Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell
Henry Lawson, The Penguin Henry Lawson Short Stories (1986)
Henry Lawson is one of Australia’s most celebrated writers from the nineteenth century. He was not formally educated, so his short stories were written in conversational colloquial English. Their style and structure evoke the tradition of yarn telling, of stories told to entertain people in a style of language they can relate to and appreciate.
Lawson’s short stories were originally written during the late nineteenth century for publication in The Bulletin and other journals that were at the centre of the development of a distinctive Australian national identity and the promotion of a nascent Australian nationalism. In that regard, Lawson’s short stories constitute significant contributions. Lawson wrote about Australian subject matter for Australian audiences and his works can be perceived as providing insights into the Australian national character and the prevailing ethos of that time.
Lawson’s short stories can be perceived as in the tradition of social realism. They focus on the lives of ordinary or working-class people rather than members of the elite. Lawson’s short stories seem to be based on observation or experience, depicting episodes that, for the most part, present slices of life that speak for themselves without the writer having to overtly imbue them with significance. In addition, although Lawson aimed to give his stories a quality of analytical objectivity, one can perceive in his work an underlying social conscience that is sympathetic to the economically struggling people he vividly describes. By writing in this tradition, Lawson put himself at variance to the romantic writers who sought to imbue man’s relationship with nature with highly emotional spiritual significance. Lawson’s descriptions of the Australian bush often present it as bleak, monotonous, and lonely.
Most of Lawson’s short stories were written and set in the 1890s, which was when the Australian colonies experienced a recession. This was a time of widespread economic hardship that contrasted sharply with the boom of the preceding gold rush decades. This economic downturn, Lawson observed, seemed to make an already harsh existence in the bush even harsher, especially for ordinary people who lacked wealth. Most of Lawson’s short stories document the struggle of ordinary people to remain economically viable, and not all of these people managed to overcome adversity.
As well as reflecting on the challenges posed to people during the recession, Lawson’s short stories dealt with life in the Australian bush. Even though most Australians lived in the capital cites at that time, the bush was widely regarded as the appropriate setting to explore the Australian national character.
Rather than romanticising the bush, Lawson described living in the bush as bleak, monotonous and lonely. Its poor soils and limited rainfall meant that the land was not very productive. Lawson observed that the trials and tribulations of life in the bush threatened people’s health, especially their mental health. He blamed the bush for driving men towards the self-destructive behaviours of drinking or gambling. It also put stresses on women, wearing away at their physical beauty and aspirations, leading them to nagging or gossip, which, in turn, put strains on marriages. Some women even lost the will to live. Lawson believed that, at the very least, the monotony and loneliness of bush life produces quaint eccentricity. Lawson noted that a sense of humour was essential to deal with the everyday challenges of bush life and to preserve one’s morale and sanity.
Lawson believed that the harsh challenges that the bush presented to its inhabitants helped to bring out qualities of stoicism and resilience in those who did not succumb. It also produced a sense of egalitarianism and generosity that saw people help others because they were in a position to do so, not because they felt they had to. Lawson believed that poorer people were observably more generous than rich people, who primarily sough profit rather than to help people in need.
Lawson had a particular affection for ordinary people, such as selectors, drovers, shearers and jacks-of-all-trades who took to the road as swagmen searching for work. By contrast, he usually presented the wealthy squatters as privileged and unflatteringly uninterested in the hardships of ordinary folk. Nevertheless, in some of his stories Lawson praised squatters when one of them was an exception to the rule and exhibited a sense of egalitarianism.
Lawson admired rugged individualists who worked hard to better themselves, exhibiting qualities of self-reliance, ingenuity, resilience and courage. Although he cared profoundly for the ‘battlers’ he was sceptical about the value of governments and trade unions in helping them. He characterised governments as remote, out of touch, and incompetent. He characterised the unions as insincere in their offer of fraternity and solidarity, and he saw them as unlikely to address genuine needs, being more concerned with the appearance of caring rather than endeavouring to produce tangible benefits for people in need.
Lawson generally saw women as the chief custodians of civilised values, which they often sought to impose on men. He saw women as more suited to the more comfortable life available in the cities and he believed that the harshness of a pioneering life in the bush eroded their femininity. Nevertheless, being the son of a leading feminist who campaigned for votes for women, Lawson had an abiding sympathy and admiration for women, especially those who stoically endeavoured to face their challenges.
Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez
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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.)
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