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Cultural Identities in A Fringe of Leaves

an essay written by a student discussing the cultural identities and their oppositions in Patrick White's A Fringe of Leaves

A post-colonial novel about colonialism, Patrick White?s A Fringe of Leaves presents to us a historical fiction about the shipwreck of the Stirling Castle (called the Bristol Maid in the novel) on Fraser Island. The novel?s predominant cultural identity is one of a transplanted Victorian English identity. This however is not the only identity in the text; there are the minorities like the Irish emancipists, the Australian bush family and the identity of the Aboriginal peoples. With the exception of the Australian bush identity, presented to us by the Oakes, the other identities are presented to us at odds to the dominant cultural identity, an opposition constructed along the lines of cultured versus uncultured, and therefore civilised versus uncivilised, where the Victorian English are presented as the privileged, superior identity, while the rest are inferior and other. The other opposition presented to us in the text is one of male versus female, particularly in Aboriginal society, where males are considered superior to females. This is to some extent shown in colonial society of Australia, but within the Roxburgh family is ironic, as though Mr Roxburgh is in charge as such, Mrs Roxburgh seems to be a person of stronger character and greater physical strength. White constructs these oppositions through the ideologies informing the Victorian English (dominant) cultural identity. It is their ideas, such as the absolute separation of gender roles, and their view of the Aborigines as black native savages, that help construct these prejudiced oppositions. These oppositions help present to us the idea that what people think of others; others may think exactly the same of you. The Victorian English dislike the Irish emancipists, and similarly the Irish dislike the English, and the Colonialists view the Natives as uncultured, while the Natives may view the Colonialists as uncultured.

The opposition of the Victorian English culture versus the Irish Emancipist culture is one first brought to our attention in the opening chapter of the novel, in the conversations between Mr Merivale, or indeed the Merivales and Miss Scrimshaw, and the emancipist Delaney. The attitude of both the English towards the Irish and the Irish towards the English are barely tolerable. ?Mr Merivale would have nodded to the coachman to start for home. Instead he smiled, out of politeness, into the sun,? Mr Merivale shows tolerance for the emancipist Delaney in the first chapter, while Delaney seems to deliberately taunt them by describing gruesome events in detail. Even as they approach the neighbourhood of the Irishman, Mrs Merivale complains about the open window ?as though a particle of dust might have affected her precious throat; for they had begun to approach the Brickfields in the neighbourhood of which the fellow Delaney had chosen to live.? As members of the dominant cultural identity, the Merivales are seen as superior, in opposition to the Irish ? the Irishmen as the minority culture, as well as being a Celtic race, which the English deemed pagan and unworthy were not treated well. There is also the fact that they are Irish emancipists, they are freed criminals, where the Merivales and Miss Scrimshaw are not at all criminals, and have not being convicted of any crime. This clearly shows that the dislike between the two cultures is mutual ? they think exactly the same of each other.

The Aborigines are presented to us as a savage race, uncultured and the opposition of everything that the Victorian English would hold dear. In the first chapter, the emancipist Delaney describes vividly what happened to two shepherds he knew they ?had just been found, their guys laid open (savin? the ladies presence). Stone cold, they were, an? the leg missin? off one of ?em ? a mere lad from Taunton, Somerset.? White goes on further to describe the reactions of Mrs Merivale and Miss Scrimshaw, Mrs Merivale, typical of the Victorian English, ?might have been impaled? while Miss Scrimshaw, who is (as is said earlier in the chapter) more like Mrs Roxburgh than she cares to admit, seems to be fascinated by it. The Merivales immediately leave (showing Delaney may have disgusted the English on purpose) and Mrs Merivale is left ?rasping with disgust? and commenting, ?Loathsome savages!? The term savages remains in use throughout most of the novel. After the crashing of the Bristol Maid, when the survivors are still together, White describes the appearance of the Aborigines, ?and there on a rise in the middle distance appeared one, three, half-a-dozen savages, not entirely naked for each wore a kind of primitive cloth.? Again he calls them savages, and they are further lowered from the English superiority because they wore almost no clothes at all, just ?a kind of primitive cloth.? Only after Ellen is thought to be the sole survivor, separated from the others are they referred to more generally as the natives. They are constantly referred to as blacks and natives, but after she is taken, there is less reference to them as savages anymore, as Ellen lives integrated as a part of their society as is essentially a part of them. The English are clearly seen as superior, as they are cultured and civilised, as compared to the savage, uncultured, uncivilised Aborigines. However with Ellen?s time spent with them, we can clearly see that they have a rich culture, and both their civilisation and culture is different from the colonialists. The way they treat the colonialists could very well be the equivalent of how the colonialists treat them ? not well. Though we are unable to view their thoughts due to the lack of communication, the dislike of the two races is also mutual; they both dislike the other, they think each are uncultured or uncivilised, and as a result are in opposition to each other.

The other opposition that is presented to us is the male versus female opposition, an opposition that has stood from the beginnings of time. In the first chapter we are presented with the idea that the worlds of men and women in Victorian English society are totally separate, especially in the line ?The ladies sighed, and smoothed themselves, and prepared for endless men?s talk.? The ladies discuss the events that caused the Roxburghs to return to England, and Miss Scrimshaw suggests that it was Mrs Roxburgh who made the decision, and Mrs Merivale seems rather surprised ?Why ever now should Mrs Roxburgh?? she says. She has assumed it was Mr Roxburgh that had made the decision to return to England in his failing health.
When Ellen returns to civilisation and Lieutenant Cunningham comes to see her, he has ?a determined effort to assert his rank and sex.? To assert one?s rank seems to be understandable in a military man, but to assert his sex is a clear opposition constructed between the males and females, with the men been seen as the superior to the women. Even in Aboriginal society, men are above women. ?As males they lounged about the camp, conversing, mending weapons, and scratching themselves? while the women did the work. They ate the most of the food and threw the scraps to the women. It is clearly a patriarchal society. Yet though both societies are viewed with men as the superior, it is interesting to note, in the Roxburgh marriage, though Austin may have made some of the decisions, and was deemed superior by class and perhaps intelligence, Ellen was in fact probably physically stronger than Austin himself. She was nowhere near as sickly as he was, and was able to survive, with physical and spiritual strength, with the Aborigines for some time. So though the male/female opposition mainly has men as the superiors, the Roxburgh relationship, perhaps ironically, has Ellen as stronger than Austin in some ways. The lack of understanding between the two sexes, and in fact the absolute separation shows us that the men think the women are not understandable and vice versa, again with the ?endless men?s talk.? The oppositions are created ? and though men are seen as superior, both think the same things of each other.

There are three main oppositions in A Fringe of Leaves, these are that of the dominant cultural identity (Victorian English) versus the other identities (Irish Emancipist), that of the colonialists versus the natives, and that of male versus female. Each of these constructions helps us to view the meaning that what one may think of someone; the other may think exactly the same thing. The English and the Irish both have a mutual loathing of each, and both barely tolerate each other, as seen between the Merivales and Delaney. The colonialists may think the Aborigines are uncultured and uncivilised, while we discover through Ellen, that the Aborigines do in fact have a rich culture, and their civilisation just differs from colonial civilisation. They too treat colonialists as the colonialists treat the Aborigines, the mistrust and disgust is mutual. The men versus women opposition are however a bit different. It portrays men as superior to the women, and Ellen is ironically stronger than Austin. The idea of the complete separation of gender roles only helps contribute to the misunderstanding between men and women. They think they are completely separate entities where they are probably the same. White?s oppositions are constructed of things we can understand. His cultural identity oppositions are very much ethnic opposition while his racial oppositions are, well racial. These oppositions are examined in such a way that we see that both sides think the same things about each other, with the help of the omniscient narrator. It is through these oppositions that we see the superior and inferior of the text, and that we are able to clearly construct meaning.

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