Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

David Malouf, Fly Away Peter (1982)

The pacifist novel by David Malouf, Fly Away Peter (1982) is set immediately before and during the First World War to enable the author to present his critique of the traditional Australian national identity and the early expression of Australian nationalism that had crystallised at that time.  While deconstructing this sense of identity, Malouf posits an alternative identity, both for nations and for individuals, which is based on an appreciation of nature or environmentalism.

Malouf set this argument about identity within the context of an overarching philosophy of life that appears to be derived from both environmentalism and existentialism: life has no meaning except that which you give it and life is short so make the most of it while you can.  In addition, the reality that should ground any philosophy of life is an appreciation of the all-encompassing eternal cycle of life that is intrinsic to the natural world. 

The cycle of life is eternal and ultimately unaffected by what humans would regard as major events, like the First World War.  To Malouf, an awareness of one’s place in the cycle of life and in the grand scheme of nature is true enlightenment.  The novel suggests that one needs to make the most of one’s existence and to care for the wellbeing of other creatures as well as for mankind. 

Although set in the past, the text is more of a philosophical novel than it is a historical novel.  It is set in a period that enables the author to philosophise about the Australian national identity and nationalism at the climactic point of the establishment of the ANZAC legend.  At the time Malouf wrote, the once hallowed ANZAC legend was buckling under pressure, since it had been subjected to sustained assault from the radical Left during the 1960s and 1970s as a result of the campaign against Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War and against the policy of conscription.  This was a campaign that featured the involvement of many radical university students.  Although the appreciation of the ANZAC legend would experience a surprising revival after the release of the film Gallipoli in 1981, before then it did not appear certain that the ANZAC legend would survive.

Malouf’s novel appears to share the pacifist perspectives of the anti-Vietnam War movement and its attacks on the ANZAC legend.  Apart from an appreciation of egalitarianism and a qualified appreciation of mateship, which are values that can be seen as compatible with egalitarian socialism, Malouf suggests that the ANZAC legend is based on a false, misleading and ultimately self-destructive nationalistic view of the world. 

Malouf’s pacifist novel presents war as an expression of the dark side of human nature involving madness, bloodlust, the herd instinct and foolish or drunken bravado.  War is presented in hellish imagery as horror and not as adventure.  Domestic patriotism and the martial spirit are deconstructed to imply that they are far from virtuous but rather expressions of the dark side of human nature.  The British Imperial loyalties for which many Australians fought are presented as absurd, while the French peasants, whom the Australian soldiers on the Western Front supposedly fought to save, are presented as cynical, indifferent, and far from appreciative of the efforts of the Allied armies. They just wanted to get on with their farming.  While the text acknowledges that some soldiers exhibited mateship, others were nasty bullies and cowards.  Chance rather than courage is presented as determining fates.  A brave young officer, raised on boys’ own adventure stories, is fatally struck down before he can participate in the heroic action he was inspired to seek, with patriotism and a culture of masculine heroism treated as responsible for the young man’s needless death.   War is characterised as an exercise in waste and futility.  There are no military heroes, only survivors, and the main character Jim’s death serves to highlight the sense of futile loss, while the resolution of the character Ashley to become a peace activist after demobilisation is meant to appear appropriate and noble, a move that serves to undermine the notion that the ANZAC code of patriotism found in the Returned and Services League (RSL) was the norm. 

The novel also seems intended to reflect feminist ideas in the creation of the character Imogen, who was a close friend of the working-class Jim and the tertiary-educated and aristocratic Ashley.  Imogen seems to have been designed to reflect what many feminists wanted to see in terms of positive female characters in literature.  She is of a mature age, unmarried, independent, happy, and defined by her deeds and not by her looks or relationships with men.  She helps the novel demonstrate how men and women can get along together in a condition of mutual appreciation and respect. 

Importantly, the character Jim represents the ordinary working-class man.  He is presented as fundamentally good and as capable of achieving enlightenment.  This capacity for enlightenment shows that mankind can be liberated from false beliefs.

The character Ashley is an enlightened aristocrat who is, more importantly, someone who is tertiary-educated.  He becomes the archetypal ‘politically aware’ activist against war.  He represents the tertiary-educated section of society that Malouf, and many others who subscribed to the New Left, would regard as progressive. 

Imogen, Jim and Ashley come together before the First World War in rural Queensland through their mutual appreciation of nature and bird life. Malouf uses these characters to promote an environmentalist alternative to nationalism in defining national identity and individual identity.  The major characters each have an individual relationship with nature and they seek to be in harmony with it. 

This kind of relationship with nature seems to have been inspired by the Aborigines and their relationship to their ancestral lands.  Here, the novel puts forward a non-Western concept of land ownership, suggesting that the notion of ownership is meaningless outside of human consciousness.  Ashley recognises that for the birds on his property, he does not exist.  Nor can he own the swamp on his land because no one really owns it.  It is used by wildlife and by people.  The birds come and go at will, and the people mean nothing to them.  Ashley, despite his wealth, is only the custodian of the swamp for a short time in the greater scheme of the eternal cycle of life.  This relationship with nature is presented as transcending barriers related to class and gender.  It is therefore egalitarian. 

In the light of this environmentalist concept of identity, the novel uses the image of a surfer to represent an individual who is in tune with the cycles of the natural environment.  The choice of a surfer is not surprising since they were a counter-cultural archetype of the youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s that was celebrated by many of those who subscribed to the ideology of the New Left and the hippy counter culture, a world view that was later understood to be the ideology of the politically correct Left.  Many surfers shared the environmentalist concerns of the New Left and the hippies and sometimes expressed their relationship with nature in terms that crossed into a spiritual and ideological appreciation of the environment. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2021 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Fly Away Peter meaning, Fly Away Peter themes, Fly Away Peter analysis, Fly Away Peter notes