The Drover'S Wife

Elements of Art in The Drover’s Wife #


Henry Lawson’s short stories were the first to describe the Australian landscape realistically and depict characters as distinctly Australian with Australian voices and cadences.  Lawson also uses techniques such as humour and imagery to convey his message to us the responders, he is known for his gifted writings and truthfulness.

First published in 1894, then in England in 1902, The English Critic, Edward Garnett summarised it as: “The Drover’s Wife is a sketch of a woman in the bush, left for months alone with her four children while her husband is up-country droving. If this artless sketch …ïs given its significance in ten short pages, even Tolstoy could not have done better.

The Drover’s Wife runs a simple plot, yet elaborates with many elements of ‘loneliness and solitude’ while enduring ‘pain and suffering’ obstacles that the persona undergoes. For instance, the uninvited serpent endangering her family, reminds of a past – death of her child “nineteen miles for assistance, carrying the dead child”, feels self isolation “thunderstorm comes, and the wind… threatens to blow out her candle.”

The anonymous nature of the character told by an ‘omniscient narrator’ in third person, “bush all around bush with no horizon, for the country is flat” gives us an evocative view of only the drover’s wife. She is not given a name because the composer wanted his story to encompass all ‘bush women.’ Anecdotes, of such tales as “she fought a bush-fire once while her husband was away’ gives the persona qualities to her character and allowing her to ‘tell a story within a story’ creating empathy in the audience.   The pathetic life resonates, reverberates and resounds.

1.   The plain realistic tale of an anonymous bush mother instinctively protecting her children from danger -  a snake. The Drover’s wife embodies the spirit that is deeply universal and eternal in humans.

Archetypically, this is the flip side of the Garden of Eden; instead of the tree of knowledge with its forbidden fruit, we have stunted apple trees with a snake.  Instead of Eve tempting Adam the woman is the mainstay of the property. Despite the tragic realism of her predicament, the anonymous wife soldiers on stoically.   The reference to a snake takes us back to the Garden of Eden:  (Alligator-The dog)  shakes the snake as though he felt the original curse in common with mankind.                

2.    True to life  “*The bush consists of stunted rotten native apple trees. Nothing to relieve the eye….”
*3.    Direct laconic homespun style – little embellishment.

4.    Almost artless – no discernable craft merely bush yarns- more of a sketch or vignette than a filled in portrait.  An anecdote.

5.    Surface simplicity is deceptive - Begins with a simple character of a bush woman but when he has exposed her past through her thoughts and memory flashbacks we feel as if we know her intimately.  The ending echoes, resonates and reverberates with poignancy.

6.    Isolation and loneliness represented by her remoteness;

*                  “nineteen miles to the nearest sign of civilisation – a shanty on the main road.”
*Monotony of bush and lifestyle – all days much the same so she dresses up on Sundays and promenades in the bush to avoid staleness and counter sensory deprivation.

7.    Representatively Australian with a distinctive unique ring, yet somehow universal:

  • Setting in the bush – the outback

  • Clash of culture – Sundays she still gets dressed up (pathetic gesture, yet gallant)

  • Wry humour – wood heap – she cries into a holey handkerchief

  • Democratic, egalitarian spirit – plain working woman without any pretentions.

  • Vigour – indomitable, indefatigable fighting spirit – she attacks the snake, drought, a cunning blackfellow, still birth, illnesses, stray bullocks, crows, floods, bush fires and sundowners.

  • Fatalistic and stoic – not religiously resigned. Not sentimental or maudlin.

Technique in The Drover’s Wife:

Complete break from the romantic glamorised depiction of landscape and environment

Economy of expression - Direct laconic homespun style – little embellishment.

Little authorial voice

Master of the understatement – nothing is exaggerated.

Simple Plot with the emphasis on character portrayal.

No heroes or villains

Connected to experience – the story is written in the present tense giving the story an immediacy yet uses flashbacks in the past tense to fill us in on her past.

Short sentences – few complex or compound ones.

Language is generally Australian  vernacular colloquialisms with some mild vulgate.  Any outright vulgarisms are generally blanks.

“Mother, I won’t never go drovin’; blast me if I do”

“Tommy, come here, or you’ll be bit. Come here at once when I tell you, you little wretch!”

Tommy turns in, under protest, but says he’ll lie awake all night and smash that blinded snake.

His mother asks him how many times she has told not to swear.

And Jacky protests drowsily.

“But they (possums) don’t hurt us, the little blanks!”

 Mother: “There, I told you you’d teach Jacky to swear.” But the remark makes her smile. Jacky goes to sleep.

Tone is heavy and doleful but never defeatist, sentimental or fatalistic.

Evaluation of Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife: #

Leah Purcell maintains Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife is preoccupied with white pioneering travails to which Aboriginal people are incidental, with their inner lives left unchanneled – relegated to literary staffage, if you like, in the revered canon of the early bush/settler yarn.

When Presently Tommy asks: “Mother! Do you think they’ll ever extricate the (adjective) kangaroo?”  he is conforming to Western Civilisation’s need to control and dominate nature.