Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“A Way of Talking” displays a mischievous and comic quality in spite of its serious condemnation of racial prejudice in New Zealand. The story treats the contemporary conflict between the Maoris, the original New Zealanders who have lived on the remote islands for centuries, and the European colonizers who arrived in the nineteenth century and displaced them from much of their land.

This conflict between Jane the Pakeha seamstress and Rose the Maori student does not initially seem very significant or even particularly abusive. Certainly Jane has no intention of offending Rose by her casual remark about “the Maoris” and by her lack of concern over names. Yet to Rose, the statement represents a thousand other insults and indignities, some unintentional, others deliberate, that she and her people have suffered over the years. Rose’s derogatory remark about the seamstress having “a tough hide” epitomizes the insensitivity the Maori recognize in the treatment they receive from the Pakehas, who too often take for granted their superiority over those they have marginalized.

That Rose stands up for her people is admirable, but her stand is not the most important part of the story. Hera reveals that Rose has always been blunt and forthright in her relations with the Pakehas. In contrast, Hera and the rest of the family have simply suffered the humiliations, countering them to a degree by their private ridicule of the Pakeha. After the...

(The entire section is 487 words.)