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...
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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, she takes a holiday alone to rest and think. No sooner has she resolved to put her love for Ralph aside forever than he appears, and Meggie manages to “steal” him, though only temporarily, from God. McCullough treats Father Ralph’s capitulation delicately, almost mystically; it is apparently too emotionally complex for the forthrightness of her other descriptions of lovemaking, though these, too, are less erotic than they are ecstatically romantic. At any rate, just past the novel’s midpoint, Meggie returns to Drogheda pregnant with Ralph’s child.
Perhaps because McCullough has so successfully conveyed the sexual and emotional tension between Meggie and Ralph during the first half of the novel, things slow down considerably once their love has been consummated. Meggie’s return to Drogheda does, however, allow for development of the relationship between her and her mother, the mysteriously restrained Fiona. By now Fee has lost her husband Paddy, burned to death in a fire; her son Stu, smothered by a wild boar; her baby Hal, dead of croup; and her favorite son Frank, a love child who has been convicted of murder and imprisoned in England. Thus the two women’s lives have been equally full of disappointments and trials, and their methods of dealing with their troubles have been similarly accepting. The parallel between Meggie and Fee helps reinforce the sense of “fatedness” about the Clearys and their actions. Like the Outback’s violent weather, the forces which govern their lives are powerful and unpredictable, but, at the same time, predictably in charge.
As the novel’s emphasis shifts to Meggie’s children, the third generation of Clearys, both Meggie and Fiona are contrasted with Meggie’s daughter Justine, who proves as she grows up to be tough and stubborn like her mother and grandmother but, unlike them, determined to alter circumstances before they can hurt her, a determination based on her perception of her mother’s preference for her brother. Thus Justine, independent and willful, has her freckles removed because they stand in the way of her ambition to become an actress, deliberately wears orange and bright pink despite her fiery red hair, and just as deliberately contrives the loss of her virginity. Throughout her girlhood and adolescence, she is fiercely protective of her brother Dane, Ralph’s and Meggie’s extraordinarily handsome son. Despite her mother’s favoritism for the boy, Justine behaves more maternally toward him than Meggie does, and the relation between brother and sister grows deep and strong.
Dane is not only splendid to look at, but he is also completely good. Early on, his religious leanings become apparent; thus, we are not nearly as surprised as his mother is when he announces, to her great distress, that he has decided to become a priest. “The utmost Enemy of women, that’s what God is!” Meggie rages at Dane, before settling resolutely into calmness to save her son further distress. In a mixture of love and retribution, she sends Dane to Ralph, now at the Vatican, to be trained, still not telling him what he cannot seem to recognize: that Dane is his own son. Only a few days after the young priest’s ordination, in an all too obvious echo of the thorn birds motif, Dane dies of a heart attack while swimming, with “one long and red-hot shaft of screaming agony” in his chest and the name of God on his lips. For Meggie, her son’s death is the gods’ final revenge on her for loving Ralph: “What more could the gods do?” she asks. “Don’t tempt the gods, they love it.”
McCullough clearly admires her characters for their strength and beauty, even as she visits upon them such throbbing human passions, such terrible sufferings, and such violently gory deaths. She tells their stories with so much gusto that their very resignation seems to pulse with vitality. Much of this vitality arises from the affectionate force of her descriptions of Australian landscapes, animals, and weather. Just as Hardy’s Wessex assumes the significance and power of a human character, so McCullough’s Outback shapes and dominates the lives of the Clearys; the two are inextricably intertwined. At the end of the novel this intertwining is emphasized with a bit of Dickensian plotting: although the station has been run by the Clearys, it is, according to the terms of Aunt Mary’s will, owned by the Catholic Church and administered by Ralph de Bricassart and eventually by his legatee, who just happens to be the man Justine marries. Nevertheless, Meggie realizes that Justine, now a successful actress, will never live at Drogheda permanently, and that, as far as the Clearys are concerned, it is “Time for Drogheda to stop.” After all, the sunburned and weatherbeaten “Unks,” as Justine calls Meggie’s brothers, are elderly, and none has married; Dane is dead. Thus Drogheda’s end coincides with that of the Cleary family itself, whose identity is so bound to the land they work on that they sometimes seem to be one with its kangaroos and budgies and wilga trees.
If McCullough’s handling of landscape is one source of the novel’s vitality, another is her close attention to the details of daily life on Drogheda. Whether she is describing the inside work of cooking, scrubbing, laundering, and painting, or the outside work of sheep-shearing, fire-fighting, hand-feeding, and riding the paddocks, her attention to visual details keeps her characters’ extravagant emotional distresses firmly grounded in dust, black flies, and back-breaking physical labor.
This realistic treatment of station life and our genuine interest in the characters make us all the more impatient with the novel’s lapses into stilted dialogue and cliché-ridden explanations of motive. Sometimes the characters seem to be speaking out of a soapy television screen. When Meggie and Fiona have their first heart-to-heart talk as adults, the conversation goes like this:“Once you had Ralph de Bricassart it wasn’t necessary to stay any longer with Luke.” “Yes,” sighed Meggie, “Ralph found me. But it didn’t solve anything for us, did it? I knew he would never be willing to give up his God. It was for that reason I was determined to have the only part of him I ever could. His child. Dane.”
Similarly, at Dane’s funeral, which is of course conducted at Drogheda by Father Ralph, an unidentified narrative voice, perhaps that of the author, perhaps that of Ralph himself, speaks: “Sleep on Dane, because only the good die young. Why do we mourn? You’re lucky, to have escaped this weary life so soon. Perhaps that’s what Hell is, a long term in earth-bound bondage. Perhaps we suffer our hells in living. . . .” Since the events of the plot alone are usually enough to engage and occasionally even to move the reader, such banal explanations can only distract or, worse, irritate.
Yet the banality is somehow consistent with the book’s other attractions, which are not unlike those of Gone with the Wind: a beautiful, strong heroine; a handsome, ambitious hero; a huge Georgian mansion; strong regional flavor; forbidden love; violent death; symbolic meteorological disturbances—not to mention the appeal of the story’s luxurious length. The Thorn Birds is, in the fullest sense, a romantic novel, and its popularity grows sturdily out of that fact. But it is also something more: an energetic, sharply detailed account of three generations of hardworking Australian graziers, people who, as Colleen McCullough portrays them, sometimes seem to love and understand the Outback much better than they do themselves and one another.
What keeps The Thorn Birds from being a pot boiling soap opera is the author's gift for atmosphere and description. She details animals, plants, and city and country life of Australia through several generations and contrasting regions. She includes spectacular storms, fires, and a variety of landscapes, as well as several detailed battle and war scenes, which vividly evoke a time and place which are strange and exotic to most readers. Through McCullough, we see the desert of North Africa, the jungles of New Guinea, the labyrinthine corridors of the Vatican, and the broad sweep of the Australian plain.
In addition, and as noted by critics such as Walter Clemons, the novel's dialogue is very dramatic and even declamatory. While it can be said to be unrealistic, it can also be said that the relentless drama of the dialogue and the almost deus ex machina nature of events serve to keep the novel's pace moving through several hundred pages and fifty-four years of history.
The Thorn Birds contains much material on the ways that families deal with crises, especially large social crises like droughts, war, social class issues, and spiritual and personal subordination, but also more intimately related issues, such as emotional crippling, unplanned pregnancy, and death. As The Thorn Birds has been criticized as a "potboiler" type of book, a good discussion might begin by examining how realistic these issues are as they are presented in the novel, especially as they are presented in light of their chronological context.
1. Discuss the role of Fee and Paddy Cleary. Are they good parents? Could or should they have been better?
2. Is Mary Carson a completely evil or bad character, or does her desire for Ralph humanize her in any way?
3. Is Dane's death from drowning an expected event? Can you see it foreshadowed in the novel? Or is it simply a convenient plot device?
4. Why does Meggie tell Ralph that Dane is his son, and why does it have the effect on him that it does?
5. Ralph De Bricassart is a Catholic priest, and eventually a cardinal. Yet he breaks his vows and fathers a son with Meggie. Does this make him a bad person? Does it make him more human?
The Thorn Birds was generally referred to as an Australian Gone With the Wind (1936), hence the frequent comparisons of Ralph to Rhett Butler. Meggie, however, bears no serious resemblance to Scarlett O'Hara — except perhaps that both women are survivors. Her family is only faintly reminiscent of the aristocratic Georgia families such as the Wilkses or O'Haras. Meggie has Drogheda, like Scarlett has Tara; both women bear a deep love for the land — their land.
In a situation reminiscent of the famous play and movie The Hasty Heart, and faintly recalling One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), a newcomer into the group stirs up conflicts, repressed sexual passions in both sexes, resulting in breakdowns, violence, and three deaths.
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 miniseries yet made, with Richard Chamberlain, who had been popular in his miniseries role of John Blackthorne in the miniseries of James Clavell's Shogun a few years earlier, receiving much publicity for his portrayal of Ralph. Rachel Ward portrayed Meggie, Mare Winningham portrayed her daughter Justine, Philip Anglim played the role of Meggie and Ralph's son Dane, and Ken Howard played Rainer (the young German soldier Ralph meets and who, in a not too surprising coincidence, meets and later marries Justine). Other characters, such as Fee, were deemphasized, and McCullough's vivid settings were not fully utilized. The relatively short role of Mary Carson was built into a panting emotional showcase for veteran star Barbara Stanwyck, who won an Emmy award for her work.
The mini-series spanned the time between 1920 and 1962 but omitted the years around the time of World War II when Meggie was raising her children and Father Ralph was in Rome. The 1996 CBS four-hour film. The Thorn-birds: The Missing Years, starring Chamberlain, Amanda Donohoe and Maximitan Schell, returns to the war years, when Meggie's estranged husband (Schell) returns to Drogheda to rekindle the passion and anger of their tormented marriage. Father Ralph is torn between his love for Meggie, his love for God, and his love for the glamour and power of the church.
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.