Today I will be discussing how the Contemporary Australian novel Cloudstreet, by Tim Winton, is of value and how it is received in different contexts. I will firstly discuss how the novel is of value because of the presence of universal, timeless themes of: the search for a sense belonging and the importance of family. Being post-modern readers, we believe that the reception of a text depends on our context and value system. Consequently, a text can hold many interpretations.
In the light of this, I will also be discussing how the plight of the Aborigines in Cloudstreet is perceived by readers from the time in which the novel was set compared to today. In the text, Winton’s use of the timeless theme of a search for a sense of belonging gives Cloudstreet value. All of the characters in the text are searching for some sort of physical or psychological sense of belonging, and most of them seem to find this within their own family. We can see this when the character of Quick leaves home because he can not cope with the constant conflict and searched for a better life.
Many of you may see a parallel to the biblical story of the ‘prodigal son’ (a story of a young man who leaves his family and lives a life of pleasure and sin, only to return to his family a depressed and poverty stricken man), here, Winton comments that a true sense of belonging can only be achieved by the acceptance of one’s place in society and an environment which is supportive. However, Quick returning home and the ‘prodigal son’ story contrast if we read it according to a feminist interpretation. When Quick returns home, he is greeted by his mother, Oriel, not the patriarchal father figure depicted in the biblical story.
Here, Winton is challenging traditional gender roles by empowering the women in the text. The dominance of Oriel in her family is revealed in her reaction to Quick’s homecoming and the governing tone in her comment to her husband Lester: “Get your mouth outta gear and help me get him inside” Another of the principal issues in the text is the importance of family. So does this give value to it? Cloudstreet like many other contemporary Australian novels is a saga. It allows us to observe the true journey of the two families, through the joyous experiences as well as the tragic.
The tense relationship between Dolly and her daughter Rose, illustrates this point. Their relationship is a result partly of the family’s struggle to survive their numerous misfortunes and partly a result of Dolly’s harsh and unhappy upbringing which has in turn made her an inconsiderate and selfish woman, who according to Rose, would “beat us and shamed us in public”. As seen here, Winton’s constant use of Australian vernacular creates a sense of social realism which effectively portrays the characters’ thoughts and feelings.
However, by the end of the novel with the birth of ‘Wax Harry’, Rose’s son, Dolly and Rose’s relationship is partly reconciled, suggesting that there is hope for the unity of the family. By sustaining this hope to the end in spite of so many harsh circumstances, Winton celebrates human endurance and will power which gives the novel its value. In today’s post-modern society, we are aware of the persecution of Aborigines in post WWI Australia. However, the society at that time (illustrated through Sam) perceived Aborigines as people with no importance or true identity.
As Steven Cooper comments, “Sam is representative of this ignorance. He is harmless enough but he is a symptom of what is wrong with the country. ” Two events demonstrate this to us. The house Cloudstreet has born witness to a tragic history: it was used as a boarding house for Aboriginal girls with the purpose of “making ladies of them so they could set a standard for the test of their sorry race. ” Winton’s blunt language used to represent this aspect of Australian history “they had been taken from their families and were not happy” recognizes a complete lack of awareness of these facts on the part of Australians of this time.
Similarly, Sam Pickles’ failure of recognize the significance of the land for the Aboriginal man on ‘voting day’ brings up two issues: firstly, that Sam’s value system accords more with the development-driven mentality of Perth in the 1960’s. “In the new year I’m gonna to sell it. Bulldoze it and build a…great block of flats on it. ” And secondly, Sam’s failure to recognize that “You shouldn’t break a place, places are strong and important”, as expressed the aboriginal man. Sam also fails to recognize that the Aboriginal man can not yet vote.
Our context allows us to be critical of Sam’s perspective and recognize the aspect of Australian history which the book makes only subtle reference to. I hope I have shown you today how multi faceted Winton’s novel is. In its capacity to intelligently sustain perspectives on Australian themes and values and evoke a prior time in our history the novel can be said to be of great value and has the capacity to be valued by different audiences at different times. It also gains value by being able to support different readings while maintaining its overall consistency.