Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Kate Grenville, The Lieutenant: A Novel (2008)

Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant: A Novel (2008) expresses her fascination with the early settlement of New South Wales and her moral stance against the violent dispossession of the Aborigines from their traditional lands.  Taking historical records as a starting point for her fiction, she used the notebooks of William Dawes, who documented the vocabulary and grammar of the local Aborigines as well as some of his conversations with an intelligent Aboriginal girl, as the basis for her novel.  This was the starting point for her celebration and promotion of pacifist conscientious objection and anti-racist political activism. 

The novel argues the notion of collective guilt, as if the white (British and European) settlers and their descendants share a collective guilt for what is depicted as the violent displacement of the Aborigines, even if they did not participate in the violence themselves.  This is because they were part of, or did not challenge, the imperialist system that led to this displacement. Or it is because they benefitted from the consequences of the establishment of British imperialism in Australia. 

She sees her principal character Daniel Rooke (based on William Dawes) as setting the example of what to think, and what to do, in response to British imperialism.  This fictional character became a conscientious objector who refused to participate in the retaliatory violence against the Aborigines and later became a life-long anti-racist political activist for the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean colonies. 

Importantly, the novel presents Rooke as a man of the Enlightenment who is educated and open-minded as well as rational and scientific.  To her, he represents the forerunner of the kind of politically active tertiary-educated professionals (like herself) who are likely to espouse politically correct views on race relations.  To Grenville, Rooke’s attitude to peaceful coexistence with the Aborigines represents a lost opportunity to have founded the New South Wales colony on the basis of mutual respect and understanding rather than fear and ignorance and the violence that resulted.  The author also believes that communication through shared language and mutual cultural appreciation can provide the foundation for peaceful relations between diverse peoples. 

Grenville was stung by criticism from professional historians for the sweeping postmodern claim she made about the prequel to this novel The Secret River (2005), repeated in her book about writing that novel Searching for the Secret River (2008), which is that the imagination of a writer of fiction can get as close to the ‘truth’ as a historian working from documentary evidence.  Grenville seems to have somewhat toned down this claim in the presentation of this book (for example by describing this current work as ‘A Novel’ in the title and as a ‘work of fiction’ in the Preface) but she never fully retreated from her previous position.  The content of this novel contains frequent suggestions that the documentary evidence relied upon by historians is significantly problematic in its veracity and therefore in its utility.  The implication is that this leaves ample interpretative spaces to be filled by the imagination of a writer and these imaginings are presented as just as likely to be true. 

Readers of this novel are left with the impression that Grenville wrote a work of fiction that she wants to be believed as revealing the truth about the nature of race relations in the early colony of New South Wales.  She also leaves the impression that she wants her audience to accept, as both morally worthy and feasible, her speculations for the potential for social justice to have succeeded in the colony through communication and mutual understanding had they been taken up by the authorities rather than been practised only by a few dissenting conscientious objectors.  This would have, in her eyes, provided an alternate path for Australian historical development that should have been adopted.  Because it was not, this left Australia the morally poorer nation, tainted perhaps for all time by a legacy of racial injustice. 

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.) 

Subject: The Lieutenant meaning, The Lieutenant themes, The Lieutenant analysis, The Lieutenant notes