The Secret River

Discuss the effects of poverty on Thornhill and how it shapes the rest of his life.

Part 1 of the novel puts us back at Thornhill’s desperately impoverished childhood in a large family in London at the early part of the nineteenth-century. “He grew up a fighter. By the time he was ten years old the other boys knew to leave him alone. The rage warmed him and filled him up. It was a kind of friend” (p. 15).

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The scene at Waterman's Hall lights the spark of William's rage against the unjust social system and informs his actions in New South Wales - in particular, his obsession with Thornhill's Point. William knows that he is on the bottom rung of the hierarchy of men, and he rails against the system that placed him there. The hot pain in the seat of his pants as he is forced to stand too close to the fire symbolizes the emotional pain and humiliation he experiences on behalf of Mr. Middleton.

The loss of the boats and the house on Swan Lane leaves deep scars on William's psyche. The house on Swan Lane symbolizes William's dream of stability and security. His greatest desire is to provide his family with a decent place to live and enough food to keep the hunger at bay. He does not expect any handouts, and he is willing to work hard, rowing up and down the Thames in all weather. When he realizes the precarious hold on security that even Mr. Middleton possessed, William acutely feels the trap he was born into. Only Sal's love keeps him from giving up. The memory of the loss of the house on Swan Lane haunts William in New South Wales. He is determined to own a piece of land that no one can take away from him. It is this need for security that drives William to participate in the bloody attack on the Aborigines at the end of the novel.