The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The book is packed with colorful and vividly drawn characters whose life stories are traced both in retrospect and through the forward narrative. The characters’ behavior is largely determined by their relationship to the land and, in varying degrees, by the conflict between the moral values of the black and white communities in which they move. The author does not make explicit moral judgments on them but leaves the reader to draw inferences through the contradiction between the way they behave and the way they perceive themselves and are perceived by others.

Bessie Watt, who had taken over the farm when her feckless husband, Ted Watt, fell drunkenly to his death, is a tough and determined manager. She has a deep understanding of the aborigines’ customs and is wise enough to refrain from interfering with them, even when her own principles are offended. Although Hugh has inherited her devotion to Wytaliba and something of her grit, he lacks her flexibility and insight. In a moment of crisis, he wonders if he has something of his father’s weakness within him.

Hugh is essentially a lonely man, and his three opportunities for companionship with white women end in failure. Jessica, a pretty, delicate society girl whom he brings to Wytaliba as his fiancee, soon leaves in disillusionment. Mollie, the plump and homely former servant whom he marries while visiting the west coast, is at first delighted to have a household of her own and becomes a good domestic manager. She isolates herself, however, by her grasping nature and her prejudices against blacks, and she uses the knowledge she gleans about Hugh, Coonardoo, and Winni to return to west coast society. The exorbitant allowance she demands from him to bring up their five daughters and to live in the extravagant style of the former lady of Wytaliba contributes to Hugh’s later bankruptcy.

Years afterward, the...

(The entire section is 775 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Coonardoo, an aboriginal housemaid at Wytaliba station (homestead) in the north of Western Australia. She has dull golden hair, a thin, reedy voice, pretty hands and feet, and firm, pointed breasts. She is long-legged and wiry and is “as spirited as an unbroken filly.” A year older than Hugh Watt, she is devoted to him and exhibits a devouring love for him. Intelligent and authoritative in the uloo (aboriginal camp), she is patient and gracefully submissive in the homestead. She generously gives herself to Hugh when directed to do so by her husband but has the air of a faithful, deserted animal when he later shuns her and abuses her. She is “of more than usual intelligence” and is the nexus between the white and black characters.

Bessie Watt

Bessie Watt, a former schoolteacher who married Ted Watt, a good-looking, good-natured, feckless, and illiterate drunk who owned the million-acre station Wytaliba and died just after Hugh’s birth. The aborigines call her Mumae (father); she understands their culture and is insightful, shrewd, and unsentimental, yet kind and practical. She is a manly, small woman with eyes “hard and blue as winter skies”; she is frugal and manages to pay off a large mortgage. She appreciates the value of education and sends Hugh to a school in Perth. She sees the unsuitability of Jessica as a station wife and forbids Coonardoo’s marriage as a child. She is an admirable, hardworking outback person.

Hugh Watt

Hugh Watt, Bessie’s son, who succeeds her as owner of Wytaliba. As a child, he is “a boy with a swag of ideals”; he has a sharp and scratchy voice, is blue-eyed and very assured and bossy, and plays with Coonardoo, learning her tribal lore. He has his mother’s work ethic and fortitude, but he lacks her insight and flexibility. Restrained and reserved, he reads the Iliad and values honor and courtesy. Although he has habits of independence and solitude and has occasional fits of anger and dejection, he is generally high-minded, kindly, courteous, and gentle. He marries...

(The entire section is 864 words.)