions for the gateposts in his Australian home.... in memory of his mother.