The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea

by Randolph Stow

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

“I wonder what I’m going to be when I grow up,” Rob asked himself. “Well, not a film star,” Mike said. “And not an all-in wrestler. Why don’t you be a drunk? You don’t need any talents for that.”

“It’s got to be something in your blood,” Rob said. It was his view that all history was a matter of blood.

“That’s a lot of bullshit,” Mike said. “Hell, Australia was built by people who didn’t know who their grandparents were. You can be anything you want to be, and you ought to be what you want to be, not what your grandpa was.”

“Well, what are you going to be?” Rob demanded . . . . “A drunk,” said Mike. “I haven’t got any talents.”

Here, Rob’s outlook on the world is revealed. He is heavily influenced by the classism instilled in him by members of his family, such as his grandmother; this clashes with the more idealistic conception of Australia as a classless society based on meritocracy. However, Stow stops short of implying that this latter conception is some sort of utopia. While such a society rewards the strong and the talented, it affords no security or opportunity to those are deemed to be without conventional talents.

They were Australian. They were more Australian than Rob was, and he was fifth generation. And yet somehow they were not Australian. His world was not one world.

In this quote, Stow uses the pure and simplistic logic characteristic of a child’s perspective of the world to expose the racism of wartime Australian society. By highlighting the fact that that as a first nation person, the Aboriginal child he sat next to in class far exceeded the proud claim of his family to be fifth generation immigrants, Rob indicates that their “Australian” identity rests on different grounds—grounds that the reader knows to be their race.

The merry-go-round of life revolved. In Asia there was war, and in Geraldton the profoundest peace.

While the “merry-go-round” of the book’s title serves multiple symbolic purposes, perhaps the most prevalent of these is how it represents the stability of Rob’s family and the tranquil life they lead. While the rest of the world is like the sea—stormy, unpredictable and unknowable—the merry-go-round turns on its familiar axis, not in the least bit influenced by what is external to it.

The war was a curse, a mystery, an enchantment. Because of the war there were no more paper flowers. That was how he first knew the curse had fallen.

Once there had been little paper seeds that he had dropped into a bowl of water, and slowly they had opened out and become flowers floating in the water.

The flowers had come from Japan. Now there was a war, and there would never be paper flowers again. The people in Japan were suddenly wicked, far wickeder than the Germans, though once they had only been funny, like Chinamen.

Stow’s portrayal of the war in this novel concerns its impact on individuals as opposed to its impact on societies. While Rick suffers profound psychological consequences from his experiences of imprisonment, the war’s immediate impact on Rob is shown to be very superficial.

The tranquility of the imagery Stow employs in this quote describing the paper flowers in the water implies a peace that Rob has never lost despite his loss of the flowers themselves—a peace that is meanwhile longed for by Rick and his fellow soldiers away in Asia. This quote also represents how a society’s efforts to change how another nation is perceived appear ludicrous to a...

(This entire section contains 787 words.)

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child, who does not have the willingness to believe in the authenticity of such a change.

Rick was immature. He was lazy. He was a narcissist. He used dirty language. [. . .] He talked like Hitler about the Bomb. He fainted. He cried in his sleep, and when he had got drunk at Andarra on New Year’s Eve.

These criticisms of Rick as a character offer readers an informative perspective on the internal strife and confusion Rick suffers. Some of the vices ascribed to Rick seem to contradict one another; for example, the accusation that he is bloodthirsty in his views concerning nuclear weapons conflict with the claim that he is overly sensitive, as when he cries in his sleep.

From such contradictions, one can observe that Rick is undergoing a struggle to reconcile his hatred with his sense of humanity. There is a conflict between his capacity to feel empathy for others and remorse for his own actions, and this confusing duality in his character has a negative impact on his post-war life.




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