The Secret River

The Secret River Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What is the significance of the incident with the woman in the green slippers?

    William acutely feels his inferior social position. The gentleman flaunts his wife in William's face, rubbing in the fact that William would never possess such a lady. William knows that he could best the gentleman in any activity, but the class system mires him in poverty and brands him as an inferior. The memory of this incident pushes William to work himself into the ground in Australia to become like that gentleman - the one with the power who looks down on others.

  2. 2

    How does the loss of his boat and the house on Swan Street affect William?

    William craves security, and the house on Swan Street represents everything he didn't have as child - warmth, food, and stability. After working for years as an apprentice and then as his own master, William is devastated when it is all swept away by one cold spell. Only Sal's love convinces him to keep working and fighting. William wants to possess something that can never be taken away. His burning desire to claim the land at Thornhill's Point stems from the loss of the house on Swan Street. The deep need for security eventually pushes William to participate in the massacre of the Aborigines.

  3. 3

    Why does Grenville paint such an empathetic picture of William's life in London?

    The Secret River emerged out of Grenville's research into her own convict ancestor. She became fascinated with the challenges that he must have faced building a new life in Australia. In her portrait of William's life in London, Grenville communicates to the reader the idea that the majority of the convicts deported to Australia were not inherently bad people. They were forced by circumstances into crime. Grenville is rewriting the narrative of Australia's convict past, embracing it as opposed to hiding it under the carpet.

  4. 4

    How does Grenville portray the Aborigines' attachment to the land?

    Throughout the novel, Grenville contrasts the Aboriginal concept of belonging to the land with the Western concept of owning the land. The Aborigines do not need fences or buildings or official papers to feel that it is their land. The Aborigines and the land are connected on both a spiritual and physical plane. The Aborigines are one with the land. As Long Jack says at the end of the novel as he touches the earth, "This me."

  5. 5

    What does Thomas Blackwood symbolize?

    Thomas Blackwood symbolizes the alternative path of Australian development that Grenville explores in the novel. He stands in opposition to Smasher Sullivan's advocacy of domination and violent suppression. Blackwood advocates learning how to live in peaceful co-existence with the Aborigines. His advice to William - give a little/take a little - represents one of the primary philosophical questions in the novel. Grenville asks if it could have been possible to create an Australia that incorporated the values of the Aborigines and the white settlers. His blinding by Smasher's whip during the battle with Aborigines symbolizes the destruction of his vision of an inclusive Australia.

  6. 6

    Why does Sal make a yard around the hut and later have a stone wall built around the house?

    Sal is uncomfortable surrounded by nature and the impenetrable trees. She grew up in a city that had tamed nature, and she equates the taming of nature with civilization. Sal clears the area around the hut to claim for herself a small piece of civilization. When William builds Cobham Hall, Sal insists on a tall stone wall to stand as a permanent barrier between her and the wilds of nature and anything that may lurk in the dense forest.

  7. 7

    Why does the Aborigines' destruction of the corn patch set William on the path to violence?

    William's entire claim to Thornhill's Point is tied to the first crop that he planted on the land. The corn patch is a solid manifestation of his dream. The Aborigines' destruction of the corn patch puts the fulfillment of William's dream in real jeopardy. Sal will not stay on Thornhill's Point while the threat of attacks by the Aborigines remains. The only way that William can hold on to his dream is to put an end to the 'native problem.' His reluctance to resort to violence falls away in his desperation to hold on to Thornhill's Point.

  8. 8

    What does William's killing of Whisker Harry symbolize?

    When William shoots Whisker Harry during the battle at Blackwood's place, he cuts off the head of the Aboriginal clan that called his land their own. Whisker Harry carried the history of his people in his mind, telling them the story of the land in song and dance. His death symbolizes the end of Aboriginal culture along the Hawkesbury. William's claim to Thornhill's Point is now secure, and path to the colonization and domination of Australia clear.

  9. 9

    What is the significance of the blood-red geraniums, the only plant to flourish in Sal's garden at Cobham Hall?

    Sal fills her garden with plants and flowers that remind her of England. She even plants an entire alley of poplar trees leading up to Cobham Hall. None of the English plants thrive in the Australian climate. The poplar trees become little more than twigs. The only plants that flourish are the blood-red geraniums that Mrs. Herring gave to Sal. The failure of the English plants to take root symbolizes the need for the settlers to adapt to a new life in Australia. They cannot just try and rebuild England. They will have to learn to adapt to the nature and climate of their new land. The blood-red geraniums symbolize the vibrant and flourishing native environment of Australia.

  10. 10

    What does William's search for the figure of a man on the cliffs symbolize?

    Although William has achieved more than he ever dreamed by the end of the novel, he feels that something is missing. William learned to respect many aspects of Aboriginal culture. He just could not reconcile his need to claim Thronhill's Point with the Aborigines' presence on the land. He knows that the Aborigines are out there somewhere, moving soundlessly through the landscape. He searches for the shape of a man standing on the cliff, looking down at Thornhill's Point. His search symbolizes the haunting presence of the Aborigines that hovers over white Australia throughout its history.