The Bone People Themes
by Keri Hulme

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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The novel demonstrates that both a sense of individual worth and a selfless commitment to others are essential for a meaningful life. The balance is difficult to achieve, and conditions over which one has no control can make its attainment more difficult. Simon, for example, because of his bizarre infancy with heroin addicts, has never been certain that he is a worthy individual. It is not surprising that he cannot defend himself emotionally against Joe, whose punishments, Simon assumes, must have been merited. Nor is Joe less insecure. Although, unlike Simon, he has a family, he cannot forget his mother’s desertion and his father’s subsequent desertion through death. Wishing to be a priest, a teacher, and a husband, he has succeeded in nothing. Kerewin, who begins confident of her worth but troubled by her difficulty in painting, has rejected all community.

In the traditional religious pattern, all these characters must suffer and be purged before they can emerge cleansed. For Simon, there is an almost instinctive attack on Joe, followed by a descent to near-death and a lengthy rejection of Joe; then, healed in body and spirit, Simon forgives Joe and returns to him. For Kerewin, there must be the destruction of her tower of isolation and a solitary period of healing—literally, from cancer, but symbolically, from self. For Joe, there must be public admission of his brutality, rejection by Simon, imprisonment, and a charge from the mysterious keeper of a sacred Maori boat, who leaves his trust to Joe, thus giving Joe the mission for which he had always yearned.


(Novels for Students)

Child Abuse

Hulme's The Bone People gives graphic descriptions of child abuse. The young boy, Simon, receives this abuse. He is abused by his peers because they do not understand his inability to speak and his frustration in not being able to communicate. In some ways, he is abused by the people who are responsible for his education because they quickly dismiss him, unwilling to penetrate Simon's self-protective façade. These educators see only a troubled little boy who does not fit their idea of a typical school child. They do not take the time to see his intelligence. They want to get Simon out of their sight; they do not want to be responsible for him or troubled by him.

The harshest abuse, however, comes from the hands of the one person who claims to love Simon. Joe, who has accepted the responsibility of raising the abandoned boy, beats Simon, almost to the point of death. Joe excuses the harsh punishment by claiming that it is the only way to communicate to the child. Simon makes trouble, or at least this is what almost everyone claims. The only way to curb that behavior, Joe insists, is to give Simon trouble in return.

Joe is not totally convincing in this assertion, however, not even to himself. He knows if Kerewin discovers that he beats Simon, the relationship he hopes to build with Kerewin will be destroyed. On some level, Joe seems to know that what he is doing to Simon is wrong.

The child abuse is presented in an unusual manner. In part, the abuse is looked upon in a negative light. Joe's family, as represented by the Tainuis, knows that Joe has often abused Simon. They threaten to take the boy away from him and to tell Kerewin about it if Joe does not curb his brutality. But the reader might wonder why the Tainuis have allowed this behavior to continue for so long. If they know about it, how many times are they going to allow it to happen before they actually intervene?

When Kerewin realizes that Simon is being beaten, she suspects that Joe is the one who is doing it. Though Joe denies it, it is fairly easy to figure out that Joe is the perpetrator. Who else would beat Simon with a belt? But Kerewin decides not to do anything about the abuse. She does not want the responsibility. Then, as the story develops, Kerewin promotes the abuse. She loses her patience with the boy. She once understood that Simon's behavior was an attempt to get attention (and thus...

(The entire section is 1,401 words.)