Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

Almost all of Peter Cowan’s short fiction treats a restricted range of thematic material, and most of these themes were introduced in his first volume, Drift: Stories (1944): the close connection of individuals to the land, farmers’ loneliness without the company of sympathetic women, the incompatibility of city and country life, and the uniformity of values of small-town societies. “The Tractor” introduces all of these, although not all are explored at length. Here the despoiling of the natural environment under the pressure to extend housing and the two central characters’ responses to this situation are the principal foci of the story. These, in turn, introduce a number of subsidiary considerations that challenge the thinking of the reader rather than present a set of conclusions. Is there a simple choice between conservation and development? Should the natural environment be preserved at the expense of people who wish to leave the inner cities and have modern housing far from urban blight? Is it wrong for farmers to profit from selling their land to housing developers? Should independent-minded, homeless, or eccentric characters outside the normal social sphere be allowed to wreak their individual vengeance on the representatives of social change, development, or improvement without consequences?

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Because it raises so many fundamental social issues, “The Tractor,” according to one critic, is a moral fable for modern times. All of its characters and events draw attention to the dominant issue, which is whether the natural environment is something to be destroyed in the interests of wealth and development—the viewpoint of the farmers and the developers—or to be maintained in the interests of nature, beauty, and tranquillity—the viewpoint of Ann and the hermit. Should enforcement of the laws of community be entrusted to society itself, in the form of the police, or to the contesting parties themselves? Because Ann and Ken intend to marry shortly and declare their love despite their fundamental differences, the reader realizes that some compromises or change of belief are essential and inevitable. The solution, however, is left to the reader. Ann’s belief that Ken’s mother has capitulated to her husband’s position makes her reconsider her own stance vis-à-vis male hegemony: In the interest of marriage, should she abandon her own strongly held beliefs or be strong and independent in a matter of concern to her?

Complicating an interpretation of the basic theme of the story is the fact that Ann, although at heart a naturalist, is not sufficiently versed in its ways to avoid getting lost while seeking the hermit; and the hermit, at home in the bush for a decade, has several camps (homes) and a radio (although nonfunctional) that indicate his desire to be connected to the world of commerce and materialism that he presumably disdains. It is he who sabotages the tractor, the sheep-run fences, and the cattle-drinking faucets, and, so far as one knows from the story, he fires the initial shot at the posse. The story, therefore, invites—even demands—considerable thought on the part of the reader on matters of importance.

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