Australia and New Zealand Short Fiction Analysis

Henry Lawson

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Henry Lawson’s first publication was “A Song of the Republic,” which appeared in the Bulletin in 1887 and began his long relationship with that publication. His stories focus on a drought-stricken and desperate rural landscape, alleviated only by the solidarity and sense of bush honor of his male characters, illustrated most famously in “The Bush Undertaker” and “The Union Buries Its Dead.” This landscape is “no place for a woman” (the title of a Lawson story): Lawson’s female characters are frequently deserted by their husbands, who are forced to seek seasonal shift work, or who disappear on alcoholic binges. Necessity breeds female resourcefulness, Lawson spoke of the courage of women in the “land where gaunt and haggard women live alone and work like men,” but it also leads to unhappiness and even madness. His famous story “The Drover’s Wife,” in which a young woman defends her children against a snake, can be juxtaposed with the later “Water Them Geraniums,” in which desertion, isolation, and desperate poverty finally drive Mrs. Spicer to her death. These stories epitomize his style: realistic and born of experience rather than imagination, laconic and spare, and something like a “yarn” but also redolent of a cynical humor and a quiet pathos which seem to coexist in his stories.

In his lifetime Lawson was claimed by A. G. Stephens as “the voice of the bush, and the bush is the heart of Australia,” and his stories were immensely popular. Although Lawson’s adoption of the short story coincided with the flowering of the short story in England and Europe in the 1890’s, the movements do not seem to have been connected. Nevertheless, the interest in the short story indicates a desire to move away from the nineteenth century domestic novel, which had become the measure of literature during this period, with its emphasis on narrative causation reflecting a continuous and stable culture. For an Australian writer, in particular, the desire to deviate from a European literary model and establish a distinct voice and style would have pointed to the use of an alternative literary structure such as the short story.

Barbara Baynton

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Henry Lawson outclassed the other writers of the period, with the exception of Barbara Baynton Baynton was also associated with the Bulletin, although only one of her stories, “The Chosen Vessel,” appeared in the magazine in 1896 and was heavily edited. This story appears in her collection Bush Studies (1902), on which her fame largely rests. The landscape of Baynton’s stories resembles that of Lawson: It is a harsh and primitive rural environment in which survival is difficult, but for Baynton the violence of nature is reflected in man, and her female characters are its victims. In “Squeaker’s Mate” the title character, paralyzed by a falling tree while doing the work of a man, must endure the neglect of her husband and the arrival of his new woman. In “The Chosen Vessel,” a young woman, left alone by her cruel husband, barricades herself and her child against a swagman trying to force entry into her hut. Mistaking the sound of horses’ hooves for possible salvation she escapes, only to be raped and murdered by her attacker. Like Lawson, Baynton uses the short story form to create vivid sketches of the Australian outback and its community, but her emphasis is on the way in which women are oppressed within that culture, thereby subverting the idealized images of the bush that were current in the Bulletin at the time.

Other writers who enjoyed considerable popularity during the period were the pseudonymous Price...

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The 1920’s and the 1930’s

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

While the 1920’s and 1930’s did not produce a short fiction of the same national significance as that of the earlier period, there are a number of writers who published stories during this period that contributed importantly to the development of Australian short fiction: Henry Handel Richardson, Vance Palmer, Frank Dalby Davison, Marjorie Barnard, Christina Stead, and Katherine Susannah Prichard. While the emphasis in stories from the 1920’s to the 1950’s continued to be on nature, the idea of the story as just a yarn had given way to a desire to document and expose. Although the bulk of short fiction was written by men and had a rural focus, many of the most interesting stories of the period were written by women and focus on what O’Connor has called the “submerged population” of women and of disenfranchised female voices and on reinterpreting romantic conventions. Some of the most powerful of Richardson’s stories, collected as The End of a Childhood and Other Stories (1934), focus on female characters approaching and in fear of sexual maturity, while Stead’s much anthologized “My Friend, Lafe Tilly” and “A Harmless Affair” take an unconventional and critical approach to romantic love, passion, and marriage. Marjorie Barnard’s evocative “The Persimmon Tree” belongs in this period as well, signaling the influence of modernism on the development of the Australian short story.

There was a second flowering of the...

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The 1960’s and the 1970’s

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The late 1960’s and early 1970’s are often referred to as the renaissance of the short story in Australian literary historiography. Like the 1890’s and the postwar years, this period was one of national self-examination and change. The late 1960’s was marked by opposition to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, while at the same time attention was directed toward the United States and experimentation in American and South American literature. In the 1970’s an increase in government subsidies to the arts made writing economically viable, while changes to censorship and pornography laws lifted restrictions on the publication of radical and controversial literature. Interestingly, the “new writing” of this period is confined to short fiction, indicating not only the primary role of the short story in the development of Australian literature but also the way in which short prose narrative lends itself to experimentation and reinvention. The writers of the period—in particular Frank Moorhouse, Michael Wilding, Murray Bail, Peter Carey, and Morris Lurie—built on the revolutionary foundations laid by Hal Porter and Patrick White, rejecting the Lawson tradition and nationalist preoccupations of the past and adopting American styles. They turned away from the rural environment and concentrated instead on urban settings, while at the same time rejecting the social realism and well-made story of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Their use of the short story can also be read as an ironic comment on the continued search for “the great Australian novel.”

The “new” fiction is defined by its use of fantasy and surrealism, the breakdown of linear narrative, authorial self- consciousness and metafiction, and the exploration of the relationship between language and experience. In Bail’s “Zoellner’s Definition,” a character sketch is broken up under headings—“man,” “countenance,” “age”—to suggest the limitations of description and of words. In Carey’s famous “American Dreams” a small town is overrun with American tourists when one of its residents builds a model of the town that reveals its secrets. Not only does art reflect life, but also the model illustrates and mocks the way in which the people of the town look constantly toward America for entertainment, for culture, for “reality.” This is a comment on the “cultural cringe”—the turn toward European and American culture and away from Australia’s own—and a reflection of the forces that have influenced the development of the Australian literary identity.

The 1980’s and the 1990’s

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, development in the short story was marked by the writing of women, migrant writers, and aboriginal writers. To paraphrase O’Connor, “submerged populations” were finding their voices resonating clearly in the form of the short prose narrative. By the late 1970’s women’s writing was becoming more visible and more popular. Writers such as Elizabeth Jolley, Helen Garner, and Thea Astley were increasingly acclaimed for their stories as well as their novels. Each of these writers became vitally concerned with issues surrounding gender and power and quite literally the place of women within Australian society, from Helen Garner’s overtly feminist stories set in the bohemia of 1970’s Melbourne to Astley’s acerbic stories—often told from a male point of view—about north Queensland and its stagnating communities of hippies and losers.

In the 1980’s there was a modest explosion in the publication of women’s writing and particularly anthologies of short stories by women. Stories by Olga Masters, Marion Halligan, Janette Turner Hospital, and Beverley Farmer were also included in anthologies of Australian short stories as emblematic of the current condition of the short story. There is a movement in these narratives back to realism after the surrealism of the early 1970’s, but this is realism from a female perspective. Farmer, like Garner, is conscious of the need to bear witness to the lives of women. In the title story of her 1985 collection Home Time she suggests that men are fundamentally violent and that love cannot be trusted, themes disturbingly reminiscent of Baynton’s stories written almost a century earlier. In Hospital’s short stories she grapples with the difficulty of inserting the voices of women into a male-dominated literary history, just as she struggles to describe the intensity of the northern landscape of Australia. Astley and Hospital signal the use of the short story to express a particularly regional as well as female and feminist narrative.

Judah Waten is considered to be the first to write “from the inside” about non-English-speaking migrants in Australia. His autobiographical short-story cycle, Alien Son was published in 1952, and the final story, “The...

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Katherine Mansfield

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Katherine Mansfield is the writer who is most frequently associated with New Zealand and the short story, at least in the rest of the world. At the same time, there are problems associated with defining her as a New Zealand writer: Her stories are deeply imbued with the influence of European modernism and symbolism and the places she inhabited as an expatriate. Nevertheless, a large proportion (almost half) of her stories are set in New Zealand, in particular her two short- story sequences focusing on the Burnells and the Sheridans and including the famous “Prelude,” “At the Bay,” “The Doll’s House,” “The Garden-Party,” and “Her First Ball.” Mansfield published her first six stories in the New Zealand journals...

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Frank Sargeson

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Mansfield had an enduring impact on the development of the short story in English, but it is Frank Sargesonwho is responsible for making the short story the paradigmatic New Zealand form, as it is so frequently described. His stories, peopled with laconic, working-class, rural men and using a vernacular style, first appeared in the journal Tomorrow in 1935 and dominated the development of the short story for decades. His stories include political comment—his characterization of New Zealand as puritanical and narrow-minded—but also focus on the difficulty of communication and the need to find a particularly distinctive national form of language (language which has many interesting similarities with the distinctively...

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Janet Frame

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The most significant writers of the short story after Sargeson are Janet Frameand Maurice Duggan. While both writers display the influence of the previous writers, they are more overtly engaged in manipulating language and short-story structure. Frame’s first collection, The Lagoon, was published in 1951. These early stories illustrate her fascination with problems of meaning. She experiments with words and with reality until everything in her stories is uncertain, both familiar and unfamiliar, constantly changing and yet carrying the threat of impermanence. In her stories she creates an unlikely balance between realism and antirealism—the “penetration of the ordinary by the extraordinary” that characterizes...

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Maurice Duggan

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Like Frame, Maurice Dugganmanipulates the structure of the story and of language. As W. H. New writes, Duggan rejects “the realm of tight-lipped functional language.” In “Along Rideout Road That Summer”—his most famous and commonly anthologized story—Duggan writes within and out of the Sargeson tradition of the laconic character, and he is clearly the inheritor of Sargeson’s use of irony. Buster O’Leary’s conversation with Fanny Hohepa is a parody of inarticulacy, but Buster’s monologue are vivid, learned, and deeply intertextual. The problem is connection; there is no one with whom he can communicate, and so at the heart of the story is the split between the fictional world of Buster’s narrative and the...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

The 1950’s

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

In the 1950’s the first stories in English by a Maori writer, J. C. Sturm, were published in literary periodicals. Te Ao Hou, the “Maori magazine,” was established in 1952 with the express purpose of encouraging Maori writers and artists to produce texts that generate and affirm a positive collective identity among the magazine’s readers and the community in general. This magazine, and its successors Te Kaea, Te Maori, and Tu Tangata became the publishing forum for new Maori writing. While the emphasis in the early stories was to increase the awareness of the reality of Maori life among the reading public, more recent stories by writers such as Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, and Keri...

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The 1960’s

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The 1960’s was also a period of growth in the publication of migrant writers in New Zealand. Writers such as Amelia Batistich, Renato Amato, and Yvonne du Fresne have added their voices to the other writers who are adapting the traditional Sargesonian short story to their own ends. Like the work of the Maori writers who appeared at the same time (and the multicultural writers emerging in Australia), the presence of these narratives has highlighted and attempted to explode the myth of racial and cultural homogeneity circulating in New Zealand from the colonial period. The stories of these writers also offer a pluralistic approach to narrative within what has essentially been—with the Mansfield/Sargeson split—a binary...

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(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Bennett, Bruce. “Short Fiction and the Canon: Australia and Canada.” Antipodes 7, no. 2 (1993): 109- 114. A useful introductory essay, concentrating particularly on the “new” writing of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Goldsworthy, Kerryn. “Short Fiction.” In The Penguin New Literary History of Australia, edited by Laurie Hergenhan. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin Australia, 1988. One of the few essays that covers the development of the short story from the 1890’s to the 1980’s in detail and with attention paid to the form and its relationship to the development of a national literary identity.


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