In The Secret River, Grenville explores the idea of conflict through the lens of cultural differences, asserting that the brutal clash of civilisations is engendered by the incapacity to understand innate differences in each other’s modus vivendi. Through her use of language, symbolism and imagery, she demonstrates that the establishment of an egalitarian relationship between the two cultures is inconceivable.
As introduced by the title of the prologue, Strangers, Grenville unveils that each culture finds the other strange in essentially every aspect of life. The confrontation between Thornhill and one of the Aboriginals immediately underlines the dichotomy that exists between them – the colonist is white while the Aboriginal is “as black as the air itself”, the colonist wears clothes whereas the Aboriginal is naked. The Aboriginal echoes Thornhill’s command to “Be off!”, mimicking the dominant dialogue of the settler in “his tone exactly” thereby metaphorically subverting his position of power. The fact that the two men are “close enough to touch” further emphasises the antithetical nature of their positions. Through this short symmetrical exchange, Grenville foreshadows future conflict while also providing the background for conflict – the fundamental issue of the claim to the land. For these convicts to forge a new life in Australia, the Aboriginals must be “dispersed”, while for the Aboriginals to preserve their culture, the colonists must leave. Grenville’s use of structure in beginning with this out-of-sequence chapter makes it evident that Thornhill will be “transported for the term of his natural life” to New South Wales. She uses London essentially as a narrative device to focus the reader’s attention elsewhere. Through her Dickensian description of the injustices of the English legal system and the merciless class system, Grenville creates a sense of foreboding, for as the shibboleths of this ‘civilisation’ are imprinted on Australia, a tragic resolution, generated by the colonial lack of empathy and thirst for social ransom, appears to be inevitable.
Grenville demonstrates that miscommunication on the banks of the Hawkesbury derives from the differing relationships with the land. She juxtaposes the Aboriginal concept of belonging to the land with the Western concept of owning the land, highlighting the disparities when she writes, “there were no signs that the blacks felt the place belonged to them”. Judging the Aboriginals by Protestant norms of value, the colonists infer the absence of permanent structures such as “fences that said this is mine” and tilled fields as evidence that the Aboriginals did not physically invest in the land. However, the Aboriginals and the land, itself personified as “some enormous quiet creature”, are connected on both a spiritual and physical plane, as shown in Thornhill’s Place, when Long Jack, touching the earth, says, “This me”. The closeness of the two words emphasises the intimacy of the bond between the two. This violent collision between irreconcilable languages of ownership makes Thornhill’s Point a liminal place, and the potential for conflict is illuminated by Grenville’s use of spears as symbols of peril. The ring of spears that the Aboriginals leave around Thornhill’s hut signify their willingness to fight for the land. Moreover, by contrasting the naturalistic imagery, such as “the rock of his face” and “each in its cave of bone” used to describe the Aboriginals as part of the landscape itself, with the irony that the clothed Thornhill feels “skinless as a maggot” in front of the Aboriginal who comfortably wore “his nakedness like a cloak”, Grenville accentuates the inauthenticity of the connection to the land that the colonists are attempting to claim as their own. She reinforces this lack of belonging through Sal’s attempt to make “a place she called the yard” which symbolises the drive in Western society to impose the stricture of civilisation on nature. The fact that it is “ringed with stones” signifies the barrier in her mind between civilisation and the wilderness. Through this recurrent motif of a wall, Grenville conveys to the reader that, in erecting boundaries to demarcate civilisation, Thornhill metaphorically builds a wall of incommunicability, thus preventing any opportunity of peaceful coexistence.
Grenville also underlines the salience of language, informed by a fear of the other, in causing conflict. Firstly, the Aboriginals are described as “being lower in the order of things than even they were” explicitly stating that the colonists regarded them as subhuman. Most people feel no remorse in killing “flies”, “worms” or “ants”, thus by turning to the semantic field of animals and likening the Aboriginals to these “vermin”, Grenville exposes how language allowed the colonists to be detached from the people they maltreat. Grenville exhibits the miasma of antipathy when Thornhill’s neighbours gather at his house through their litany of embellished complaints. She leaves Saggity’s euphemism, “learned them a lesson”, to the reader’s imagination, evoking images of barbaric abuse, and the “smirk” reveals the schadenfreude of colonists such as Smasher and himself. Furthermore, unlike the colonists, whose real names (such as “Sal”, “Will” and “Dick”) are used, Grenville marginalises the Aboriginals by naming them simply based on their physical characteristics. Dehumanised, the contempt in names such as “Scabby Bill”, “the younger man” and “old greybeard”, associates a sense of otherness with the Aboriginals, fomenting an “us versus them” mob mentality. As the narrative voice, reflecting Thornhill’s consciousness, concludes that “there were too many people here, and too little language to go around”, Grenville confirms that, in The Secret River, language does not create a cultural bridge. Instead, it paradoxically represents an obstacle to understanding, “their words between them like a wall”. The Aboriginals constantly “cut across his words” indicating that they are of no importance to them, thus undermining the assumed superiority of the English language, and by association, that of the colonists. In the escalation to the slapping incident, Thornhill feels “like an imbecile” when he does not understand the “meaningless words” enunciated by the old Aboriginal. By using the term “imbecile”, Grenville evokes the idea of a static condition of deficiency, and consequently the impossibility of an intelligible verbal exchange.
In Part Six, miscommunication becomes silence. When devastation and death render an apocalyptic scene of “black bodies lying among the ruins of their humpies”, Grenville saturates the verbal scene with screams and cries, suggesting that dialogue is impossible. The shockingly grotesque imagery, in “the back of the baby’s head was crushed purple” and “attached to her body by only a strip of ragged flesh”, speaks loud enough: the “line” has been drawn. The “great shocked silence” relates to the painful shame of Blackwood, whose blinding by Smasher’s whip symbolises the destruction of his “give a little, take a little” vision of peaceful coexistence. Moreover, Thornhill’s decision to build Cobham Hall on top of the rock with the drawing of the fish represents the colonists’ eternal claim to the land. In depicting the concealment of this symbol of Aboriginal culture, Grenville alludes to the silence and ignorance of future Australians about those who first lived on the land. This is the Great Australian Silence that has suppressed The Secret River of blood in Australian history. It is perhaps for this reason that Grenville dedicates the novel “to the Aboriginal people of Australia: past, present and future” as sympathy, for if rapprochement is ever to begin, this forgotten colonial archive of occluded histories and silenced memories must be opened.