Watch a short video on this text from the Books That Made Us series, available via ABC Education!

NOTE: Cloudstreet is a novel with complex themes and is sophisticated in its construction and connection to other works of literature. It contains some situations that would not be appropriate to explore with younger students. Studying the novel as part of the senior secondary English curriculum allows for close reading and exploration of important intertextual comparisons relating to style, construction, thematic similarities and contextual connections.

Introductory activities

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton is one of the best known Australian novels. It is considered not only a modern Australian classic, but a favourite of Australian readers. As a class, brainstorm what students already know about this novel (ideas, setting, characters) OR its author and his other projects.

City, region and nation

Cloudstreet is set in a particular time and a very specific place. While it is sometimes seen as a distinct representation of Western Australia (or Perth in particular), the novel’s national relevance and universal nostalgia make it an Australian favourite. While the novel itself helps students to explore this context, researching certain elements can help them make sense of Cloudstreet’s references. Have students complete the following activities:

  • Locate the following places within Western Australia and write a summary of observations about their respective locations, geographic positions or unique situations:
    • Geraldton
    • Margaret River
    • Southern Cross
    • Nedlands
    • West Leederville
    • Fremantle
  • Create a timeline of the years over which the novel takes place (1943–1963). Include any global, regional or local events of significance.
  • Look up the term ‘nostalgia’. Consider why Winton has chosen to write about this specific time and place.

The story of Samson

Have students investigate the biblical figure of Samson. As homework (or in class), they should write at least ONE paragraph summarising the story of Samson, as well as ONE paragraph predicting how this figure may be connected to the novel Cloudstreet.

Personal responses on reading the text

The Shifty Shadow

As you study the novel with the class, make an activity of following ‘the Shifty Shadow’ that is first introduced to the reader on p. 7. Note the way in which fate is part of this narrative and how different characters react to concepts of fate. When they have finished their first reading, have students write a summary of their responses to ‘the Shifty Shadow’ and whether they believe in the power of fate.

Class blog/wiki

Create a shared digital space where students can contribute ideas as they read the novel. The space could be arranged with the following headings to provide prompts for what to comment on or write about:

Family saga City and country World War II and Australia Patriotism, religion and beliefs
Water The house and Cloud Street Haunting

An Australian novel

From the voices it creates to the settings it occupies and the history it tells, Cloudstreet is an unmistakably Australian novel. As a class, consider the idea of ‘Australian identity’. Carefully guide students’ discussion of the following prompts:

  • What are some archetypal representations of the Australian character in literature?
  • Where might these ideas originate?
  • Do you recognise this representation of Australia in any other works of literature or popular texts?
  • Does the traditional Australian identity neglect any groups within Australia?

At the conclusion of the discussion, have students write a short essay in response to the question:

Is the Australia that I read about in literature the Australia I really know?

First impressions

As students finish reading Cloudstreet, have them write a one-page response to the ending. This is designed to be an immediate response to the novel’s resolution and a personal response to Fish’s departure, Oriel’s return, and the continuation of the family. It should be entirely free in form so that students can express their initial ideas, which they can revisit after studying the text more closely. This also serves as an exemplification of reading practice: we read for different purposes at different times.

Outline of key elements of the text


Circular narrative

Cloudstreet takes place over a long period of time, but the same events unfold instantly in the seconds before Fish drowns (p. 424). It is helpful for students to keep this concept in mind when considering the plot of the novel, as it unifies the otherwise unwieldy narrative of this family saga. The opening and closing of the novel are critical to this narrative construction and should be the focus of close class analysis.

Family saga/epic genre

While the timescale of Cloudstreet may not qualify it as ‘epic’ in the conventional sense, Winton’s novel still works within this genre. The following suggestions will help guide your study of Cloudstreet in relation to genre:

  • Consider the essential elements of the epic genre. Discuss the ways that Cloudstreet operates within it, providing textual evidence of where it functions within the expectations of the genre and where it might subvert or even parody the epic.
  • The Australian epic is often constructed as a family saga. Have students investigate other examples of the family saga in Australian literature and television. Three helpful texts you might explore are:
Timeline activity

In some ways, the chronology of the overall plot is less important than the individual and personal stories of the people within Cloudstreet (the house). Have students take the pivotal characters (Oriel, Lester, Quick, Fish, Sam, Dolly and Rose) and create individual timelines for the 20-year period over which the novel unfolds (this might be done by dividing the class into groups: one for each character). These timelines should use the same scale so they can be placed alongside each other AND the historical context timeline created earlier (Introductory Activities). As a class, discuss how the individual stories are intertwined and interconnected. You may also wish to create a timeline of the house as a way of connecting all these characters.


Close analysis

Adding to the timelines created above, each character can be explored further by locating important moments in the text where ideas about them are revealed. These moments can be placed on the timelines with page references or quotations. In addition, students can create a table for each character to analyse these textual examples. Below is an example of how this might be done.

Quote/reference Ideas revealed Construction/devices used and their effect Connection to themes/ideas
Other characters

Aside from the members of the Lamb and Pickles families, other characters have significant (if smaller) roles in the novel:

  • As a class, consider the function of the house and the river as characters in the novel. Both are more than symbols; they function in the same way as characters. They live and breathe, affecting the human characters and the plot of the novel.
  • There are also ghostly characters that have an important place in the reader’s experience of the novel, such as the old woman who ran the Aboriginal mission; the young girl who poisoned herself; and the figure of the Aboriginal man that Quick continues to meet. Direct students to consider the impact of these figures and, as a class, discuss the importance of these mystical influences in the novel.

NOTE: Take care not to perpetuate the stereotype of the ‘magical Indigenous character’ in your discussions. You might like to read this National Geographic article for your own reference; it deals with harmful stereotypes about Native American characters, but has broader relevance for discussions of characters from other Indigenous communities.


As themes develop throughout a novel, it is important that students trace this development through organised information collection. There are several significant themes in Cloudstreet, some of which will be highlighted through close reading practices. Some themes that could be explored (but by no means the only ones) are:

  • spirituality
  • life
  • family
  • loss
  • the ‘ordinary’
  • return
  • community
  • fate
  • love
  • identity

Below is a table that students might use to trace the themes they identify.

Draft statements about the theme as you read Describe the moment in the text when you realised this Specific example from the text that supports this What reaction do you have to the idea you feel the text is communicating? Do you accept this idea or challenge it?

Synthesising activity

Have students explain how ONE of the following sections embodies one or more of the main ideas of Cloudstreet:

  • ‘The Shifty Shadow is Lurking’ (pp. 7–22)
  • ‘Combustible Material’ (pp. 137–140)
  • ‘Dwellingplace’ (pp. 313–314)
  • ‘Mothers’ (pp. 353–357)
  • ‘Moon, Sun, Stars’ (pp. 422–424)

You might like to add other sections of the novel to this list.

The writer’s craft

Winton has a distinctive writing style, and Cloudstreet gained much attention and praise at the time of its publication. Both Winton’s reputation and the response to his novel can largely be attributed to the style of his writing, as well as the way he blends traditional constructions of literary form for particular effect.


As described earlier in this resource (Outline of Key Elements of the Text > Plot > Circular Narrative), Cloudstreet has a circular structure: it ends at the point at which it began. Ask students to cite examples of this narrative structure from their own reading and viewing, and consider the effect that this choice often has on the audience.

Have students experiment with this device by writing a small autobiographical passage (no more than a page) that ends where it began. It might be a moment of reflection where the narrator goes back to explain the story so that the location and future actions make sense or have significance; or it might be a moment of revelation that has only been achieved by piecing together information from the past.

Approach to characterisation

As has also been explained (Outline of Key Elements of the Text > Plot > Family Saga/Epic Genre), the personal histories of Cloudstreet’s characters are the entire narrative. It is their stories and the way they connect that create the larger story of two families in post-war Perth. Aside from their chronological journey, it is their individual construction that enables Winton to breathe life into each character. It is not just what they represent that endears them to the reader; it is how they are portrayed.

After choosing their favourite character from the novel, students should locate four scenes in which something is revealed about that character. Looking at how the language brings the character to life, students should note the different ways that similes, metaphors and descriptive language are used to reveal things about the character OR ideas within the text.

A good example is the description of Dolly Pickles taking her seat at Quick and Rose’s wedding (p. 319). This description is not the usual metaphor you would expect of the mother of the bride. The nautical connotations portray Dolly’s actions as calculated and strategic, but also as listing and rolling in her perpetual intoxication. This single sentence reveals much about this character at this critical moment where all her individual stories converge. It is not a neutral description, but one that makes us wary of Dolly and what she may do on this occasion.

Below is a list of useful sections to analyse for each of the major characters in Cloudstreet. The scenes have been chosen as moments of illumination about the character, and because of their significance in developing the main themes of the novel. After considering each scene (or similar scenes of their own choosing), ask students to write a paragraph that synthesises the way character construction assists a reader’s understanding of a novel’s ideas.

Quick Lamb ‘Quick Lamb’s Sadness Radar’ (pp. 89–92)
Fish Lamb ‘This Side’ (p. 219)
Oriel Lamb ‘The Light in the Tent’ (p. 370)
Lester Lamb ‘Silhouettes’ (pp. 299–307)
Rose Pickles ‘Toby Raven’ (pp. 285–299)
Dolly Pickles ‘Mothers’ (pp. 353–357)
Sam Pickles ‘The Shifty Shadow’ (pp. 332–334)

Use of parallels and contrasts

Consider the function of placing the Lamb and Pickles families side by side throughout Cloudstreet. Here are some helpful questions to guide the discussion:

  • What does this do to the narrative as it unfolds?
  • What moments in the text give us clues about the significance of this contrast as a device?
  • Why is the empty room with the piano known as ‘no man’s land’ and why must it be there?
  • Why is there a Samson or Sam in each family?
  • What is the function of bringing the families together?
  • What is the importance of Harry?

Narrative point of view

While we know that this story is told in the moments before Fish dies, the use of narrative point of view is varied in this text. The narration is ambiguous and omniscient, but from time to time it rests with Fish. Guide the class through a discussion of the significance of this fluid point of view and consider the passages on pp. 47, 119 and 178 (close reading of these passages will help students to develop critical analysis skills).

Language and style

One of the distinctive elements of Winton’s work is his choice of language. His stories are often described as ‘yarns’ and the use of Australian colloquialism immediately locates his work in a particular time and place.

Read the opening of Chapter II aloud to the class (pp. 25–26). Ask students to annotate the obvious use of Australian vernacular in this passage, which is less than half a page in length. Students should consider the effect of each term, the imagery that is created, and how the reader is positioned to respond to such language. Locate other passages to analyse in this same way.


There are relatively few settings in the novel. This helps us to understand the significance of particular places to the characters and the ideas of love, identity and belonging. Allocate groups of students to consider the construction, significance and effect of the following settings:

  • Cloudstreet
    • No man’s land
    • Kitchen
    • Tent
    • Yard
  • Matilda Bay
  • The river
  • Margaret River
  • Geraldton
  • Southern Cross and Wheatbelt
  • Rose and Quick’s Mosman Park house
  • Rose and Quick’s unbuilt house

Symbolism and motif

Complete the following table connecting important symbols or motifs with the characters and ideas of the novel.

Symbol or motif Explanation of meaning Connected characters Important references Connections to themes/ideas
The rails (train tracks)
The piano
The new window

Synthesising activity

As a timed classroom activity, direct students to read Chapter II (pp. 25–32). After annotating the use of narrative devices in this section, they should respond to the following prompt with close reference to the text:

Explain how the use of narrative devices positions the reader to understand ideas about family in Chapter II.

Ways of reading the text

It is possible to apply various perspectives or lenses to our reading of Cloudstreet, and each one will provide new insights into our understanding of the text. Below are some different ways of approaching the novel for the purpose of demonstrating reading practices:

  • Generic reading
  • Social reading (e.g. gender, class)
  • National reading
  • Contextual reading

Generic reading

We often read texts in line with our established expectations of genre. The result is that we may feel disappointed when a novel fails to adhere to the prescriptive elements of the genre. Sometimes, however, we applaud the writer for being so clever as to transgress the confines of the genre, or we might feel that they are making a statement through their use of the genre.

In Cloudstreet’s case, we can consider a number of genres in constructing a generic reading. With the class, investigate the prescribed elements of the epic, crime and gothic genres. The purpose of this investigation is NOT to label the novel as fitting within a particular genre, but to look at the way a genre might be evoked, the effect this might have on the audience, and the comments that might arise from this use of genre.

For example, Cloudstreet does not adhere to the generic features of epic poetry, but it is often described as a national epic. Discuss the elements of the novel that lead commentators to make these claims, such as the characters’ journeys and the heroism they display. What might be occurring here is that the heroism is an understated, ‘ordinary world’ form of survival and compassion. Rather than the traditional grandeur of the epic, there is the grandeur of Australia’s geographic context and a transgression of time and space, so that Cloudstreet has an epic quality rather than subscribing to an epic formula. It might be that we consider this an Australian epic: a story that represents the grandeur that this nation values.

Gender reading

A gender reading considers the way in which characters conform to OR subvert the traditional gender stereotypes of the society depicted.

  • Oriel Lamb makes an interesting case study. Consider the way she is denied her maternal role in relation to Fish. She controls the family and supports it with her hard-working ethic, but lives separate from the household. Although she helps deliver Quick and Rose’s baby, Wax Harry, she is described doing so in a rather unfeminine way, with her backside exposed (p. 383).
  • Dolly and Rose Pickles offer an interesting comparison of feminine constructions.
  • Lester Lamb and Sam Pickles also provide differing views of masculinity.
  • Quick Lamb’s character is also worth exploring.

It is important to remember that a gender reading should go beyond mere observation of a character’s gender construction to assess the ideas promoted by the text about gender. This provides an opportunity to explore resistant reading with students.

Class reading

Winton’s construction of social class is an interesting area to explore. The views promoted by the text are quite clear: characters who are aspirational, wanting more than love, community and grace, are unsuccessful in their pursuits or find their futures controlled by ‘the Shifty Shadow’. Consider exploring the follow characters in relation to class:

  • Rose Pickles
  • Toby Raven
  • Joel Pickles (Sam’s brother)

You could also look at the section entitled ‘How Small Our Dreams Are’ (pp. 326–328).

National reading

Applying a reading lens to the concept of ‘Australia’ in Cloudstreet enables students to consider the importance of national identity to the ideas promoted by this text. By exploring Australia’s national identity and literary traditions, students will see that this novel operates within the space of ‘Australia’ and may even be considered a national monument, constructed in memory of the nation. To explore this reading, students should consider the way that patriotism functions alongside spirituality; the representation of Australia’s past; and the construction of the Aboriginal characters.

NOTE: Some critics argue that the presence of Aboriginal people in Cloudstreet is peripheral at best. Modern adaptations – which include a play and an opera – often expand these characters’ roles. Refer to Michael Halliwell’s opera review for a brief summary of criticism levelled at the novel (see para. 1 and 5), and Malthouse Theatre’s education resource for an alternative perspective on the presence of Aboriginal people in the story (see pp. 37–38, labelled pp. 34–35).

Contextual reading

It is important that students understand the three contextual influences on reading: the context represented, the context of production, and their own context as a reader. Interesting readings can be produced by considering Winton’s post-bicentennial writing position; the importance of nostalgia for modern Australian readers; and readers whose own experience of Australia is far from the ‘traditional’ stereotypes.

Comparison with other texts

Magical realism

Have students investigate the movement known as magical realism, noting important figures and stylistic features. Winton, like other contemporary Australian writers, has been influenced by this literary tradition.

Once there is a common understanding of what magical realism is, have students consider the prologue to the novel (pp. 1–3). This is the critical moment when Fish moves beyond the point of living, and it is from this point that he tells the story (see the last paragraph of p. 2). Investigate other examples of magical realism in the novel, such as the pig that talks to Fish; Quick’s fishing experience on the Margaret River; or Quick and Fish rowing from Fremantle to Crawley. Also consider:

  • Australian writers who operate in this tradition might provide interesting passages or entire texts for comparison. Two possible texts to compare with Cloudstreet are David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon and Peter Carey’s Illywhacker. Other points of comparison between these works are national allegory and ideas of nation.
  • Works by Jorge Luis Borges, Toni Morrison, Julio Cortázar and Salman Rushdie are all helpful to compare with Cloudstreet.

Film and stage

Access to either the film or stage adaptation of Cloudstreet would provide an interesting textual comparison. Both offer many similarities to the novel, though there are critical points of departure. For example, students might write an extended response to any of the following topics:

  • Explain your response to the alterations to the novel’s narrative.
  • Consider the difference between the visual representation of people and places and Winton’s prose description. Discuss your findings.
  • Discuss whether you think the magical realist elements of the novel transfer to stage and/or screen.
  • Write a letter to the producers of the film and/or play describing your views on the production.

Evaluation of the text

Have students form groups of six to debate the topic: ‘Cloudstreet is representative of Australian culture’. Three students will argue the affirmative and three students the negative, in accordance with formal debating rules.

Identifying and justifying stylistic techniques for narrative or dramatic purposes

Read the section entitled ‘Red’s Method’ (pp. 126–128) as a class. Consider the stylistic choices made in the construction of this passage and the impact these have on the reader. Then have students write a short passage retelling an event in a style influenced by Winton’s prose. With consideration of narrative devices explored in the Close Study section of this resource, students should write with an iconic and immediately locatable vernacular (which need not be Australian), a considered narrative position, and the ability to move the situation beyond the real.

Rich assessment task 1

A helpful comparison to the passage where Fish and the water become one is the iconic short story by Julio Cortázar, ‘Axolotl’. This story will assist students in understanding the stylistic features of magical realism, and the comparisons to Winton’s work are quite easy to locate. This comparative task could be used as a classroom assessment in which students are given both passages and asked to respond to a discussion prompt such as: ‘Discuss the way both texts develop our understanding by going beyond the real’.

Synthesising core ideas

Have students return to their first impressions of the text (Initial Response > Personal Responses on Reading the Text > First Impressions). Comparing their current understanding of Cloudstreet to their initial response, they should write at least ONE paragraph addressing any differences in understanding between then and now.

Panel discussion

Give the class the following instructions:

  • Watch this segment from the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club. Note how each panel member responds to the text and provides justification for certain views, opinions and readings.
  • Work in groups of five to create your own panel discussion based on Cloudstreet. You will need some general questions to guide the conversation. Nominate one member of your group to chair the panel (i.e. Jennifer Byrne’s role) and limit your discussion to 15 minutes.
  • Remember that your views need to be carefully expressed and substantiated – you don’t want to be an uninformed panel member.
  • Challenge yourself to consider your own reading context in your response (some of the Book Club panel members do this), and try to frame your comments with consideration for that context.

Rich assessment task 2

Since its publication in 1991, Cloudstreet has won multiple literary awards, attracted praise on the page, stage and screen, and found an important place in the hearts of Australian readers. This is clearly shown in the number of polls and listicles that continue to rank Cloudstreet as a must-read Australian novel.

Have students write a feature article in which they explain the reasons for Cloudstreet’s popularity. They may agree or disagree as to whether its place in the nation’s heart is deserved, but ultimately must provide a reasoned explanation for its appeal.

The article might consider:

  • The appeal of the epic or saga form
  • The role of spirituality and patriotism in Australia’s national identity
  • The appearance of a uniquely Australian voice
  • The lyrical construction of the Australian landscape
  • The nostalgia for Australia’s past
  • The magical realist elements that create an Australian mysticism
  • Comparisons to other texts

The article should be between 1,000–1,500 words and provide close reference to the text as justification for students’ comments.

Consider that the article will be published in an outlet such as The Weekend Australian, and adhere to the conventions of grammar and expression expected of this form.