The Thorn Birds

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Drogheda, a 250,000-acre sheep station in the Australian Outback, dominates Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, giving the novel a center and a resting place. Although its numerous characters, most of them members of the clannish Cleary family, leave Drogheda for various reasons—to travel, to marry, to go to school or work or war—they all return to the sprawling ranch with its numerous water tanks (enough, it is said, to keep its lawns green through a ten-year drought), its yellow sandstone house, and its abundance of wisteria, bougainvillea, and roses. Constantly subjected to natural disasters, including monsoonal rains, droughts, fires, and too many rabbits, Drogheda’s resources and its vitality are apparently unlimited. So are Meggie Cleary’s. Meggie is celebrating her fourth birthday when the novel opens; when it closes, she is in her fifties. Beautiful, intelligent, and stubborn, she illustrates the theme suggested by the novel’s title. According to Celtic legend, a particular bird intentionally impales itself on a thorn and, in the process of dying, sings a beautiful song. McCullough makes it all too clear that the legend’s central idea is also that of her book: “the best is only bought at the cost of great pain,” but human beings repeatedly choose both the best and the pain. As Meggie puts it, “We create our own thorn, and never stop to count the cost.” While there is nothing intrinsically lamentable about this theme, McCullough’s handling of it is annoyingly explicit. Not only does she announce her main idea before her story begins; she returns to it repeatedly at crucial points in the action. In the concluding paragraph she makes Meggie reflect, “I did it all to myself, I have no one else to blame. . . . We, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. . . . And still we do it.”

But even this explicitness does not keep us from becoming interested in McCullough’s characters, and especially in Meggie herself. Despite repetitious references to the heroine’s “lambent” gray eyes and her “goldy” hair—one soon begins to imagine her on the cover of a Harlequin romance—we sympathize with her immediately. In the novel’s first pages, the Clearys are living in New Zealand. Meggie, the only girl among six children, receives for her birthday a new doll, which she must defend against the irreverent curiosity of her older brothers. Soon thereafter she starts school, where she must endure not only unfair canings by her teacher, but also the horror of catching lice from her best friend and the resulting humiliation of having her long “goldy” curls cut off and her head shaved. These early incidents firmly establish Meggie’s character: she is loving, loyal, and stubbornly brave, and she must surely suffer.

When the Clearys leave New Zealand to go and live at Drogheda, the sheep station owned by Meggie’s Aunt Mary, the child’s prospects appear to improve. Drogheda offers security, steady work for her father and brothers, and the friendship of the tall, elegantly handsome parish priest, Father Ralph de Bricassart. Father Ralph is attracted at once by Meggie’s beauty, although when they meet she is only nine years old; from that moment he is her friend and protector. At the same time, as Ralph observes Meggie’s responses to an emotionally turbulent confrontation between her father and her favorite older brother, to the death of her baby brother, and to the deepening indifference of her stoical mother, he sees in her a maternal strength and a profound capacity to endure suffering, and these qualities too he finds fascinating. Until Meggie reaches adolescence, Father Ralph can successfully ignore the implications of his feelings for her; but when, at seventeen, she asks him whether he would marry her were he not a priest and then kisses him passionately, he realizes the danger he is in.

By now, however, we already know that Ralph de Bricassart is far too ambitious to let his love for any woman, even Meggie, interfere with his desire to rise within the hierarchy of the Church. It is his ambition, far more than the risk of being tempted to break his priestly vows, that motivates his departure from Australia. Having inherited the administration of Drogheda and a fortune from Meggie’s Aunt Mary, the talented young priest leaves his parish to begin his ascendency. In the course of the novel he advances to the rank of bishop, then to archbishop, and finally to cardinal, returning periodically to Drogheda to visit the Clearys.

Father Ralph’s departure leaves the affectionate Meggie in a state of extreme emotional vulnerability. With no other immediate outlet for her stubborn loyalty and her yearning for children, she marries a stockman, Luke O’Neill, who is like Ralph in appearance but in no other way. When the O’Neills leave Drogheda, it is clear that Meggie has made a mistake and that she will pay for it. And pay she does, in the alien climate of North Queensland, where Luke takes her, and through the difficult conception and birth of her daughter Justine. These events, in addition to Luke’s long absences and his miserliness, contribute to Meggie’s growing certainty that although she can never have Ralph, neither can she remain Luke’s wife. When her suffering is at its most intense,...

(The entire section is 2164 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

What keeps The Thorn Birds from being a pot boiling soap opera is the author's gift for atmosphere and description. She details...

(The entire section is 164 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Thorn Birds contains much material on the ways that families deal with crises, especially large social crises like droughts, war,...

(The entire section is 206 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Thorn Birds was generally referred to as an Australian Gone With the Wind (1936), hence the frequent comparisons of Ralph...

(The entire section is 117 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

An Indecent Obsession (1981) combines several elements of Tint (1974) and The Thorn Birds but is more melodramatic and...

(The entire section is 186 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The 1983 ten-hour miniseries of The Thorn Birds was one of the top-rated television events of its year and one of the most popular...

(The entire section is 239 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Cassill, Kay. “The Thorned Words of Colleen McCullough.” Writer’s Digest, March, 1980. Looks at the way McCullough works, particularly how she went about creating the story and the characters in The Thorn Birds.

DeMarr, Mary Jean. Colleen McCullough. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Examines nine novels by McCullough, including The Thorn Birds; includes a biography of McCullough.

Morris, Gwen. “An Australian Ingredient in American Soap: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough.” Journal of Popular Culture 24, no. 4 (Spring, 1991): 59-69. Compares the novel to similar American works, pointing out those elements that are distinctly Australian. Also considers religious themes, noting the novel’s Puritanical slant.