Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The overriding issue of the novel is that of race—of the exploitation of the aborigines by the whites and the destruction of aboriginal culture. Herbert characterizes the whites as “dingoes” who prey upon the natural environment. Because they try to subdue the land in pursuit of material gain, they find Capricornia, with its cycles of wet and dry, a hostile place. By contrast, the aborigines, at least those as yet uncorrupted by the whites, live in harmony with the land and find that it provides amply for their needs.

The novel is to a great degree structured along the railroad line that stretches south into the bush from Port Zodiac. Along the line live the white settlers. A recurring image is that of the train, destructive machine of the white man, running down the native wildlife. The farther one moves away from the railway, the more one can sense the power of the land. It is on such a sojourn from white society that Norman begins to come to grips with his aboriginal heritage.

One of the major components of the white man’s exploitation of the aborigines is his use of black women. Herbert shows that from the very beginning of white settlement the men appropriate the native women to satisfy their lust. The result is a society riddled with hypocrisy. The man guilty of being a “combo” (of consorting with a black woman) is publicly scorned; yet in Capricornia even the most outwardly moral are secretly guilty. The respected Humbolt...

(The entire section is 532 words.)