Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Indubitably, My Brilliant Career is an ironic story; indeed, its original title was My Brilliant(?) Career. Sybylla has no career: She ends up where she started, doing household and farm chores and with no prospects for advancement, having declined a number of opportunities to marry into respectability because they were viewed as loveless. Her career, if anything, has gone downward—from living on the expansive Bruggabrong station to living on the modest Possum Gully dairy farm—and it has been tragic. In the sense that it has been the result of fate rather than choice, her life has the elements of Greek tragedy. Considering the whole novel, then, one sees that although the initial move was decided upon by her father’s wish for greater wealth and less demanding labors, a determinism beyond the individual shapes attitudes and fortunes.

Being “up the country” diminishes humanity and induces brutality; even the teacher at Tiger Swamp Public School is affected: He becomes coarsened and hardened; he struggles against isolation, ignorance, and indifference and is given neither sympathy nor encouragement from the officious minion of bureaucracy, the school inspector. The same effects are to be seen in most of the characters who are removed from the influences of the cities: Only the occasional coming together of kindred spirits maintains the veneer of civilization. Sybylla’s participation in dinner parties, social visits, race-meetings, and church services satisfies her; similarly, she is stimulated by uncle Julius Bossier’s interest in the fine arts and by the concerns of the wider world (the history of slavery in the United States, for example). Love, after all, is a conjunctive passion: It demands identification and the giving of self; it also requires reciprocity. Without it, hate results.

In essence, therefore, My Brilliant Career develops the theme that persons are not masters of their own destinies always, and that when they do exercise their wills, the consequences may not be entirely conducive to their own happiness.