Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In “The Tractor,” Cowan uses the device known as metonymy: the presentation of a single case to represent a larger group; in other words, he is making use of symbolic cases. The cost of so doing is the loss of individualized emotional responses. The supposed romance between Ann and Ken is never clearly apparent, so one wonders what they really have in common. Ken’s mother is neither affectionate nor markedly maternal. The birthday party is a particularly dull occasion at which jollity, friendliness, and bonhomie seem wholly alien. The posse never seems to have any true cohesiveness or social unity; even the hermit and Ann lack any real common feeling or understanding; it is as if they are as much apart philosophically as they are socially. Cowan seems to suggest that men and women cannot communicate adequately.

Cowan’s talent is in showing the sincerity of his characters, although their motivations are not always explored adequately. He reveals—perhaps better than any other Australian short-story writer—the loneliness, monotony, and conformity found in the bush. Earlier writers suggested the importance of mateship—a close brotherhood between men—to the exclusion of women, and tolerance—even exaltation—of the eccentric or loner, but Cowan, a more realistic writer, questions these beliefs.

Some critics have detected a certain poetic quality in Cowan’s prose, but this is rare. He does have an excellent ear for incorporating everyday speech and a fine understanding of introspection or philosophical rumination.