Ned Kelly has long been considered an integral part of Australia's national identity. Although he was undeniably a thief and a murderer, he has become an Australian icon, mythologised and reinvented in Australian literature, art, folklore and history. The Kelly myth has deeply permeated our national consciousness from the ballads of the 1880s to the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics. This thesis will explore the various re-imaginings of the bushranger in Australian culture, the possible reasons for his continual emergence and what this says about attempts to define an Australian national identity.
This thesis will argue that many Australian artists and writers are preoccupied with re-inventing Ned Kelly and regard him as a symbol of national identity because he has a strong connection to issues such as convictism, outlawry, the Australian environment and the European inheritance in Australia. These issues have provoked uncertainties, angers and fears that have disturbed white Australians from the time of settlement to the present day and they are dominant themes in the fictional and artistic representations of the Kelly Gang. It becomes clear that many Australians are still very uncomfortable with their environment and are still in the process of defining themselves as a nation. The different turns that the concept of an Australian identity, as symbolised by Kelly has taken over the years can be observed in the three periods into which this thesis will divide itself.
The first chapter will examine a selection of the earliest literature devoted to Ned Kelly and his associates. It will also touch upon the few remaining fragments of Australia's first feature film, made in 1906, which was about the Kellys. This period reveals a dichotomy between those who romanticized bushranging, the landscape and convictism and those who abhorred and feared all such aspects of Australia. Neither approach shows a willingness to reach an understanding with a new place or to forge a distinct culture. In many early works, Kelly and his companions speak in elegant and cultured tones. The 1906 film is also romanticized to an extraordinary degree. In sharp contrast, in Ambrose Pratt's novel Dan Kelly, Outlaw, Ned is depicted as a barbarian. It is stated in the book that such people are the natural results of a "lawless" landscape (12).
The second chapter will be concerned with the representation of Ned Kelly that emerged in the watershed of the two World Wars and the Depression. The initial burst of romanticism was now abandoned in favour of a Kelly who equated with Richard White's description of a "national type" in his book Inventing Australia. He is portrayed as a person of incredible physical strength and a champion of the working man. Kelly is contemptuous of authority, supports an egalitarian ideology and is fiercely republican. The harsh nature of the landscape is acknowledged, but it is believed that one may become inured to it over time. Now, the bush is an element to be conquered and tamed. The novels Bail Up! Ned Kelly, Bushranger by Hilary Lofting and Eric Lambert's Kelly, the poems "The Kelly Paintings" by Wallace- Crabbe and John Manifold's "The Death of Ned Kelly" and Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly Series will all be discussed in this light.
The third and final chapter will discuss the most recent portrayals of the bushranging gang. It will focus upon Robert Drewe's Our Sunshine, Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang and Ian Jones's Ned Kelly - A Short Life. The modem movie Reckless Kelly and some contemporary poetry will also be mentioned. In these works, sympathy for the four outlaws is deeper than ever before. The bushranging life has lost its glamour and the bush is described as so harsh that living in it is almost impossible. At times, Kelly is even moved to an urban situation and the bush is not referred to at all. Although the republican spirit was prevalent in the last period, these Kellys seem to have lost their enthusiasm for the idea. In spite of the image Australians propagate of the vast bushland that is their home, literature and film strongly suggest that many Australians would prefer to cling to an urban life and identity which is conmiensurate with other urbanized countries in the world. However, the most recent additions to the Kelly library break the general pessimism. In spite of the unremitting realism that pervades both True History of the Kelly Gang and Ned Kelly - A Short Life, the depictions of Kelly and his companions are very favourable and sympathetic and his story is portrayed as being highly significant. Kelly's courage, powers of endurance and hard-won affinity with the land are legacies for future generations to help them to find their place in the world.