Critical Context

Capricornia is something of an anomaly in Australian literature. It appeared at a time when there was a movement toward social realism in the novel. Despite some realistic description of nature, however, the narrator is much too obtrusive for the novel to fall into that category. It also is related to the saga novel. Ultimately, however, Capricornia is a work that defies easy categorization.

Many critics have granted the novel’s power to move the reader while deploring Herbert’s heavy-handed satire. Others have argued about the novel’s structure, noting that it sweeps the reader forward without focusing consistently on a particular character or line of plot. What has generally troubled critics most, however, is the mixture of humor and fatalism in the novel: Herbert creates a society in which man is both laughable and doomed, no matter what he does. There is a parallel to Joseph Furphy in this regard, but Herbert’s irony is much more savage. The reader looking for redeeming goodness in the world will not find it in Capricornia.

The novel is anomalous, too, in that it is the only one of Herbert’s works to gain general critical approval. Of the later novels, only Poor Fellow My Country (1975) met with any measure of acceptance among the critics, and in that case the responses were sharply divided. It seems likely that Herbert’s place in Australian literature will be assured mainly because of Capricornia.