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A Study of The Secret River by Kate Granville

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Novels often convey themes and issues relevant to society allowing readers to explore certain themes and issues that are realistic to various conflicts existing in society. Grenville’s The Secret River through the effective use of narrative elements such as characterization, use of language, point of view and plotline, examines themes and issues involving racial conflict and interpersonal conflicts that occur between characters due to the differences and misunderstandings based on cultural and ethnic values and attitudes.

Effective communication is a must if life is to become successful. In the novel The Secret River, Kate Grenville endorses the value of effective communication by demonstrating what the lack of effective communication can lead to. Interpersonal conflicts between characters are examined through the effective use of the narrative element characterization. For example, William Thornhill and his wife Sarah Thornhill (Sal) endure interpersonal conflict due to their poor communication. William wasn’t able to speak to Sal about Thornhill’s Point. This means that he can never share his dreams with her; this later divides them. Dishonesty kills relationships. William also lies to Sal about why they were moving to Thornhill’s Point, and then he decides to stay there, forcing Sal to stay with him. This eventually caused Sal feeling trapped or imprisoned away from home, London, as she started to mark off the days that past. But William only lies to Sal because he believes its best for her. It is evident that the interpersonal conflicts occur between William and his wife Sal due to the differences and misunderstandings based on the poor communication that exists through their journey.

Language and its use is of predominant significance to humans. In the racial conflict the lack of communication appears to be caused by the lack of shared language. This is where the use of language plays an important part in causing conflict. For example, when Thornhill has conversations with the Aboriginal people, he describes their meaningless words pouring over him and it is clear that his words are equally meaningless to the Aboriginal people. This inability to communicate is exemplified most clearly in Thornhill’s blind and deaf conversation with Whisker Harry (old Aboriginal man). In this case, the language barrier merely makes communication harder and provides an excuse for ineffective communication, or for a lack of genuine willingness to understand the other side’s viewpoint. This results in the ongoing racial conflict between the settlers and the Aboriginal people, which led to the massacre in which Whisker was killed by Thornhill after spearing Smasher Sullivan. It is evident that the inability or unwillingness to communicate is a key factor that underlies many conflicts.

Grenville places William Thornhill, the central character, in the position of the protagonist, as he faces many challenges throughout his life. The narrative element plotline is formed in a way to convey the idea that conflict occurs only when there are misunderstandings or differences in cultural and ethnic values and attitudes. For example, as William starts off as an ordinary in London, marries Sal, he decides to steal timber to support his family. William thought that fight for survival was the right thing to do, so stealing the Brazilian wood wasn’t something wrong. But when William ends up in New South Wales with his own land, and when Aboriginal people come and steal from him for their fight for survival, he doesn’t like it. Irony plays an important role in this section; William is represented as a person who wants everything his way. So when he’s been robbed, he doesn’t care about why the Aboriginal people robbed him, he just over reacts and mercilessly joins the massacre to get rid of them.

The discussion above explores Grenville’s use of narrative tools like characterization, use of language and plotline to effectively present themes like racial conflict and interpersonal conflicts that occur between characters due to the differences and misunderstandings based on cultural and ethnic values and attitudes.


Robinson, A. W. Kate Granville’s outlook in her writing Sydney University Press, 1996

Graham, Steve, “The Secret River by Granville: a glimpse” in The Journal of Literature Studies, Melbourne University Press, Vol. 24, No. 2 1999

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