Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Coonardoo is invaluable at its purely descriptive level as an informative social document, chronicling in remarkable detail the language, songs, traditions, beliefs, and ceremonies of the aboriginal communities of the period, including accounts of their sensual fertility rites and their harsh circumcision customs for both males and females. It also provides a vivid picture of life on a remote cattle station, the seasonally changing work of mustering and droving cattle over vast areas of difficult terrain as well as the domestic routines at the homestead.

Although the ethnic information, which includes many aboriginal words with English meaning woven into the text, dominates the early chapters, the book is much more than a socioanthropological study. It presents a passionate plea for an understanding of the aboriginal communities and respect for their age-old customs and laws, and makes a powerful attack on colonial prejudices and misrepresentations.

Through a key passage of dialogue between Mollie, Hugh, and Saul Grundy, a white protege of Bessie Watt who has spent most of his life at Wytaliba, the author states her main thesis: that the typical colonists’ view of the aborigines as dirty, lazy, and untrustworthy has been shaped by those aborigines they see in towns who are the victims of white exploitation and corruption and whose degeneration has been caused by the very people who later condemn them. Coonardoo’s descent from lively and loyal womanhood into total degradation is a tragic personification of this central theme.

The bitter irony at the heart of the novel is that the white master responsible for her degradation is not a typically ruthless and arrogant slave driver but a kindly, popular, and apparently high-minded man. The narrative encompasses many similar social ironies. On an altogether different level, the novel can also be understood as a tragic and lyrical exposition of the destructive effects of unfulfilled love and sexual frustration.