Much of Randolph Stow’s fiction, however seemingly mundane its subjects, deals with intellectual and spiritual development and with national identity. Rob Coram and Rick Maplestead exemplify these two central interests.
The purpose of the symbolism in The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea is to permit a study of a boy’s wartime experiences that is more profound than simple storytelling would permit. The symbolism is, by comparison with its use in other Stow novels, restrained. The most fully symbolic work is Tourmaline (1963), about a wasteland of that name, which exploits to a far greater degree the symbolic possibilities of Australia’s strange and mysterious landscape. In To the Islands (1958, revised 1982), a man searches for his own soul by seeking the aboriginal dreamworld. Stow’s interest in relations between Australia’s European settlers and the aborigines who arrived long before them is also found in The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea.
In Stow’s earlier novels, Stow’s metaphysical investigations were marked by an uncontrolled use of metaphor, character, and action that he brought under control in The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. That process continued in such novels as Visitants (1979), which focuses directly on the spiritual differences between racial groups in the South Pacific.
In several novels, Stow takes up the question of Australia’s national identity. He variously celebrates and debunks its mythologies. In The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, he links the country’s history of European colonization with one of the most influential events of its recent history, the threatened invasion of its shores by Japanese forces.