Friday, August 19, 2005

What I've been reading lately - Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

Murray Bail’s novel Eucalyptus successfully intertwines traditional fairy tale and traditional romance conventions. This essay will explore each of these conventions, arguing that the use of landscape is part of romance writing. It will look at typical Australian literary stereotypes of landscape and how Bail does not conform to this. This essay will also show that Murray Bail does not challenge sexist fairy tale-like depictions of women. Rather, he perpetuates the traditional feminine presence with both these conventions in his fiction.
Murray Bail essentially begins his novel with ‘once upon a time’, at once denoting a type of fantastical or fairy tale within his writing. Indeed, as the book continues, the reader discovers many fairy tale-like conventions. Bruno Bettelheim outlines many of these, such as, stories that begin with the death of a mother or father, or characteristics where a dragon must be slain, or even solving a riddle. “It is characteristic…that once the dragon is slain – or whatever deed that frees the beautiful princess from her captivity is accomplished - …the hero is united with her beloved” (Bettelheim, 1976, p. 112). Bettelheim also says that many fairy tales has a king bestowing his kingdom on the eventual successor and the heroine is always very beautiful and typically a princess. (Bettelheim, 1976) Further, “Tolkien describes the facets which are necessary in a good fairy tale as fantasy, recovery, escape and consolation…the happy ending…all complete fairy stories must have…It is ‘a sudden joyous turn’” (Bettelheim, 1976, p. 143).
Eucalyptus is all these things, using many of these conventions. At the beginning we learn that Ellen’s mother has died, and that she in turn was also motherless, raised by an ogre of a father, one amongst seven or eight sisters. Sisters like “woodland naiads or river nymphs [where they] play games by the river, whispering secrets to a tree trunk imagined to be full of magical portents” (McNear, 2002, p. 6 of 10). Holland rescues Ellen’s mother, or these are the connotations the reader is allowed to believe.
Ellen is the beautiful girl or princess, kept in a mythical grove of eucalypts waiting to be rescued. (DeFrain, 1999) Ellen’s father Holland, devises a riddle that must be solved: to name every one of the eucalypt species upon his property, hundreds and hundreds, a seemingly impossible task. This riddle becomes the metaphoric dragon that must be slain. Suitors from all over arrive, to successfully complete the quest and thus win Ellen’s hand and it is implied, ultimately Holland’s kingdom. All this are Bettelheim’s outlined fairy tale conventions, reworked to fit Bails’ story.
All fairy tales must have a hero, and Eucalyptus is no exception. Ellen literally stumbles across him lying beneath a tree. His strangeness and the way he almost magically appears on the property pique her interest. Later we find out, the hero has had (enchanted) help. Fortunate enough to meet the Sprunt sisters from town whilst travelling on a train, they tell him of “the most beautiful woman you’re ever likely to see” (bail, 1998, p. 253). Although this conversation takes place on a train, an apparent realist situation, Bail writes the encounter as though the two sisters are witches offering prophetic advice. “The other one chimed in ‘The father keeps the key to her bedroom dangling around his neck like a gaoler.’ ‘Begin at the river,’ the older sister advised, ‘don’t go near the house. She’ll be somewhere in among the trees.’” (Bail, 1998 p. 253). Here we also see the people of the town describing Ellen’s situation as a fairy tale.
As well as conventional fairy tale descriptions, Eucalyptus can also fall into the romance category. The hero and heroine play out their courtship, and there is also a rival whom the heroine must escape from. “The ideal romance sketches a faint picture of male-female relationship’s characterised by suspicion and distrust in order to set off more effectively its later, finished portrait of the perfect union” (Radway, 1987, p. 131). Ellen stumbling upon her hero certainly invokes distrust and suspicion at first, however the hero quickly disarms her by his compelling storytelling. It is almost as though Ellen and readers alike fall under the enchanted spell of his narrative. Ellen meeting him this way is also very romantic, particularly when it is contrasted later in the book, “’I remember you came out with the tea, looking very unhappy. I’d even say you looked bad-tempered, which may have been why your father didn’t introduce me’” (Bail, 1998, p. 254). This is a very matter-of-fact and unromantic description of the captive princess, where she is bad-tempered, and an allusion perhaps to the ugly stepsisters. The hero and heroine meeting underneath the trees is much more magical.
Mr Cave is the hero’s rival. Janice Radway describes rivals in a romance as usually being shadowy figures, “they are described sparingly and almost never prove even momentarily attractive to the heroine” (Radway, 1987, p. 131). Mr Cave does try and make overtures to try and get to know Ellen but she proves to be elusive. “Mr Cave’s sudden approach to her was a sign of his practical side. He knew he would be winning her; any day now. He could hardly take her away cold as it were” (Bail, 1998, p. 113).
Bail’s novel depicts the Australian landscape and this could be a feature of romantic writing. The romantic writer’s landscape is often gendered. It has been argued that it is closed and women in fiction tend to take refuge. The landscape is protective and,
“function as exaggerated landscape locations…the women…who prefer such space over one more open might be signalling their dissatisfaction with the feminine position of being constantly in view. Refuges also, of course, replicate the domestic sphere” (Labbe, 1998, p. 19).
We have already learned that Ellen can be found among the trees, and the eucalypts naturally hide her from view.
“Early one afternoon there she heard voices, men’s, when none were expected…She remained behind the pale tree when it would have been better to step out…They were around the other side of the tree. It was too late for Ellen to step out and surprise them” (Bail, 1998, pp. 92-93).
Most Australian literature about the bush shows that it is ‘no place’ for a woman. (Falkiner, 1992)
Instead of following the usual literary cultural pattern of writing the Australian landscape as singular descriptions of,
“fitted out blue sky and the obligator tremendous gum tree, perhaps some merino’s chewing on the bleached-out grass in the foreground, the kind of landscape seen during homesickness and in full colour on suburban butcher’s calendar” (McNeer, 2002, p. 2 of 10).
In fact, the book itself tells us this. Bail resolutely does not want to fall into the “rusty trap” that signify’s the usual norm of Australian landscape writing. Instead, by using landscape as a romantic convention, and together with the fairy tale trope of writing, Bail deftly side steps this usual literary tradition, and in his words: “That Australia itself should be viewed as a magic island is not out of the realm of possibility…any fairy tale element of life in Australia has most assuredly been missing from its literature” (McNeer, 2002, p. 2 of 10). In so doing, Bail challenges the traditional use of landscape in Australian writing.
Thus far, this essay has illustrated the various conventions Bail has used, and although the author has managed to write a novel opposite to stereotypical descriptions of the Australian bush, he is in no way representing a challenge to sexist fairy tale-like depictions of women.
Ellen is a captive princess, living in a house that has a “tower” and she finds herself completely trapped. Mr Cave, a suitor she does not love is only steps away of occupying her as a “neat house”. (Bail, 1998) Ellen is frantic, as she can see no one able to stop him. “As she scrambled down the steps and reached the hall she bumped into walls, and opened and closed doors. She stood down and stood up. In her bedroom she sat down again. She didn’t know what to do, where to go” (Bail, 1998, p. 87). Feminist critic, Kay Schaffer, writes about “imagery of the landscape as the body of a woman waiting to be conquered” (Falkiner, 1992, p. 118). Mr Cave is systematically naming each tree, as he goes along he is systematically conquering the landscape and therefore Ellen. She also talks about the “assumption that the masculine (Man, Empire, Civilisation) has an unquestioned God-given right to subdue or cultivate the feminine (Woman, Earth, Nature) and appropriate the feminine to masculine domination” (Schaffer, 1988, p. 82).
Both Holland and Mr Cave are struggling to claim ownership of Ellen and dominate her. When Ellen is hiding among the eucalypts and it becomes too late for her to reveal herself to them, she watches as they both urinate, marking territory and therefore her. Bail highlights the landscape’s domination by men.
Ellen never attempts to runaway. She allows herself to be kept and instead she waits to be saved. This is the role the novel’s hero plays. Throughout he remains nameless, although it could be surmised, perhaps, that he is a bushman? Francis Adams speaks of the landscape as the feminine other, where the “bushman-as-hero is constructed” (Schaffer, 1988 p. 52). When Ellen comes upon him he is lying under a Coolibah tree. Bushman or Swagman, it appears that Eucalypts’ hero is one that has been fashioned from the Australian landscape and folklore. Ellen’s hero also tries to own her unbeknown to Ellen’s father and her suitor Mr Cave, Ellen’s hero has seen her naked, and talks in such a way, leaving no doubt as to his ownership. Ellen seems happy at this turn of events and it is clear she is in love with him. However, she does not see how he can succeed over Mr Cave. There are rules to be obeyed in this quest.
Nevertheless, Ellen does manage to change the game slightly, or she inserts her own rules. Brought on by abandonment by her hero, she succumbs to a mysterious illness.
“She became furious not at them but at the other one, the most invisible unreliable one, who fitted her age and interests and everything else, who’d decided after all those stories no longer to appear, not to help – leaving her” (Bail, 1998, p. 208).
Essentially sliding into her own ‘glass coffin’, readers learn that she can only be “brought back to life by a story” (bail, 1998, p. 234). This again brings suitors, but storytelling is the weapon only the hero can wield effectively.
Thus, Ellen is captive within her home, shuttered by eucalypts, owned first by her father, who reluctantly realises he must let her go, and devises a riddle or quest that brings about events where Ellen must hopelessly await rescuing. This is a conventional fairy tale depiction, offering no challenge to sexist imagery of women. The book’s heroine ultimately awaits her final fate of domination by her hero. The hero of Eucalyptus is indeed ready to be Ellen’s saviour and thus own her. The final scenes of the book, where he does not hesitate upon entering Ellen’s bedroom or even getting into her bed, as though it is entirely his masculine right, is apparent. “He was touching her cheek…he took her by the waist…Still Ellen didn’t know what to say, above all, she was conscious again of their ease together. She felt strength behind his hand; he was determined” (Bail, 1998, p. 254). Eucalyptus does reconstitute romance conventions and through this, fairy tale ideas and the romantic notion of landscape, Murray Bail does not represent a challenge towards fairy tale’s sexist notions. Earlier Tolkien described a fairy tale as fantasy, recovery, escape and consolidation. We have seen all this happen. Ellen’s wish to escape Mr Cave, her reaction to the quest by her illness, her recovery and consolidation as she is consoled by the enigmatic stranger who is her suitor and finally her hero. It is the happy ending that must complete all fairy stories.

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