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Solitude, loneliness and Australian literature.

The reasons for the focus on solitude and loneliness in contemporary Australian literature are many and varied.    While some critics point to Australian associations with the 'bush', others discuss 'deliberate choice' and the impact of the emigrant experience with its accompanying alienation through language, age and culture.   The nature of writing as a solitary occupation could also explain writer's preoccupation with this theme.    The novel "1988" and "That Eye The Sky" both have 'bush' settings that impact differently on their protagonists.    Whereas "1988" focuses to an extent on the solitude and loneliness that comes about from the alienating experience of exposure to unknown language and culture, "That Eye The Sky" examines the loneliness of alienation within a family that comes about because of age differences and cultural attitudes.   Both novels explore the isolating effects of country life.

Ann Curthoys explains the Australian relationship with the "bush" in terms of a return to rural Australia as a "true source" of Australian culture. "By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the search for what was uniquely Australian came to focus on the distinctly rural as the true source of the culture of the people" (Curthoys, 28). The depiction of rural Australia as sparsely populated and offering a lonely, solitary existence has long been asserted in Anglo-Australian literature.    Indigenous literature, however, is not included in this generalization.    The Indigenous people who populated country areas side by side with early Australian 'pioneers' were made 'invisible' in much of early Australian literature and history of country areas.

McCalman explains this preference for rural Australia as a 'source of culture' in terms of the stigma attached to the idea of urban development contained in the discourse about 'suburbia'. Janet McCalman relates the Anglo-Australian and English aversion to 'suburbia' to a "distaste for the 'bourgeoisie'" and the appropriation of 'bourgeois' ideology by the working class as they moved from the crowded city 'slums' to the 'garden suburbs'. "Must they remain in poverty to provide a life purpose for the missionaries of the middle-class left?" McCalman laments (McCalman, 91).   However, McCalman further asserts that the rise of 'solitariness' and loneliness in this century has come about by 'deliberate choice'.    People have become a lot fussier in their choice of cohabitants and often prefer to live alone rather than with someone who is "not right for them" (93).    McCalman relates these changing attitudes to a more affluent lifestyle. "As people have become better off, they have sought more privacy and solitude" (93).

Closely allied to the themes of solitude and loneliness, however, are the varying effects of migration, which have not been overlooked by either Curthoys or McCalman. Curthoys describes the "desire to construct a sense of belonging and continuity" that results from a loss of "sustained cultural and kinship knowledge" particularly by male migrants. "The process of migration seems to have cut these men off from their families and kin, and specific cultural knowledge is very often not passed on. It is usually the women who have kept the family knowledge, passed on stories about grandparents, and who keep in touch with their wider family..." (Curthoys,33). For Curthoys, then, contact with and knowledge of family members is a gendered activity, which is generally carried out by women. Therefore, men would be more prone to the experience of loneliness and solitude that may arise form migration than women. McCalman, however, explains the loss of family history as a "deliberate forgetting" of a past full of "grief and frustrations" (McCalman, 86) rather than as something which is particular to men.

A further comment on the migrant experience is made by Gelder and Salzman when they draw attention to the theme of "alienation through language" which they describe as a "powerful theme in migrant experience" (Gelder & Salzman, 189. The language barrier experienced by non-English speaking migrants not only results in the solitude and loneliness of alienation but it also "reverses the generations, with children becoming teachers". Also, "the language as it is used and misunderstood becomes a weapon wielded against the newcomer by the native speaker" (189) thus further adding to her/his alienation.

In the novel "1988", the protagonist, Gordon, experiences the solitariness of living in the 'bush' as well as the loneliness of isolation from his family, and of alienation because of language differences. The 'emigrant narrative' consisting of "the decision to migrate and the voyage; the arrival in (Australia); the emigrant experiences and adventures in the colony; and the achievement of success;" (Bird, 36) is loosely replicated or inverted in "1988".

The 'decision to immigrate' correlates with Gordon's decision to leave Brisbane. Gordon becomes deeply dissatisfied with all aspects of his life in New Farm, an inner-city suburb of Brisbane. He is 'ashamed' of his non-existent sex life, his health is poor, he has almost given up his aspirations to write, his 'pub' work is not stimulating and he feels that his life is "a steady decline" (McGahan, 5). His feelings of loneliness are exacerbated by the alienation through language and culture he experiences in the house he shares with William and nine Chinese students. The emigrant experience of alienation through language and culture becomes inverted in "1988" as Gordon, a native Anglo-Australian suffers feelings of alienation in his own home.

"Increasingly I retreated to my room. I stopped using the kitchen. I ate meat pies and fish cakes and chips from the takeaway.. I lay and stared at the ceiling, listening to the Chinese outside my door...Eleven people in residence and I felt as if I was living alone"(McGahan, 11).

Isolated from his parents who lived at Dalby, Gordon also became isolated from his friends who didn't like to visit because the house was "always too bloody crowded" (9). "When one more Chinese moved in, it was time, (he) decided , to move" (12).    The offer of a six-month contract as a weather observer in the Northern Territory is accepted and Gordon together with his artist friend, Wayne, eagerly anticipate the promise of a new life.   "It is a chance for them to pursue their respective creative activities - writing and painting - in isolation, regimented by the metronomic toll of their three-hourly task of weather observations" (Cole, 1). They embark on their 'voyage' to the Northern territory in a state of "great expectations" (McGahan, 28).

The desert becomes a metaphor for the ocean as the two young men, in a spirit of adventure, proceeded towards their destination. First person, Gordon, describes the trip through the desert: "I was impressed. It was as close a thing to a real desert as I'd ever seen. I looked out at the low clump of brown grass, the red soil. There were no other cars. No houses. No trees. Just us and the Kingswood, under the sun, carving our way across the plain". (McGahan, 45). Despite mishaps and close calls with the car, the overall monotony if the journey left Gordon depressed and bored. "In three days the only memorable thing we'd seen was a dog. I didn't even know why it was memorable. It didn't mean anything, dogs were everywhere. Surely life on the road was supposed to be something more" (58).

The Gurig National Park on the Cobourg Peninsula is their ultimate destination. Here they "confront the differences between themselves and the local Aborigines, the burden of a colonial history, the discomforts and dangers of the natural world, and the seeming irrelevance of their aspirations to be artists" (Lever, 328). Barry, a local, informs them that "it wouldn't be so bad if (they) could really paint, or ...could really write. But what would (Gordon) write about? What would (Wayne) paint?"  &nsbp; He accused them of "having no guts, no experience" and not knowing anything worthwhile (McGahan, 220).

Cole comments on the depiction of "contemporary Australian middle class males as a group ironically finding themselves on the margins of a society" (Cole,2). The experiences of marginalisation and cultural and language differences which Gordon encounters in his dealings with the local Aborigines could be said to reflect the migrant experience.

"But no matter what happened, there remained a polite distance between us all. No one ever entered anyone else's house without knocking first, and waiting to be asked in. Eve hardly ever left their house. I came across her only once in the open. I said "Hello Eve". She gave me a sharp look and hurried off. I felt like I'd said something obscene" (McGahan, 146).

The theme of the alienating effects of migration and the resulting themes of solitude and loneliness are reinforced by the 'diaristic' style of writing that Gordon adopts as he religiously records each day's events or non events. The practices of letter, diary and journal writing was common for early migrants to Australia (Bird,38). "Keeping a journal... was considered the duty of every educated young person" (38). Gordon's record of the mundane daily events of his life went as follows: "I was alone with the boils" (McGahan, 230)... "I turned to alcohol" (230)... "I remembered Wayne's marijuana... I hadn't smoked any for weeks!" (234)... "I went back to the bourbon. I walked around the house. I didn't like the empty rooms.. There was no peace" (234).
The loneliness and solitude expressed in Gordon's diaristic accounts are reinforced by the implication of the solitary nature of writing itself.

The theme of the "achievement of success" common to emigrant narratives seems to be subverted into failure in "1988" as neither Gordon nor Wayne achieve their artistic goals. Cole, however, points out that "the message of McGahan's story is not all as dark as his characters would have us believe. Wayne may not have painted his exhibition and Gordon may not have written his novel, but McGahan surely has written his novel about that" (Cole, 2).

Gelder and Salzman write of the 'alternative posture' which dominated speculative fiction in the 1970's and early 80's (Gelder & Salzamn, 113). These novels represented the euphoria of travelling, of moving out of the establishment practices of the city, of literally "dropping out" of society. Tim Winton's novel "That Eye, The Sky" examines the 'alternative posture' through the eyes of a child of "drop out" parents.

The child, Ort, in "That Eye The Sky" is skilfully used by Winton as a narrator "who offers a child's innocent perspective on the world. Ort offers (a) visionary perception of the world... within the bounds of a circumscribed family" (Gelder & Salzman, 252). Age differences, social custom and disabling illnesses among the family members create communication barriers, which have the effect of isolating family members from each other.

The oldest member of the family, "Grammar", is physically and mentally disabled by an age-related illness and sits silently except for her occasional cries for "Lil Pickering". "Grammar" is a constant presence in the house who demands the time and care of the different family members but who is unable to communicate intelligibly with any of them. "She makes mumbly spluttery noises and then goes quiet. As I pass her door I look in. There she is with her feet up on the window sill and the breeze up her nightie" (Winton, 17). Ort's attitude to his grandmother is ambivalent. He finds her "a bit boring and a bit scary". However, he feels compelled to sit with her and feed her occasionally (17).

The care of "Grammar" is split between the family members. Tegwyn, Ort's older sister, resents the tasks involved in "looking after" the old woman and performs her duties increasingly reluctantly (9). When their father returns from hospital, bedridden and in need of even more attention than "Grammar" Tegwyn announces that she intends to leave school and work in the city (86). Relationships between Tegwyn and the rest of the family deteriorate from that time on as she refuses to help with the care of her father (88).

Ort's age acts as a communication barrier within the family as both his mother and his sister avoid topics that they consider to be inappropriate for his age. The topic of his father's true condition is kept from him by not only his mother and sister but also by his peers at school. When he asks Fat Cherry if he's "heard about (his) dad", Fat replies: "My dad told me not to talk about it" (16). Later when his father is brought home on a stretcher Ort is shocked (82). "Why isn't he walking? I ask." "Why wasn't he driving the car? What are you carrying him for?" (82) and ... "I didn't know this was going to happen. I thought he was going to be alright, but he looks pretty crook to me" (83). Ort is left out of the conversations concerning his father's condition as his mother and "the man in white" "go into the kitchen and talk quiet for a bit" (84).

Ort's isolation from the family is emphasised by his need to resort to watching everyone through "door cracks" and "holes in the wall" (87). He expresses his feelings of loneliness and explains it in terms of his inability to sleep. "It's lonely when you can't sleep" (89). The loneliness and feelings of isolation expressed by Ort, his mother and his sister are made more poignant by the physical isolation they experience because of their geographical location in the 'bush' and the conditions in which they live. Because of their poverty, they have lived without transport or a telephone. Ort was born on the sofa because his father had no transport to take his mother to hospital (23). After his father's accident in the "ute" the family is once more in the same isolated predicament.

Both writers use the 'bush' as a setting in order to explore the themes of solitude and loneliness. McGahan, however, also describes the ways in which an urban setting can create these feelings. While McGahan replicates and inverts the migrant experience, Winton explores the ways in which age and social custom create barriers within a family that result in feelings of alienation, loneliness and isolation.


McGahan, Andrew"1988. Allen and Unwin. Australia. 1995.

Winton, Tim"That Eye The Sky " McPhee Gribble Publishers.
Australia. 1987.

Curthoys, Ann"History and Identity" in Creating Australia.
Ed. Hudson, W. and Bolton, G. Allen and Unwin.
Australia. 1997.

McCalman, Janet"The originality of ordinary lives" in Creating Australia.
Ed. Hudson, W. and Bolton, G.
Allen and Unwin. Australia. 1997.

Gelder and Salzman "The New Diversity. Australian Fiction 1970 - 1988"
McPhee Gribble Publishers. Melbourne. 1989.

Bird, Delys "The 'Settling' of the English" in
The Oxford Literary History of Australia. Ed. Bennett, B.,
and Straus, J. Oxford University press. Melbourne. 1998.

Lever, Susan "Fiction: Innovation and Ideology" in
The Oxford Literary history of Australia. Ed. Bennett, B.,
and Straus, J. Oxford University Press. Melbourne. 1998.

Cole, Joshua "Lord of the Sandflies" Ozlit Reader's Review. Ozlit at
Vicnet. Australia. 1998.