The Bone People Criticism
by Keri Hulme

Start Your Free Trial

Joyce Hart

(Novels for Students)

Download The Bone People Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Hart is a published writer and former teacher. In the following essay, she examines the silences in Hulme's novel The Bone People and how the author uses them.

There are many different kinds of silences in Hulme's The Bone People. There are the obvious silences of the characters as well as those that are embedded in the story. As many teachers, poets, mentors, and public speakers (just to name a few) know, silence can be a powerful tool. So-called pregnant pauses in a speech can subdue an audience as it awaits the next words to be spoken. Hulme, who has a collection of poems called The Silence Between (1982) evidently understands the capacity of silence and has used it throughout her novel.

Hulme's use of silence in her story and her characters is sometimes obvious, such as in Simon, a child who cannot speak. Simon's silence is not total, however, for he can sing. So his vocal chords clearly work. Simon's silence is more than physiological. He has been pushed into a world without audible words because he is so afraid of saying the wrong thing. He makes hand motions instead, signals that can be read by some people but not by all. He also writes notes, which express details but not necessarily his emotions, unless someone is paying particular attention. Kerewin suggests that Simon is silent in order to gain attention. "Is his face really that easy to read, or am I just looking harder because he can't talk?" Kerewin wonders. Getting people to notice him is both positive and negative; his silence works both for and against him. At one point in the story, Kerewin remains silent for part of a day while she wanders through the small town where she lives. After this little experiment, she comes home feeling strange. People stared at her, talked louder to her, and talked behind her back. Living in that kind of silence was not appealing to Kerewin, although she has silences of her own.

Simon is also silent about his pain. He barely whimpers when he is beaten. He does not tell anyone that he has been beaten, and when anyone discovers his sores or scars, he does not tell them who injured him. This silence of fear is tinged with other emotions as well. Simon's fear might be that he could lose Joe if he reports him as the perpetrator. Joe even tells Simon that if Simon tells Kerewin, they both will lose the chance of having Kerewin join them in a family. However, Simon may also be ashamed, believing that he has done wrong and deserves to be beaten. He learns that after the beatings, his relationship with Joe improves. Tensions are released, and Joe expresses some love for the boy. Simon is likely lost in a maze of confusion, too. He remembers things about his past, such as the name Clare, that he sometimes calls himself by. He does not share this detail with anyone. Simon's past is dark and terrifying. His silence then becomes a shield or protective armor that he wraps around himself, disallowing anyone to penetrate his thoughts. However, as Kerewin discovers, sometimes a protective shield can turn into a prison.

Kerewin's silence is in many ways similar to Simon's, although hers is more subtle. She has built a tower in which to hide from the world. She has created a silence through solitude. She refers to anyone who breaks this silence as an intruder. Although the tower is material and, therefore, protects her physically, it is symbolic of the tower she has built around her emotions. She does not want to be touched, physically or emotionally. Another kind of silence surrounds Kerewin's need to be protected. Neither the narrator nor the character Kerewin ever fully explains why Kerewin insists on her silence. She was not abused as a child, she tells Joe when he asks. All she knows (or all she says) is that she has never, even when she was very young, liked being touched. She describes herself as a neuter, neither female nor male; but neuter could also refer to being neutral emotionally. She has no feelings, she implies. However, if she truly had no...

(The entire section is 13,507 words.)