According to Ian Saunders “the crux of Marxism is … the way in which it insists that the economic, political and social be read interactively, and its recognition of the powerful ideological function of cultural texts.” (Saunders, 1993, p. 70)  David Malouf’s novel, The Conversations at Curlow Creek falls as easily into this category of cultural text as it does as an historically fictional text.

Whether the location was Australia or Ireland, the division of wealth and health was allotted to a small class-based portion of the community. Arranged in conversation-induced flashbacks to Ireland, interspersed throughout the social and historical representation of Australia via the character identities, Malouf’s text deals with socio-economic beliefs and values.  I will deal first with Adair’s childhood home in Ireland.

Orphaned by the death of his lower class travelling opera-singing parents – his mother originally from a higher class having attended Miss Bonnifer’s Academy for young ladies in Dublin – Adair was taken in by her old schoolfriend, Aimee Connellan.  Within the household of Ellersley there were a mostly absentee Master, and Mistress, the Connellans (lower upper class); butler, coachman and chief counsellor to the Mistress, Paddy Mangan; the housekeeper, Mrs Upshaw (upper lower class); and the maids/kitchen hands, Lizzy and Katie (lower class – no surnames for them!).

This household heirarchical arrangement was typical of the class structure that permeated all English and hence Irish society at the time.  A similar arrangement prevailed at the neighbouring landowner, Eamon Fitzgibbon’s property, the Park, a richer, larger and consequently higher class establishment. Adair and later Connellan’s son, Fergus, were sent there for their education with Fitzgibbon’s daughter, Virgilia.  An understanding of the precarious position in which Adair stood socially was provided by Malouf.

Adair had always understood that the position he occupied in Mama Aimee’s household, however completely he was accepted and however fond they might be of him, made his prospects very different from those that Fergus [the heir] could look forward to…. ‘…I may have to go away … I can’t live off Mama Aimee all my life.  I have to make my own way in the world.  You will inherit Ellersley -‘ (Malouf, 1997, pp 92 & 93)

Another example of the power that the moneyed upper class had over the lower classes was supplied via Carney’s conversation of an Irish memory to Adair.  He acknowledged that Adair might not know how men were employed, a blatant affirmation of their social difference:

‘That’s how it happens, sir, in case you don’t have experi- ence of it.  You stand there and the farmers come, or the stewards if it’s a big place, an’ they look you over like, to see what you might be good for…’ (ibid, p. 56)

He goes on to tell Adair how he was scrubbed, clothed and taken to see a young blind woman.  As he was forbidden to speak, deception was obviously the motive, and the experience made him feel low and degraded.  This incident not only shows the exploitation of the lower class by their moneyed ‘superiors’, but also the exploitation and subjugation of the women who had less rights no matter what their class than the men.

A glimpse at the lives of the lowest class people was given to Adair, Virgilia and the reader, via a visit with Fergus to the hovel of the O’Riordans, turf-cutters living on the edge of the peat-bog.  Within the strong-smelling daub-floored hut, which housed Mrs O’Riordan, “a shapeless woman with thin hair and no teeth who might have been any age from thirty-five to sixty” (ibid, p. 154) and her five children, were the meanest furnishings and a tethered cow.

The poverty and degradation was suffered stoically by these people, resigned to their lives without husband and father – transported to New South Wales penal colony for alleged involvement in sheep-stealing – and sustained by her basket weaving, and her elder sons, “Donagh and Sean [who] worked fourteen hours a day cutting turf to keep a roof over their heads and to feed them.” (ibid, pp. 157-158)  Later the girl Marnie, at Fergus’s urging, went into service as Virgilia’s maid, where her attitude was fierce: “she ha[d] her dignity to protect.  She remember[ed] the conditions” she came from. (ibid. Pp 171-172)

          This inequity of socio-economic class structure was transported along with the first fleet to Australia.  As a cross-section from highest to lowest class citizens. there were the powerful administrators, the officers (usually the second sons of upper class families – like Adair whose orphaned position placed him in that category), the ticket-of-leave business and trades people, the freed convicts, and the still imprisoned convicts.  According to Saunders:

the colonising of Australia seemed perfectly reasonable to the British because they read their actions through an ideology which included a belief in the intrinsic superiority of European culture, and an assumption that land not ited to the legal system of one or another of the European nation- states was in fact unowned, and therefore available for appropriation. (Saunders, 1993, pp. 49-50)

This sociological arrogance was the possession of the upper class British, the ruling moneyed class – not the marginalised (by economic disadvantage) lower classes.

Malouf provided in his fictionalised history several examples of the class structure in Australia.  The indigenous inhabitants of the land, like Jonas the Aboriginal tracker, had no status at all which meant they had no class standing within the social structure.  Carney was at the bottom of the white heap – a condemned escaped-convict bushranger, originally from the working lower class of Ireland.  The other bushrangers in his gang, except Dolan (if he was Fergus), were of the same class.

Next in status were the troopers, the young Garrety, and Langhurst, and the near forty year old Kersey:

recruits to the new force that was to police the colony and keep a watch on the western [Aboriginal] tribes …. Before Jed Snelling was killed they had been four – the black who was with them, Jonas, did not count. (Malouf, 1997, p. 7)

Brought up in Australia Garrety lived alone by his wits in the city streets “sleeping in bins and doorways and in odd corners …. his lips were sealed … on the worst things that had happened to him.” (ibid, pp. 8 & 9), while Langhurst grew to manhood with his family on a farm.  Like most lower class, working class, uneducated people at the time these troopers were superstitious, believing easily the tales of retributive ghosts told around the campfire.  Jonas too knew them to be true. By informing us that Langhurst’s twin sister was “an old married lady of nineteen” (ibid, p. 15), Malouf demonstrated the fate of all women of the era, no matter what their class.

Adair, in his position of officer, and therefore of the upper echelon of society, was given begrudging respect by troopers under his brief command, and by Carney condemned to hang next day under Adair’s official edict.  He suffered the same physical discomfort as his men, but that was temporary – theirs was not.  In the ‘Epilogue’ we are introduced to a member of the middle class, the professional workers – doctors, solicitors, teachers.  At a dinner, surrounded by the trappings of the moneyed class of England – imported furniture, paintings, engravings – the guest is Adair, “the host, an ex-army surgeon and veteran of the Peninsular, James Saunders.” (ibid, p. 203)  At table they are waited on by “a dark young woman, whom the observant guest suspects of standing in a closer relationship to the other than might be suggested by the eyes, in both cases lowered” (ibid, p. 202) – a fate of indigenous women, giving them an apparent ‘working’ class in which to fit – yet did it?

Within his historical narrative with its twin settings, Malouf juggled the interaction of the socio-economic beliefs and values of the era with his development of personal and national identities for his characters.

(C)  Jud House  16/11/1997


Malouf, D. (1997)  The Conversations at Curlow Creek.  London: Vintage

Saunders, I (1993)  Open Texts, Partial Maps.  Nedlands: Centre for Studies in Australian Literature

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LANGUAGE – the name of the game we live in.

Language is taken for granted. Not only expressed in the spoken and written word, it also constructs thought, for some in fragments, for others in sentences.  “Language opens up new orientations and new possibilities for learning and for action, dominating and transforming preverbal experiences” (Sacks, 1989, p. 43), encompassing things, actions, abstractions and concepts.  Vocabulary comprises a combinations of sounds consigned to these – whether for an English, Japanese, French or Hawaiian language.  To a speaker of one of these languages, the utterance of another sounds like unintelligible gibberish, and vice versa.  For all language to be meaningful, there must be recognition of the symbols used between participants.

In Joseph Church’s words:

. . . Language is not just one function among many

. . . but an all-pervasive characteristic of the individual.

Language permits us to deal with things at a distance,

to act on them without physically handling them . . . [to]

manipulate symbols in ways impossible with the things

they stand for . . . [to] verbally rearrange situations

which in themselves would resist rearrangement . . . [to]

isolate features which in fact cannot be isolated . . . [to]

juxtapose objects and events far separated in time and

space . . . [to] turn the universe symbolically inside out.

(ibid, pp. 43-44)

But what of those born without hearing – prelingually deaf.  To them there are no sounds that can be linked to the things around them – no symbols with which to explain concepts, abstractions.  How do they think, or process information and experiences? A profoundly deaf very active boy, Callan, was frustrated by his inability to communicate with his family. Due to a hearing aid, he could hear a few, very faint, key sounds, mostly vowels, which combined with particular actions enabled a little comprehension of his needs by them.  But beyond the basics, like food and drink, there was no real communication, and no means to teach him about abstractions like danger.

Then he found a language of his own – electricity. He discovered that a switch could cause a light to come on, or go out, followed swiftly by the discovery that a circular switch made ceiling fans turn, stop, and change speed.  This allowed Callan to understand and control cause and effect.  At a school for the hearing impaired, where, despite his degree of deafness, they tried to teach him to speak, refusing to teach him signing and lip-reading thus denying him access to language, Callan barely progressed.

Finally, he was eligible for a Cochlea Implant operation, which took place successfully. Transferred from the unsympathetic school  to a more enlightened one, Callan was encouraged to speak and read in the classroom, and permitted to learn and use Sign, “with its unique spatial syntax and grammar” (ibid, p. 85) in the playground. The connecting of written words with objects came quickly – a card with the word ‘chair’ placed on several different shaped chairs gave him a visual link, an identifying sign for them.

His progress in the world of sound and language has been enormous since then – he can speak, understand, and think in language, and is becoming bi-lingual.  For Callan, the world available to hearing children is becoming his world, as

 [l]anguage transforms experience. . . . Through language

. . . [he] can [be] induct[ed] . . . into a purely symbolic realm

of past and future, of remote places, of ideal relationships,

of hypothetical events, of imaginative literature, of imagin-

ary entities ranging from werewolves to pi-mesons.

(ibid, p. 43)

According to Abrams “[l]inguistics is the systematic study of the elements of language and the principles governing their combination and organization.” (Abrams, 1993, p. 103)  Saussure made a distinction within linguistics “between langue and parole.  A parole is any particular meaningful utterance, spoken or written.  The langue is the implicit system of elements, of distinctions and oppositions, and of principles of combinations … within a language community” (ibid, p. 104) that assist understanding between speaker and auditor.  Noam Chomsky modified these to include the competence of native speakers who internalize their language with little knowledge of the rules they use, and performance, the speaking of the meaningful utterance.  Saussure also introduced the term “sign (a single word) as constituted by an inseparable union of signifier (the speech sounds or written marks composing the sign) and signified (the conceptual meaning of the sign).” (ibid, p. 104)

What does this mean in terms of Callan and his deafness?  Initially, Callan had no langue or parole, was without any sets of signs, no degree of competence or of performance.  With the advent of his hearing aided sounds, gesturing, grimacing and mimicking of daily tasks, he acquired rudimentary signs with very basic signifiers and signifieds.  For Callan the cause and effect of electricity were a form of language – the switches were the signifiers and the resulting light or movement were the signifieds.  When he finally went to the enlightened school, not only were the words, written and spoken, his signifiers, but also the ‘signing’ with his hands and the lip-reading.  With these forms of language available to him, his thoughts, based primarily on experiences, were able to take the same linguistic form so that not only could he express abstractions but think them as well, visually and verbally.

When I read David Malouf’s novel An Imaginery Life, I immediately thought of Callan.  With his characters, the Roman poet, Ovid, and the wild boy, Child, brought up by wolves, and the Tomis villagers, Malouf illustrates language difference. Ovid is placed among people with whom he cannot communicate, whose language to him seems to be just grunts and ugly sounds that he thinks suits their primitive culture.  The langue and parole differ between Ovid and the villagers, Ovid and the wild boy, and the villagers and the wild boy.  Their competence is impaired by their inability to decypher the langue each is using.  While the signifieds are similar for Ovid and the villagers, the signifiers each use are different with no apparent common ground.  As Ovid explains:

 I am … a crazy, comic old man, grotesque, tearful, who

 understands nothing, can say nothing …. [N]o one in

Tomis speaks my tongue … I am rendered dumb.  I com-

municate like a child with grunts and signs, I point, I

raise my eyebrows, questioning, I burst into tears of joy

if someone … understands what I am trying to say.

(Malouf, 1994, p. 17)

The similarities to Callan’s predicament are obvious.

When Ovid realises that to the villagers his language is also just indistinguishable sounds, he attempts communication using an unknown seed as the signified.  Given by the young woman its signifier “Korschka”, thus gaining “the word for this seed … its taste, and its shape and color” (ibid, p. 22), he has no translation for it back into his own language or experience.  With his discovery of the scarlet Poppy flowering in the grey landscape, Ovid discovers the magic of language that triggers memory.

Poppy, scarlet poppy, flower of my far-off childhood … I

have raised you out of my earliest memories …. Scarlet.

Magic word on the tongue to flash again on the eye. Scar-

let.  And with it all the other colors come flooding back, as

magic syllables … (ibid, p. 31)

As a result of this experience, Ovid comprehends that the naming of things gives him power over them and his own life.  Language changes “beings … in [their] process of becoming …. [they] have only to find the name and let its illumination fill [them].” (ibid, p. 32)

With the capture of the wild boy, Ovid discovers that there is a whole different language – that of nature, of the wolves.  The Child, like Callan, has his own language, langue and parole, signifiers and signifieds.  Brought up by wolves his language is their language of sounds: growls, barks, howls, whimpers; of actions: running, fighting, competing, grovelling; of senses: smell, sight, touch, taste, intuition; of physical conditions: hunger, thirst, fatigue, vitality, cold and heat; and of emotions: fear, joy, pride, contentment.  Upon restraint by Ovid:

 he lashes out … tearing at my cloak … and begins to

 howl …. scratching at the wall like an animal, spitting

 whenever I approach, showing me his teeth and hands

 with all the fingers tense and extended like claws. (ibid,

p. 106)

This behaviour carries signs that the Child learned with the wolves. As foreign as the village is to Ovid, he only has to cope with the one main problem of communication.  The Child is transported into an unknown environment – he has no knowledge of clothes, huts, tools, weapons, or of other people, let alone of other perceptions or languages.  None of his signs make any sense in their world, to him or to them.

Upon deciding to teach the Child to communicate, Ovid chooses the language of the village rather than Latin – “whose endings are designed to express difference, the smallest nuances of thought and feeling. . . . a language for distinctions, every ending defines and divides.” (ibid, pp. 65 & 98)  During their lessons the Child also shares his langue with Ovid, it soon becoming apparent that “he [the Child] is the teacher, and that whatever comes new to the occasion is being led, slowly, painfully, out of me [Ovid].” (ibid, p. 95)  He realises that the Child is part of his surroundings –

the beasts and birds whose life he shares, among leaves,

water, grasses, clouds, thunder – whose existence he can

be at home in because they hold, each of them, some part-

icle of his spirit.  He has no notion of the otherness of things”.

(ibid, pp. 95-96)

After illness, and the resultant fear and aggression of the village people, they escape into the wilderness, where their roles are reversed.  Ovid is entirely in the Child’s hands – now in his own environment where he can survive.  He understands the language of the wilderness, its creatures and plant-life – the ‘otherness’ of verbal language.

At the end, the Child’s unity with his surroundings overrides the civilization attempted by Ovid: “I no longer ask myself what harm I may have done him.  He too has survived his season among men.” (ibid, p. 148)  With the Child’s return to his own place, comes a reinforcement of his own language, with its langue and parole, its signifiers and signifieds.  For Ovid too there is a transfiguration from the language of his Roman life, where he had played the game by the Latin rules, through the unsophisticated rural language of Tomis, to play amid the natural language of the Child – that of his childhood where he had communicated with the Child in his own terms.

Wandering along together, wading through the high

grasses side by side, is a kind of conversation that

needs no tongue, a perfect interchange of percep-

tions, moods, questions, answers . . . as thoughts

melt out of one mind into another . . . with none of the

structures of formal speech. (ibid, p. 145)

His final game of life completes his journey in the ultimate language – that of silence, peace, and the acceptance of death.

(C) Jud House   30/10/1998


Abrams, M.H. (1993)  A Glossary of Literary Terms 6th Edition  Fort Worth:  Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Malouf, D (1994) An Imaginary Life  Sydney: Picador, Pan Books (Australia) Pty Ltd.

Saunders, I (1993) Open Texts, Partial Maps A Literary Theory Handbook  Nedlands:  The University of Western Australia.

Selden, R & Widdowson, P (1993)  A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory Third Edition  Hertfordshire:  Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Sacks, Oliver (1989)  Seeing Voices A Journey into the World of the Deaf  London: Picador; Pan Books Ltd.

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