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Remembering Babylon – David Malouf Essay Sample

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  • Pages: 13
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  • Category: novel

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Introduction of TOPIC

1. Explain the significance of the two prefatory quotations used by Malouf.

Remembering Babylon has two prefatory quotations. One, from The Four Zoas by William Blake, refers to Jerusalem and Babylon. And the other, from John Clare, comes from a time of trouble and darkness. Malouf’s use of the two quotes is important in establishing the underlying message of the novel.

In using the first quotation, Malouf questions the place that Gemmy has reached on the other side of the fence. Readers are inclined to question whether this “other side” is a place of redemption or a world of cruelty. When Gemmy is first found by the Aboriginals, he is a clear representation of the unknown. The Aboriginal women and children perceive Gemmy as an unfamiliar character; “What was it?”. Gemmy again demonstrates unfamiliarity when he crosses the fence and is found by Lachlan and Janet. “And the thing… was not even… human”. The Aboriginals took Gemmy in and taught him to live the same way as them. This was quite the opposite of his treatment by the majority of White Society. Historically, Babylon was seen as the city of enslavement and despair. In contrast to this, Jerusalem was the city of God and was viewed as a place of tolerance and peace. After reading the novel, readers understand that the perceived civility of White Society is false and that the Settlers actually contrast Blake’s Jerusalem, representing a world of turmoil and brutality. Gemmy evidently finds his place of redemption in the Aboriginal society and considers the White Settlement to be of Blake’s ‘Babylonian’ nature.

The second quotation is a poem written by John Clare. Malouf uses this poem to foreshadow the main ideas of the novel. Clare’s poem is a representation of a world of unrest. The poem begins in the same way as the novel, “strange shapes and void afflict the soul”. The novel begins with Gemmy being a strange “shape” that is found by the White Settlers. Gemmy is portrayed as the unknown and represents “impenetrable dark”. It is because of Gemmy that people are in disarray and the settlement seems to be “a world on fire”. The actions and behaviour of some of the Settlers, such as the spreading of ‘shit’ on the wall, prove to the readers that the Settlement is not unlike the barbaric world presented by John Clare.

The last two lines of Clare’s poem, “When heaven and earth shall pass away / Wilt thou Remember Me”, are significant in the conveyance of Malouf’s intentions. Malouf wants readers to understand that in order for society to evolve towards justice and harmony, they must “remember” the past and the discrepancies of Australian history. We can only make a better future if we are aware of our past. Thus, this quotation is also important in establishing a world where “lightning rends the sky”. Malouf, therefore, uses the two prefatory quotes to highlight the incivility of White Society and to point out the flaws of Australian history. The quotes are also used to set up the clear-cut distinction between the Settlers and the Indigenous.

2. Write a title for each of Chapters 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20, which shows an understanding of the main ideas (theme, not plot) you believe Malouf is trying to convey.

15 – A new and separate mind

16 – ‘Will-et’ ever come back to me?

17 – The brink of manhood

18 – Thank you for your ‘understanding’

19 – Washing away the Black Magic

20 – “Whether this is Jerusalem or Babylon we know not”

3. Define and discuss your understanding of the idea that “Gemmy is both symbol and character”.

Gemmy is an ‘in-between’ character who is of both Aboriginal and White culture – a ‘black white man’. As a character in the novel, Gemmy grows, learns about himself and life and develops the same way that conventional characters do. Gemmy is also an object of fear and curiosity, representing everything the white settlers fear to become; “losing it”. The settler’s perceive Gemmy as a justification of their irrational fear of the indigenous and therefore reject him from their society. Gemmy is not only a representation of fear but also equality. As a symbol, Gemmy blurs the distinction between the Whites and the Aboriginals because Gemmy is able to easily cross through the two societies, showing that none of the two are either superior or inferior. Malouf’s purpose in using Gemmy as both a character and a symbol is to allow readers to view the story through the perspective of both the White Settlers and the Aboriginals. This allows readers to make somewhat fair judgements on the subject of sympathy.

4. Write a psychological profile of two significant characters.

Janet McIvor is a significant character in Remembering Babylon, who feels restricted by her gender. Janet is able to challenge the cultural assumptions of society through her defiance of gender stereotypes. Janet experiences mental growth and a strengthened spiritual closeness with God, which allow her to be less prone to the prejudicial behaviour of the settlers. Janet comes to the realisation that her inner self is magnificent. “she was amazed, when the hard crust lifted, to discover a colour she had never seen before, and another skin, lustrous as pearl… It may have belonged to some other creature… and the came to her… if all the rough skin of her present self crusted and came off… what would be revealed…was this finer being.” Malouf shows us that inside of Janet’s ‘rough skin’ was someone more beautiful and that her desire to be free of the constraints of such a society “had been covered up in her”. Therefore, Janet proves to be psychologically higher and more spiritually aware than most characters in the novel. Through her epiphanies, Janet is able to find this spiritual closeness with a higher power.

From the very first moment, readers are introduced to the imagination of Lachlan Beattie. “[Lachlan] had elaborated this scrap of make-believe out of a story… he was lost in it.” This helps in introducing to readers, Lachlan’s psyche. Lachlan’s strong imagination could come about because Lachlan longs to be somewhere else. Lachlan has a wild sense of make-believe because he wants to have something different. For example, Lachlan imagines that they are in Russia where it snows, which is quite the opposite of Australia. At the beginning of the novel, Lachlan feels he needs to conform to the stereotypes of the settlement. “Though he was pale at the mouth, he did what his manhood required him to do.” Lachlan shows a Eurocentric attitude as he feels that his gender is a determinant of his actions. Lachlan also picks up a stick “with a belied in the power of the weapon.” This need for power is quite like the settlers’ need for power over the Aboriginals. Despite, Lachlan conforming to these views initially, he is redeemed as he goes back for Gemmy. By the end of the novel, readers understand that he has transformed as his experience with Gemmy has lead to a newfound appreciation. He changes the way that he thinks about Aboriginals and now sees Gemmy as “someone that [they] loved.”

5. Discuss the significance of excerpts from Mr Frazer’s notebook.

Mr Frazer’s notebook expresses a different attitude to the dominant perspective of White society. It presents a post-colonial view and is significant in enforcing the idea of hybridity and in criticising colonisation. Mr Frazer wants the settlers to stop trying to make the land more habitable and realize that it already is habitable, “We have been wrong to see this continent as hostile… so that sowing with the seeds we have brought with us, and by importing sheep, cattle, rabbits…can it be made habitable. It is habitable already.” The Europeans try to impose their own, European items onto the land. Mr Frazer exemplifies the idea of hybridity. Instead of working on top of the land, he wants to work with it. Malouf believed that Brisbane looked

like Edwardian England. He suggests that colonisation fails if you try to create a country, England,

on another country, Australia. The settlers should have adapted to the land instead of pushing their dominant ideas of civilisation on to it. The excerpts of Mr Frazer’s notebook are important because he is a representation of some of Malouf’s ideas. Malouf implies also, through Mr Frazer’s notebook, that the settlers do not belong in the Aboriginal’s land. He states, “the children of this land were made for it, as it was made for them, and is to them a rich habitation… We must humble ourselves and learn from them.” Malouf discusses who is truly entitled the land, which is one of the central ideas in the novel. Therefore, the extracts of the notebook are significant in underlining Malouf’s purpose in the novel, which are to put forward the themes of hybridity and colonisation.

6. Language is a recurring motif in Remembering Babylon. Discuss your understanding of Malouf’s central ideas regarding language, including a discussion of the link between language and identity.

Language is a recurring motif in Remembering Babylon. Malouf uses language to emphasize its with identity. Malouf suggests that people are defined by their language. For example, “wasn’t it true that white men who stayed too long in China were inclined to develop, after a time, the slanty eyes and flat faces of your yellow man?” It is implied that after a while of having to adopt the language and culture of a Chinese man, you would become less White. Your “skin might be but not [your] features”. A recurring question in the novel is whether you could lose it, “not just language, but it?” ‘It’ refers to the culture and identity of a person. Malouf shows that language is strongly connected this. He is saying that by losing language, as Gemmy did, you tend to lose your identity. This link is also shown through Gemmy and when he “first found words of English tongue”. However, Gemmy cannot be fully accepted by the settlers because he is unable to speak their language fluently. Malouf is saying that to truly belong in a particular culture, language must also be embraced.

Most language comes through writing, however Malouf proves that written language is merely a catalyst for miscommunication. This is seen in the way that George Abbott alters Gemmy’s life story. It highlights the fact that, even though it is written down, it is likely to be false. Gemmy is unable to read and write and this inability leaves him powerless when his story is changed. He is forced to believe that what is written down is true. This suggests that Gemmy’s lack of language is what allows his story, his identity, to be changed.

Wordless, spiritual communication also allows readers to understand the relationship between language and identity in the novel. Wordless language is seen to strengthen identity. This is manifested through both Jock and Janet McIvor. Both characters experience epiphanies. Through epiphany, the two characters are able to see things more clearly because of their closeness to God and their ability to rise over the typical prejudices imposed on the unfamiliar by the European settlers. Janet and Jock are seen to have a strong spiritual link to their inner selves and this is largely due to their non-verbal communication with nature and God. When Janet has a vision of her mother’s body on the night that Gemmy is attacked, she is, without words, celebrating her developed understanding and sense of self. Jock’s epiphany of “hundreds of wee insects” allows him to have a clearer, more intense understanding. Therefore, this wordless communication is also important in developing identity and proves to be much more significant than the speaking language.

7. Symbolism is also frequently used in this novel. Give three strong examples of Malouf’s use of symbolism, commenting on their significance within the text.

Malouf uses the bees as a symbol of a perfect society, where everyone works together for the same purpose. The Aboriginal’s lifestyle is represented by the bees. They set out to do their own specific jobs, whether it be hunting or gathering, men’s or “women’s business”. No one Aboriginal is better off than another because they share their food and their work. The indigenous people are also feared in the same way that the bees are. For instance, the Aboriginal’s are not harmful. When Janet is covered by the bees, although Mrs Hutchence told Janet she would not be hurt if she remained still, Mrs Hutchence is still concerned for Janet’s safety. Janet confirms the idea that by not being aggressive towards the bees, she would not be hurt. This is similar to the way that the McIvors believe that Gemmy is harmless despite what the other settlers think of him. The bees are a significant symbol of the perfection of Aboriginal society. Malouf’s use of this representation is also important in underlining the flaws in White Society.

A second symbol used in the construction of the novel is the fence which divides the White Society from “Absolute Dark”. The fence defines the edge of ‘civilization’. The settlers believe that they are superior to the Aboriginals because they are civilised. The fence represents a border that was needed for the settlers to feel higher. If unguarded by the fence, there would be a “terrifying equality” between the two cultures. The Euro-centric attitudes of the settlers is made clear by the fence because it is shown that the settlers are compelled to create a physical boundary from the Aboriginals because their psychological superiority is not enough. Thus, the fence is an important symbol in giving a clear distinction between the two worlds.

The stick that Lachlan holds in the first chapter is a third symbol, representing a false sense of superiority. Lachlan images the stick as gun, which may be representative of power. This is symbolic of the way that the settlers seem to imagine to have power over the indigenous people. Malouf suggests that the superiority that the settlers have over the Aboriginals is merely make-believe that has come about through their own arrogance and upbringing. Basically, the stick is a symbol of the superiority that exists only in the psychological state of the settlers. They create this power in order to maintain control in the same way that Lachlan was able to. “With a belief in the power of the weapon,” Lachlan was able to remain in control upon their first encounter wit Gemmy. In using the stick, Malouf shows readers that the only separation between the white men and the Aboriginals is the stick, which, in actual fact, is a power that lies only in the Euro-centricity of the settlers.

8. Discuss other literary techniques used by Malouf in Remembering Babylon to assist in conveying values, themes. Aim to discuss three techniques.

Malouf uses imagery as a literary technique in the novel. This can be seen through the use of dark. The narrator states “even in broad daylight, to come face to face with one of them… or a darkness they moved in… was a test of a man’s capacity to stay firm… when his heart is racing.” Malouf suggests that the settlers compare the Aboriginals to “Absolute Dark”, representing fear. Whenever this fear is present in the novel, Malouf uses this imagery to highlight this idea. The imagery helps to set an atmosphere and the fear is important in conveying Malouf’s overall message. The settlers fear the Aboriginals, however, there is no real need for this fear. Malouf puts forward the notion that what the settlers fear is a “terrifying equality” with the Aboriginals. The darkness causes the settlers to lose light over their superiority, and they become equal to the Aboriginals. “The wealth of it goes dim” and their civilisation, or wealth, becomes unimportant.

Malouf uses an omniscient third person narrator, which allows readers to be exposed to different characters’ perspectives. The narration is filtered through different characters over the course of the novel. Through the omniscient narrator, readers can either be exposed to Lachlan’s playful and youthful view on the world or Gemmy seeing Janet after her union with the bees. Malouf uses the third person point of view to provide different views and to better explain the transformation of each of the characters. The omniscient narrative helps to either bring out the best or worst in the characters and allows the reading to be more reliable. This assists Malouf in imbedding his criticisms on colonialism in the minds of readers.

Another of the literary techniques used in Remembering Babylon is Malouf’s restrained writing. Malouf’s use of this style of writing helps to put forward the power of suggestion. Suggestion calls readers to create their own opinions on different events in the novel. The idea of suggestion is most obviously put forward through the Governor. Mr Frazer’s visit to the Governor is misinterpreted and as a result readers are forced to form their own ideas of what has actually occurred. Malouf allows for a lot of suggestion, particularly with the lifestyle of the indigenous people. Malouf is not of their ethnicity and has not experienced the same things as them and thus needs the power of suggestion which comes mostly through Gemmy.

Malouf uses imagery as a literary technique in the novel. This can be seen through the use of dark. The narrator states “even in broad daylight, to come face to face with one of them… or a darkness they moved in… was a test of a man’s capacity to stay firm… when his heart is racing.” Malouf suggests that the settlers compare the Aboriginals to “Absolute Dark”, representing fear. Whenever this fear is present in the novel, Malouf uses this imagery to highlight this idea. The imagery helps to set an atmosphere and the fear is important in conveying Malouf’s overall message. The settlers fear the Aboriginals, however, there is no real need for this fear. Malouf puts forward the notion that what the settlers fear is a “terrifying equality” with the Aboriginals. The darkness causes the settlers to lose light over their superiority, and they become equal to the Aboriginals. “The wealth of it goes dim” and their civilisation, or wealth, becomes unimportant.

9. Where do you think Malouf’s sympathies lie in this novel, with reference to indigenous people? Support your stance by direct reference to the novel. Do you think he has any sympathy for the dominant ideology of the people who has power when the novel was set?

Malouf’s sympathies mainly lie with the Aboriginals, however he also portrays sympathy towards some of the settlers in the novel. When readers are first introduced to the Aboriginals, we are, to a certain extent, in fear. This is because the narration takes us through the perspective of Lachlan Beattie, a largely influenced member of the European settlement. Despite this, the novel changes course as Malouf reveals to us the goodness of the Aboriginals. He evokes their positive nature through the way they unconditionally accept Gemmy when he is washed up on the shore. When the Aboriginals first find Gemmy, he is unfamiliar and they ask, “what was it?”. Malouf puts emphasis on the fact that Gemmy is more accepted in a completely unknown culture than by the settlers.

Malouf sympathises for the Aboriginals because, even though they are the more humane and loving, they are the ones that are feared and said to be living in a “blackness beyond black”. Malouf also sympathises with the settlers and this is seen through the McIvors. It would be wrong to typify all the Settlers in a negative light because to do so would be the same as the way the settlers generalise against the indigenous people. The majority of White society believe they are superior to other races and refuse to accept Gemmy and the Aboriginals. However, it is also known that the McIvors and Mrs Hutchence are able to rise above the Eurocentric nature of the settlers. Readers are inclined to feel sympathy for these characters because they are of good nature but are trapped by the social implications of White society. They are forced to go against their neighbours, and although they grow closer as a family, they are outcasts to the rest of the settlement because of their compassion for Gemmy.

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