"It was easy to wish to belong in this house, number 31, Swan Lane. Even the name of the street was sweet. He could imagine how he would grow into himself in the warmth of such a home. it was not just the generous slab of bread, spread with good tasty dripping: it was the feeling of having a place. Swan Lane and the rooms within it were part of Sal's very being, he could see, in a way no place had ever been part of his."
The house on Swan Lane holds tremendous sway over the young William Thornhill. It represents everything that he does not possess: abundant food, warmth, love, and security. In contrast, William and his siblings are literally starving, their hunger made worse by the bitter wind that blows through the open windows. William believes that the Middleton's own the leasehold on the house, and he dreams one day of living in a place that no one can take away from him. He dedicates his life in Australia to acquiring his own Swan Lane and attaining the security he has always craved. This need for security holds more sway over William than even his love for Sal. As illustrated by his participation in the attack on the Aborigines, William is willing to kill to ensure its continued existence.
"He had a sudden dizzying understanding of the way men were ranged on top of each other, all the way from the Thornhills at to the bottom up to the King, or God, at the top, each man higher than one, lower than the other."
William is shocked to hear Mr. Middleton, who he holds in great respect, spoken to so informally by the lords at Waterman Hall. In William's world, Mr. Middleton stands at the top of the ladder; he has a stable business, a house, ample food, and an apprentice to do all the hard work. However, Mr. Middleton is merely a waterman in the eyes of those who control the trade on the Thames, a minion forced to plead his case before he can be assigned an apprentice. William yearns to be free of the shackles of his lowly position. He wants to be treated as equal. His experience as a lighterman, ferrying members of the gentility across the Thames, reinforces his feeling of bitterness. Therefore, William is fiercely attracted to the opportunity to create a new life in Australia, the freedom to become one of the men at the top. When William is assigned two convicts as indentured servants, he enjoys the feeling of no longer being on the bottom rung of society.
"There were no signs that the blacks felt that the place belonged to them. They had no fences that said this is mine. No house that said, this is our home. There were no fields or flocks that said, we have put the labour of our hands into this place."
This quotation demonstrates the abyss separating the Western understanding of ownership from the Aboriginal conception that they and the land are one. The British colonists saw no reason not to take land and resources that had not been claimed by either public or private ownership. They took the absence of permanent structures and tilled fields to mean that the Aborigines had not invested in the land. In the tradition of the Protestant work ethic, a people that did not labor on the land or develop its resources were not considered to own that land. Merely existing on a piece of land was not enough to warrant the respect of British law or traditions. The Aborigines, on the other hand, lived in harmony with their environment. Until the colonists arrived, the question of ownership of the land and its fruits was irrelevant. The land existed, and so did they. What the land provided, they ate. They felt the firmness of the land beneath their feet and knew that it belonged to them, and that they belonged to the land.
"Ain't nothing in this world just for the taking ... A man got to pay a fair price for taking. Matter of give a little, take a little."
- Thomas Blackwood
This quotation from Thomas Blackwood represents the central dilemma that William faces as he tries to ensure the long-term viability and prosperity of Thornhill's Point. Blackwood refuses to elaborate on his advice, leaving William to try and work out just how much to give and how much to take. Based on their experience with Scabby Bill, William and Sal initially believe the Aborigines on Thornhill's Point can be bought off with a bit of food. Unable to understand the Aboriginal languages and blinded by racial prejudice, the British colonists believe that the Aborigines are savages who can be bought off with trinkets. When the clan of Aborigines sets up camp at Thornhill Point, William gives them their own space. The clan and the Thornhills live side by side. However, William knows that he will have to draw the line at some point and evict the Aborigines if he will ever be able consider the land his own. William struggles with the moral dilemma of taking Blackwood's advice and learning to live with the Aborigines or following the popular tact of running them off the land, thus providing him with the wealth and security that he so craves.
"He let himself imagine it: standing on the crest of that slope, looking down over his own place. Thornhill's Point. It was a piercing hunger in his guts: to own it. To say mine, in a way he had never been able to say mine of anything at all."
When William first sees the stretch of land on the Hawkesbury river that he wants to claim as his own, he realizes that he can finally gain the security that comes with ownership of land. He and Sal lost the house on Swan Lane because Mr. Middleton did not own the house outright. William wants something that no one can take away from him. He wants the pride and social standing of a landowner, even if that land has yet to be developed. William knows that by establishing Thornhill's Point he is leaving behind his past as a lowly lighterman and taking the first step to building a solid and secure life for his family in Australia.
"He wished he could explain to her the marvel of that land, the way the sunlight fell so sweet along the grass. But she could not imagine, did not want to. He saw that her dreams were small and cautious, being of nothing grander than the London they had left. Perhaps because she had not felt the rope around her neck. That changed a man forever."
William's dream of Thornhill's Point creates the first divide in his relationship with Sal, who wants only to return to the familiar streets of London. Sal finds herself unable to settle among the foreign trees. At both the settlement in Sydney and at Thornhill's Point, she does not venture outside the compound. At Thornhill's Point, she does not enter the forest or explore the river. Grenville writes that Sal barely looks at the wild forests beyond her threshold. Sal clings to her memories and is determined to return home. Because Sal had a relatively comfortable and happy childhood, she believes that they can return to their familiar life in London. William's experiences with hunger, poverty, and near-death killed his desire to return to his childhood home.
"Sal made a place she called the yard, a patch of earth that she scraped and swept until it was smooth. Within its boundary she made something domestic: the fireplace, ringed with stones ... the water barrel filled from the rivulet, a slab of log laid on a couple of stones that did duty as a table. She cooked and washed and swept, and sat on a log to mend children's clothes or grind up the hominy, just like any other housewife. Beyond the yard she went only for a call of nature, and did not dally."
Sal finds the wild expanses of Australia intimidating, and she longs for the familiar routines of her youth. Sal's yard symbolizes the division between the wilderness and the savages (the Aborigines) and civilization. Swept clean, the yard is devoid of the nature surrounding her. Sal carves out a space for herself in which she recreates her former life. Even when William becomes a rich man, Sal insists that a high wall enclose their villa, separating her from the foreign land outside.
"... the blacks were farmers no less than the white men were. But they did not bother to build a fence to keep the animals from getting out. Instead, they created a tasty patch to lure them in. Either way, it meant meat for dinner."
After the Aborigines lure kangaroos to the area near their camp site with fresh shoots of grass, William begins to rethink his assumption that they are lazy nomads. He realizes that while his family works all day, they have little to show for it. The Aborigines gather wood and food in a relaxed, unhurried manner, and they are the ones with fresh kangaroo meat for dinner. William begins to understand that their way of life is well-suited to their needs. For the first time, he sees that there can be more than one way of structuring a society and inhabiting a land.
"They was here, Sal said. Seeing the place had made it real to her in a way it had not been before. She turned to Thornhill. Like you and me was in London. Just the exact same way."
When the Aboriginal clan finally moves on from Thornhill's Point, Sal ventures into their camp for the first time. She sees their huts and the carefully swept floor of the camp and realizes that it was a real home to them. Just because they do not wear clothes or cook familiar food does not mean that they have not created a home in the same way she creates a home for her family. While Sal had previously wished the Aborigines would go away and leave them alone on their land, she now understands that Thornhill's Point and all of New South Wales is their home. Just as she wants to return to her home in London, she knows that the Aborigines will return to their home on Thornhill's Point. This realization only reinforces her desire to leave Thornhill's Point and widens the divide between her and William.
"No man had worked harder than he had done, and been rewarded for his labour ... He would have said that he had everything a man could want ... But there was an emptiness as he watched Jack's hand caressing the dirt. This was something that he did not have: a place that was part of his flesh and spirit. There was no part of the world that he would keep coming back to, the way Jack did, just to feel it under him."
William is now a rich man with 300 acres of land. The settlers' attack on the Aborigines pushed them onto the government reservations and opened the area for extensive colonization. Long Jack was injured in the attack, but he survived and periodically returns to Thornhill's Point to sit at the site of their former camp. He speaks to no one and accepts no handouts. He merely sits on the ground, visiting his land. Long Jack's presence undermines William's claim to the land and calls into doubt the Western conception of ownership. While William holds the deed to the land, Long Jack claims it as his spiritual home, as a part of himself. As a lower-class boy in London and a transplanted settler in Australia, William has never felt that sense of belonging. His land may give him wealth, but it does not provide him with the spiritual strength that Long Jack draws from the land.
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.