The Bone People Analysis
by Keri Hulme

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The Bone People Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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The text, poetically conceived, is grounded with carefully realistic descriptions of New Zealand’s coast, landscapes, natural resources, villages, bars, and working folk. It is also rich with mythological and literary references, elaborate metaphors, and physical objects carrying obvious symbolic weight. The novel’s complexity has encouraged critics to develop a variety of interpretations, the most prevalent of which argue that Hulme’s style undermines the traditional, dominant form of literary narrative, giving voice to characters and themes historically overlooked or maginalized. In this way, it emphasizes a postcolonial and feminist perspective.

Kerewin’s character provides the most striking example of a nontraditional female character. Completely self-reliant, extraordinarily capable both physically and mentally, she desires no relationship and considers herself neuter. Though a typical heterosexual relationship suggests itself between Kerewin and Joe, their union is never physically affectionate, and Kerewin does not accept Joe as part of her family until he accepts her androgyny into his. Their relationship is unusual even in its details: She can drink more, fight better, catch more fish than Joe; he is constantly awed by her abilities, she is rarely awed by his. While their union depends on the presence of Simon, Kerewin never mothers the child. She chooses instead to treat Simon as an independent, able to take care of himself. That such a protagonist ultimately does acknowledge the importance of family, joining with a partner and becoming a parent, emphasizes the legitimacy of nontraditional families and the synergistic power of unions tied not by romance, sex, or obligation but by acceptance.

Simon and Joe also represent themes larger than themselves. Simon, washed ashore like New Zealand’s various tribes and colonists, is an allegorical representation of the immigrant. His silence represents the repressed voice of such a minority: He is misunderstood both by the empirical power that sent him there and by the new culture into which he tries to assimilate. His struggle to reunite with Joe and Kerewin demonstrates the newcomer’s longing for some sort of home, even at the risk of disfigurement or death. Joe, himself an allegorical figure, represents the Maori culture. When Joe’s family is destroyed by influenza, he directs his anger at Simon, the unwitting cause of death and change. Joe and Simon provoke and try to kill each other in a metaphorical display of the brutality between cultures trying to claim or preserve land as their own.

Because the end of the story is presented in the novel’s prologue, the importance of the main characters’ relationships to one another is emphasized before they are named individually:They were nothing more than people, by themselves. Even paired, any pairing, they would have been nothing more than people by themselves. But all together, they have become the heart and muscles and mind of something perilous and new, something strange and growing and great. Together, all together, they are the instruments of change.

As the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that their relationships will amount to anything positive. Kerewin numbs her heart with pickling quantities of alcohol; Joe, who attempts to repress his own fears with booze, beats Simon with such hateful ferocity that a sentence of three months in jail seems overwhelmingly inadequate. The three are so unlikely a mixture that by the time they are all dying, separated by physical and seemingly unscalable...

(The entire section is 849 words.)