Two Documentary Convict Novels

Spunde, Walter W. (1983). Two Documentary Convict Novels Other, Department of Russian, The University of Queensland.

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Author Spunde, Walter W.
Thesis Title Two Documentary Convict Novels
School, Centre or Institute Department of Russian
Institution The University of Queensland
Publication date 1983
Thesis type Other
Supervisor Professor B. Christa
Total pages 85
Language eng
Subjects 2005 Literary Studies
Formatted abstract

Literary work can be evaluated from different points of view and in a different manner. This view is exemplified by the German critic Maximilian Braun:   


Literarische Kunstwerke können auf verschiedene Weise, von verschiedenen Gesichtspunkten aus betrachtet und dargestellt werden. Jedes dieser verschiedenen - inzwischen sehr zahlreichen - Verfahren hat seine Berechtigung und kann zu wertvollen Ergebnissen führen, doch wird sich dabei kaum jemals ein umfassendes, lückenloses Bild ergeben. (1)      


Whatever approach is adopted, the result will reflect one's own limitations; for the scope and depth of a discussion is largely determined by one's passions, knowledge and interests. But this idiosyncratic approach is by no means undesirable. T.S. Eliot writes:           

. . . the man whose taste in poetry does not bear the stamp of his particular personality, so that there are differences in what he likes from what we like, as well as resemblances, and differences in the way of liking the same things, is apt to be a very uninteresting person. (2).            


T.S. Eliot is concerned about poetry, but his statement could be easily applied to all branches of literature. 


In the following discussion no attempt is made to find out the author's intentions, but rather to record the message that the reader has received. It is not incorrect to say that the mark of a great writer is his ability to convey his ideas. In other words no attempt is made to find out what the author wanted to achieve. It is the result and not the author's intentions that counts. A German writer J. Gotthelf - a pastor - in his short story Die schwarze Spinne wanted to warn his readers of the devil, i.e. to induce his readers to follow the straight and narrow path in life. Gotthelf was carried away by his own writing and made the devil so strong that God appeared powerless before the king of the darkness. This certainly was not his intention; the writer in him was stronger than the pastor.           


When we adopt the rather narrow approach of evaluating a writer's work by concentrating our attention on the printed word and its impact upon us, we do not eliminate subjectivity completely, but keep it within comparatively narrow limits.            


On the other hand if we, for example, tried to explain why Clarke wrote a novel about convicts when the convict system was already abandoned, we would give the reins to our imagination.            


A prosaic person would say that Clarke chose convict life as his main theme, because it enabled him to make up an interesting and exciting story; that he knew that in other countries similar books had been very successful and therefore he had decided to try his luck in this field. (In this connection we ought to mention that in Clarke's For the Term of his Natural Life, Mr. North gives Sylvia a volume of Monte Cristo, a novel about an innocent man cast into a prison). For many people this would be a rather pedestrian explanation of Clarke's motives.           


Barry Argyle finds another explanation. According to him Clarke "... seems not to have been impelled so much by a social conscience as by a feeling of collective and inherited guilt."(3) One wonders whether Clarke, who had been sent to Australia against his wish, could have felt guilty for the actions of his government. The concept of collective guilt contradicts the moral principles of our Criminal Law and is mainly used as a political argument.           


 In the early stages the colonization of Australia was made possible by sending convicts and soldiers at the expense of the English taxpayer to Australia. Clarke was aware of it and, as he was sent to Australia against his will, to a country which in those days appeared forsaken by God and man, he naturally hated the system, which had enabled his relatives to dispatch him to the other end of the world. This could be another explanation, original, perhaps, but not universally popular.            


Depending on the power of our imagination we could produce many more explanations. But how valid would they be? 


Finally, we have to admit that we are able to see within a certain range and no farther. There is a story that two men who were carrying bricks were asked what they were doing. One said that he was carrying bricks for five dollars an hour, the other answered that he was building a church. It is possible that the writer of these lines has seen only the bricks and has been unable to see the church. And if some new, previously not discussed aspects come to light, it only means that the writer has experiences and interests different from previous commentators.           


While Dostoevsky's The House of the Dead  is devoted entirely to the life of convicts, Clarke's For the Term of his Natural Life contains other material as well. Consequently, parts of Clarke's book are not relevant for our discussion and will be largely disregarded.            


The reading of a book a hundred years after its publication occasionally creates some difficulty. Our factual knowledge has increased in some, and decreased in other fields; the moral values have changed and the elapse of time has blunted emotions.            


Dostoevsky's The House of the Dead presents little difficulty. Today we know that in Omsk there are more than one million inhabitants, but it is not difficult to imagine that a hundred years ago Omsk was a small town in a remote region of tsarist Russia.             


But it is not easy to accept Clarke's description of the Gordon river: "The turbulent stream is the colour of indigo, and, being fed by numerous rivulets, which ooze through masses of decaying vegetable matter, is of so poisonous a nature that it is not only undrinkable, but absolutely kills the fish, which in stormy weather are driven in from the sea." (p. 97) But in modern times tourists have been deeply impressed by the magnificent reflections of the adjoining landscape on the dark waters of the Gordon river. Today (1983) many people are spending their time and money and are breaking the Law in order to "save" the beautiful Gordon river.        


Describing the plight of the little group of people, left by convicts at the "Hell's Gate", Clarke writes, "It was the middle of summer, and though no annoyance from rain was apprehended, the heat in the middle of the day was most oppressive." (p. 146) It is hard to believe that he writes about the cool and rainy south-west Tasmania where the temperature in the hottest month seldom exceeds 18°C. It also contrasts sharply with the words of a skipper of the tourist boat at Strahan, "This year we had only three weeks of summer."           


At the beautiful Port Arthur, where according to Clarke several boys committed suicide, the tourist guide tells what good work was done for the boys and that the main building had its own hot-water system.  


Clarke's description of the Blow-hole and John Rex's nightly experiences on and in the rock does not appear to be true to life either, but in this case Clarke's imaginative writing justifies the deviations from the real world. A creative writer is entitled to a certain amount of literary freedom.           


Clarke, unlike Dostoevsky, does not try to conceal the fictional element in his novel.   


(1) Maximilian Braun, Dostojewskij, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Gottingen, 1976, p. 7. 

(2) T.S. Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, Faber and Faber Limited, London, 1959, p. 35, 36.  

(3) B. Argyle, An Introduction to the Australian Novel 1830-1930, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1972, p. 121.  

Keyword Literature -- History and criticism
Australia -- In literature

Document type: Thesis
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