Introductory activities


Five Bells is a novel with a distinctive literary style that will challenge students to think about and explore many important ideas. By detailing the experiences of four different characters and an event of a lost child, Jones reveals a range of attitudes to trauma, grief, loss and relationships, all linked by the characters’ observations of the Sydney Opera House.

1. Places and stories

  • Project an image of Sydney Harbour or a famous monument from another country. Ask students to describe the projected setting as if they were a tourist seeing it for the first time. What kind of story might unfold in this setting? Students share ideas and discuss differences and similarities in their responses.
  • Project an image of the Sydney Opera House. We often hear about the ‘sails’ of the Opera House. Ask students what features of the shape evoke this comparison. What other objects does the image evoke? Students can work in groups to create their own metaphorical descriptions of the Opera House and share these.

2. Narrative structure and style

Five Bells relates the experiences of four different characters in a single day. What restrictions or opportunities might this time frame impose on the narrative? It may be helpful to make connections with other texts that also employ a limited time frame, particularly if students have prior knowledge of similar texts. Examples of other works that take place in a single day include:

Examples of films with a 24 hour narrative arc include:

3. Epigraphs

Jones has chosen two epigraphs that alert the reader to the main concerns of her novel.

The first is from the novel Light in August by William Faulkner:

Memory believes before knowing remembers

Often considered one of Faulkner’s most successful and accessible novels, Light in August follows three characters, Lena Grove, Reverend Gail Hightower and Joe Christmas, over a nine-day period. The nonlinear narrative is interrupted by lengthy flashbacks and switches between characters. The passage of time, memory, and alienation are among the key concerns of this text. Students might like to find and read a summary of the novel.

The second is from the poem ‘Five Bells’ by Kenneth Slessor:

Where have you gone? The tide is over you,

The turn of midnight water’s over you,

As Time is over you, and mystery,

And memory, the flood that does not flow.

(Note: Reading Australia teaching resource for this poem.)

  • Students should discuss these epigraphs and what they suggest to them about the novel. They should also consider how the two epigraphs speak to each other.
  • Jones writes: ‘I think of myself as a modernist writer, so I am using the resources of several genres’. Students should look up modernist writing and how modernists use different genres.


Personal response on reading the text:

What kind of reader are you?

Students listen to the four-minute podcast review by John Bauer on Five Bells on ABC Radio National and answer these questions:

  • The reviewer says that this ‘book will divide readers’. What are the types of readers he discusses?
  • What type of reader are you?
  • What type of reader do you think the reviewer might be? Explain your reasons.


Synthesising task/activity

Reading journal

Students should keep a reading journal where they comment on interesting or difficult moments they encounter in the text. These should include:

  • questions and comments while reading the text;
  • personal connections with own experience;
  • identification with characters and situations;
  • reflection on completion of the text.


The writer’s craft

Narrative isn’t everything in a novel though, and a novel read only for narrative will tend to have you skimming ahead for what happens. Tone, character, prose, place, as well as engaging exposition should hold you too. And it’s these elements that Gail Jones seems more interested in.

– John Bauer

What I love about poetry is its quality of intensification and condensation, and the fact that it gives a privilege to metaphor. When I write prose, I am not thinking so much about the forward movement of the story, about the unfolding of the plot. I am thinking more about the texture of language because it is a more complicated kind of aesthetic compulsion.

…I suppose I’m aiming for a kind of prose poetics. 

– Gail Jones

Both of these quotations – one about Jones the other by Jones – acknowledge how important language is in this novel. As students read they should be invited to look for the ‘prose poetics’ and create their own definition of this in action. They can collect metaphors that they like and share these with the class.


Novels are important vehicles for ideas but they do this within a range of structures which develop the narrative.

These narratives usually follow specific patterns such as:

Exposition → complication → rising tension → climax → denouement → resolution

The pattern can be changed for effect. It can start at the climax or in media res (in the middle); it can be linear (chronological order – following events as they occur); it can comprise a series of flashbacks (analepsis), or it can have a sense of circularity beginning and ending in the same place or moment. And of course there are other possible structures as well. Whatever the structure, the reader’s satisfaction comes from seeing a story unfold and perceiving an ending.

One of the features of the novel that John Bauer comments on (above) is the ‘engaging exposition’. The book starts with: “Circular Quay: she even loved the sound of it.” The first character, Ellie, reveals an excitement and openness to new experiences. James De Mello is introduced as “obstinately unjoyful”, Pei Xing “loved the elevated train” and Catherine “dropped her ticket.” The first sentences about each character immediately establish the type of person each is. Their reactions engage us and invite us to read on in this intricately arranged pattern of different lives. Jones is conscious of the importance of the structure of her novel:

I am very attentive to structure and design and I think this interest comes from the visual arts, from the look of things, and how different shapes juxtapose to make an overall shape. … The artifice of the novel captivates me a great deal, and there is no reason why one can’t represent in some empathic and authentic way the feelings of people and their everyday experiences, and also place them in a pattern.

– Gail Jones in conversation with Maria Del Pila Royo Grasa 

Each character’s life is presented, as Jones says, in a pattern.

  • Students can trace the structure of the text to see if a pattern emerges in the way characters are revealed.
  • They can try to map the story against the usual pattern of exposition → complication → climax → denouement → resolution.

The revelation of each character’s perspective follows a repetitive structure with each character observing the scene, thinking about the past, considering a literary or artistic connection, connecting with another character, but not necessarily in that order. By mapping out the structure, students can understand the way the text weaves in and out of ideas.

Divide the class into groups and assign a chapter to each group. Each group needs to map out the movement of the text from one character to another, registering different times (past, present, future) and places, as well as references that link the characters. They should report back and combine their observations to understand how Jones has moved in and out of different lives to bring them together at this place: Circular Quay.

What is she saying about life, memory, place, by her organisation of the structure? You can use the model in the attached file: Five Bells – Structure (PDF, 141KB) dealing with Chapter One to show students a way of mapping the story. Jones’ opening lines suggest a circular structure returning to the beginning at the end (Circular Quay:… she knew from the lilted words it would be a circle like no other, key to a new world.) Students should look closely at the attached worksheet: Five Bells – The Ending (PDF, 175KB).

Narrative according to the Bauer quote above, is about ‘what happens’; this novel is not driven by narrative but by free, indirect discourse that makes us see into the lives of the characters who in turn exemplify important ideas. The structure of Five Bells is therefore important, revealing the past in a controlled way that allows the reader to understand the changing point of view. Unlike a film we cannot see the new face thinking, but the book moves cinematically between characters, editing different times, places and faces. We are always aware of each new character because Jones makes sure the name appears. This is part of her skill as a writer.


The setting of the novel is not an imagined space – it is a very real place – and yet it creates very different responses in the characters. The place serves to bring them together but it also holds them apart in the way they see it. They come from many different places and have many different imaginings but this all merges on to this well-known tourist destination.

Ask students to find an image of the Quay, the Harbour, the Museum of Contemporary Art or the Opera House which looks like one of the descriptions in the novel. Using one of the descriptions in the novel they should annotate the image and present it to the class. How realistic are the descriptions offered in the novel?

(For a more complex understanding of Setting go to the last tab ‘Informed reaction’ and read the section on psychogeography.)

Approach to characterisation

Student activity

While it is the setting that brings the characters together and triggers a response, it is characterisation that is central to the novel Five Bells.

For this activity students can be divided into groups to answer questions on one character per group. The table can be a compilation  of their notes using the following questions to guide their collection of notes.

Questions to consider:

(add page references or examples)

Ellie         James     Catherine Pei Xing
Where is the character from?
Why is the character at Circular Quay?
What does the character’s reaction to the scene reveal about him/her?
What trigger leads the character into the past?
What trauma does the character remember from the past?
How has the character dealt with past trauma?
What literary or artistic references do we connect with the character?

What does this reveal about that character?

What senses is the character using? Give examples.
What does this character value?
Trace the route of the character through the city.

Values are closely connected to the themes of a book. If we know what the characters value we can draw some conclusions about the themes.

  • What do we start to see as the themes of the novel when we look at the characters?

Point of view

Because we have different characters’ stories, point of view is an important element of this novel. There is an omniscient narrator allowing us to see the scene and move smoothly from one character to another but the changing point of view invites us to share the introspection of each character. The description of the scene in so many different ways emerges because Gail empowers her characters to speak to us through their thoughts. We see their worlds through their senses and we know their past stories through the flickers of memory.
  • Students can find an example of point of view for each of the characters.
  • They share these with a partner who looks critically to see if this is a revealing point of view.
  • They place this on a sticky note and compile a board of characters’ remarks.
  • Students should look closely at what everyone has selected as a quotation and determine: how does the language indicate point of view? They might look at verbs, pronouns, senses and then discuss the way writers present point of view.

Language and style 

1. Sydney Opera House descriptions

By looking closely at the descriptions of the Sydney Opera House we can see some of the elements of style in Jones’ book.

(Extracts from: Gail Jones, Five Bells, Picador, 2012)

The attached worksheet, Five Bells – Style (PDF, 162KB), invites students to consider some of the word choices that add to the style of the novel.

2. Auditory senses

In her article “The synchronous City: Aural Geographies in Gail Jones’ Five Bells”, Ella Mudie quotes Jones, who says it is an ‘acoustical novel’. She sees the role of sound as multi-faceted in the book, as a ‘powerful trigger for memory’, ‘unlocking spatio-temporal complexities’ and trauma.

In order to test her ideas, students should first find references to sounds. Then they should consider whether sound is being used to develop the characterisation, mood or themes of the novel.

3. Allusions

Just as Jones has been influenced by Slessor’s poem “Five Bells”, Jones’ characters are influenced by different writers and artists. Students can trace the writers and artists who are mentioned and consider how these allusions are being used.

  • How do they develop the ideas of the text?
  • How do they connect characters?


Memory / Death / Grief / Trauma / Time

Themes are the repeated ideas that we find in a text. They form the fabric of the text and unify the action. In this novel the themes centre on each of the characters, who have had different and yet similar experiences. They understand death, grief and trauma through their memories which cross time.

We can gain insight into the themes of Jones’ novels by considering the poem by the same title. Slessor’s poem “Five Bells” set on Sydney Harbour is an elegy to Joe Lynch who drowned in Sydney Harbour. It is about death, about grief, about memory and time. By tracing each character, students can find in the pattern of their lives that they are connected by all these ideas. Each character illustrates an aspect of the themes being explored. Each character carries the weight of the past, with different sensations unpacking the memories.

For James it is “the leathery hands of the old woman sitting beside him that makes him feel ‘the tug of time'”. He thinks, “So much of the past returns…lodged in the bodies of others.”

The image of the Luna Park mouth with its teeth triggers yet another memory of an Easter Show long ago and he perceived that, “Death was like that … the limp panic of imagining oneself as raw meat.” He moves further into memory of smell, “the reek of stale tobacco …” He becomes “pissed off by this ridiculous memory siege.” Sight, sound and smell become the triggers for memories that break down time.

Jones comments on the importance of memory as a theme in her novel.

…memory exists as another time, one we transfer into the present and that mediates our present. I’m fascinated by memory and by forgetting, and I do want to try suggest a separate time of being, as though we carry a past within us that interrupts and intercepts ourselves in the present tense. That omnipresence of the past recollected through memory is very compelling.

We can understand ideas about memory by reading the characters’ thoughts. Students should read the quotes below and answer:

  • Who is saying each of these quotes?
  • What do we learn about the character/s from these quotes?

Memory was not in the prefrontal cortex, or the hippocampus, or the cerebellum, or the amygdala – how he loved this vocabulary saved from his days as a medical student – but in the space into which an infant might be lifted and turned. (p. 33)

There was no face, or clear memory, just this swoop upwards into the sky. (p. 32)

There was a dorm of memory, yes, that resided in the cells of the body. (p. 179)  

Students can trace the different perspectives each character has to the themes listed below. Cite page references and copy relevant quotes.

James Ellie Pei Xing Catherine
What memories does the character have?
What does the character know and think about death?
How does the character grieve?
What trauma has the character experienced and how has he/she managed this trauma?
What is the place of forgiveness in the character’s life?

Another way of leading students into exploring themes is to ask them to collect quotations about the themes. About time? Death? Forgiveness? Grief?

Once they have collected the quotations they need to then consider what pattern they see emerging in the way the idea is being represented. Are the characters saying the same thing? If they are not, then which character’s perspective is being privileged?

Rich assessment task (Productive mode)

From poem to prose

There are four parts to this task:

  • locating a poem and images;
  • writing prose descriptions;
  • writing a reflection; and
  • presenting the end result to the class for discussion and constructive feedback.

Students should complete the worksheet on style in Five Bells (PDF, 161KB) as preparation.

Students will locate a poem about a place which they will use as the stimulus for writing descriptions from three different characters who are somehow linked by that location. The descriptions need to reflect the different characters’ personalities. They have to then write a reflection on what aspects of the poem they were trying to develop in their descriptions. They present this digitally with the poem: the different descriptions and images. They can use the reflection to explain their decisions to the class and to open a discussion on the process of poetry to prose.

Students may use poems about Australian places or other places.

Some relevant Australian poems might be:

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Ways of reading the text

Australian or cosmopolitan?

When we talk about Australian literature what do we really mean? Does Australian Literature have to be about Australians, set in Australia or just written by an Australian? Is the term “Australian literature” about defining borders or can it open up to other places?

In his article on Five Bells, Professor Robert Dixon suggests that Jones’ book, despite its limited setting, needs to be considered on a much wider stage as a cosmopolitan novel, refusing to be confined by a narrow view of nationalism.

Jones’s earlier novels often deal with Australians who travel or live abroad and engage with aspects of modern global culture. Five Bells (2011), the first since her move to Sydney in 2008, is set entirely at Circular Quay, yet its characters seem designed to illustrate the cosmopolitan, multi-cultural nature of contemporary Australian society. As Stella Clarke wrote in an early review, Five Bells is ‘both explicitly Australian and insistently cosmopolitan’; ‘Jones’s Sydney is a global hub and her literary allegiance exceeds national boundaries’ (p. 18).

(Dixon, 2012)

As students read the novel, ask them to engage with this notion of the “Australian” and the “cosmopolitan”; they need first to understand these terms. The following questions may help students come to an understanding of the relationship of the national and cosmopolitan.

  • Where are the characters from? What distinctively nationalistic characteristics do they display (if any)? What cosmopolitan characteristics do they display (if any)?
  • Consider the different places in the book: Circular Quay, Bankstown, Lourdes, Nanjing Road, Sydney’s Chinatown, Russia. What is Jones saying about each of those places and the global? The characters move from their local suburbs and merge into the international space of the Harbour where a different story unfolds and yet they bring with them their own identities from their past lives.
  • Circular Quay with its surrounding buildings is an Australian place but it is just as much a global space, occupied daily by hordes of tourists. Why do national monuments such as the Opera House attract international people?
  • Underpinning the story is a consciousness of Australia’s first peoples, the Aborigines: the didgeridoo player in the throng of tourists, the mention of aboriginal attitudes to Australia Day alongside the bombings in Ireland and the terrorist reports on the news, the aboriginal artwork at the Museum of Contemporary Art hanging alongside the European modern art. What might this be saying about the relationship of the Australian and global?
  • When James teaches in the country he notes: “There was a Returned Soldiers club, a Country Women’s hall and an eroded sandstone plinth that served as a war memorial. This was the true Australia he told himself, suncracked and quiet.” (p. 140). What is meant by the “true Australia” according to this quotation? Where does the cosmopolitan and urban world of Circular Quay fit into the true Australia? What does the term ‘true’ really mean?

Gail Jones is a writer who is published in many languages and therefore she has a global reputation but there was some difficulty having the book published in China because of the representation of Pei Xing. Why would there have been a ban on this book in China? What does this demonstrate about national boundaries and cosmopolitanism in the world outside the novel?

The following quotations come from an interview with Jones. What is she saying about the way nationalism and cosmopolitanism are played out in her book? What evidence can you find for these understandings in the novel?

That’s such a strange word, glocalised … Where the local and the global come together is often a place of strenuous feeling and a kind of instability and energy. I tend to think of it in very abstract ways. Writing requires the maintenance of the metaphoric, the ability to activate the kinesis within the metaphor. So I try not to systematise.

There are forms of mobility that are forced or coerced: refugees, asylum seekers, forms of migrancy that may be a liberation, but may also be a necessity. It seems that mobility is one of the urgent issues of our time. I want somehow to bring together the challenge of writing cross-cultural experience, with these issues to do with mobility, recognising that not all travel is pleasurable tourism.

I’m also preoccupied by cross-cultural experience, by the idea of the cosmopolitan, the fact that we are a human community that is now so complicated and so mixed.


Synthesising activity

An open debate

Having explored these ideas of the national and cosmopolitan, students can debate what kind of book this is, using evidence from the text. Students can receive random instruction on which argument they have to follow. The three arguments are:

  • The novel is a national book about the national consciousness.
  • The novel is a cosmopolitan book about a borderless society.
  • The novel reveals that in the modern world the national and the global are no longer polarised.

Choose three students to deliver their arguments to the class. Other students can question them. Then they can take a vote on which argument was the most convincing.

Australian intertextual connections

Intertextuality refers to relationships that are set up between texts. These can be explicit or implicit references to a previous text. By borrowing or alluding to the other text, the author is setting up a relationship between the present text and the previous one that adds to the meaning, especially for readers who are acquainted with both. Intertextuality  depends on the reader knowing the earlier text and appreciating the extra dimension of meaning that is added, but it can also be an act of exclusion when the reader is not aware of the references.

Jones has made a direct allusion to Slessor’s text in the title of the book, in the setting at Circular Quay, in the themes of death, memory, time and grief. She has also included some direct quotations from the poem in the description of the harbour, such as when the character, Ellie, unconsciously remembers Slessor’s poem as she looks on the water: “Combs of light: where was that from? On the water lay combs of light.” (p. 92). Like the Joe Lynch of the poem James dies a drunken death: “It was not a decision, but an act. James slipped over the edge and the whiskey pulled him down.” (p. 200). Like Joe Lynch he sees “verticals of filmy light.”

As students complete the activities that follow, they should be working towards answering the focus questions:

  • Why has Jones decided to reference the poem so directly?
  • What is the effect of the intertextuality?
  • How has Jones made her version different?

Poem → Mural → Novel

Words → Images → words

The term ‘Five Bells’ is a nautical one referring to the nautical way of measuring time. Time in the poem becomes more than a measurement of the day; it is about memory and grief and death. Death loses its finality as time floats between the past and present through memory.

The novel takes its title from Kenneth Slessor’s elegy for the journalist Joe Lynch, who drowned after falling from a ferry on Sydney Harbour in 1927. Slessor’s poem is rightly regarded as a masterpiece, an extraordinary feat of poetic compression that interleaves grief with a lyrical awareness of the space of the harbour and a meditation on the lingering effects of loss. Composed a decade after Lynch’s death, it illustrates the way memory and grief – ‘the flood that does not flow’ – continue to suffuse the present, eliding time and allowing the dead, or at least their absence, to persist in the lives of the living.

(James Bradley, Griffith Review)

The poem

Five Bells as stated by Jones is a direct reference to Kenneth Slessor’s 1937 poem ‘Five Bells’. Students should listen to the reading of ‘Five Bells’ with the Olsen image. They can just enjoy the rhythm of the language and discuss the mood and pace of the poem. For a second listening they can have a copy of the written text to follow. As they read and listen, students write down one image that they can share with others and explain why it was powerful.

The mural

Students can listen to Betty Churcher introducing John Olsen speaking on the way he interpreted the poem into his famous artwork. (National Film and Sound Archive video: Betty Churcher’s discussion of the mural ‘Five Bells’ by John Olsen at the Sydney Opera House)

‘Five bells’ was my first commission to paint in situ to cover a wall … I didn’t hesitate. I brushed a line around the core theme, the seed-burst, the life-burst, the sea-harbour, the source of life. Inside and around this core, I painted images drawn from metaphors and similes in [Kenneth] Slessor’s poem of our harbour city, and from my own emotional and physical involvement with the harbour, and with my young family in Watson’s Bay … I wanted to show the Harbour as a movement, a sea suck, and the sound of the water as though I am part of the sea … The painting says directly what I wanted to say: ‘I am in the sea-harbour, and the sea-harbour is in me’. 

(John Olsen, 1999)

Ask students:

  • What similes and metaphors can they see from Slessor’s poem in the painting?
  • What emotional involvement can be seen in the painting?

The novel 

The Australian review of Jones’ novel brings together the three texts acknowledging that:

Slessor’s poem has already been instilled into our cultural consciousness by John Olsen’s large mural in the Sydney Opera House. The poem’s incalculable time is given visual expression in Olsen’s stretches of deep, submarine blue, punctuated by floating slashes of line and light, which (in conversation with Betty Churcher) he called “living moments” and “feeling moments”. On the inside, clocks melt.

Students should discuss what “cultural consciousness” means. How can literature and art bring a nation together? Olsen’s interpretation of the poem is that it has “living moments” and “feeling moments”. What does he mean by these terms? Students should consider how these moments are distinguished in each of the texts.

Mapping the connections

“Like the poet in Slessor’s elegy, Jones’s characters carry into the present their memories of the dead and of their own past lives.” (Dixon, 2012)

Students should complete the table below to see how the ideas in Slessor’s poem have been transformed into the later texts.

Poem by Slessor Mural by Olsen Novel  by Jones
How is time represented in each text?
How is the harbour represented in each text?
How is memory represented in each text?
How is death represented in each text

Ask students:

  • Why has this poem become so influential in the Australian psyche?


Students should consider what other media and forms could be used to reinterpret the poem. They can map out a plan for the adaptation of the poem into a different medium and form. Why is this poem so adaptable?

Global intertextual connections

Jones is very much a writer on the world stage. She has received many awards both in Australia and overseas and is interviewed worldwide when she writes a new novel.

(Students can look at the list of her awards and sort out which are international)

While Five Bells in indebted to the Australian poem, Jones writes out of a literary tradition that goes beyond Australian borders. In an interview on Five Bells, for example, she shares the influence of Joyce and Wolf on her writing.

Novels about a single day are another thing Jones is interested in, from Joyce’s Ulysses [1922] through to her favourite, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway [1925]. She has recently been re-reading Woolf’s diaries and was fascinated by the architectural metaphors Woolf uses, about excavating the spaces behind the present. Jones’ novel has similar concerns: the characters’ pasts balloon out as they take their familiar walk around the ferries and souvenir shops. (from Dixon, 2012, p. 7)

Jones’ intertextual references include:

Surrealism and Magritte (pp. 67, 72, 99); Dr Zhivago (pp. 37–39, p. 125, p. 127 pp. 150–155, p. 190); Nabokov: ‘friendly Nabokovian encounter’ (p. 125); Chekhov: something Chekovian about her father (p. 129); James Joyce: The Dead (pp. 55, 83), Finnegan’s Wake (p. 160); medical text (pp. 65-6); Irish poet Kavanagh (pp. 82–3); Wallace Stevens (p. 87); Austen (p. 154); MCA artwork: Cosmos (p. 155); Aboriginal paintings (p. 156).

Students should trace the different references in a table.

Reference Page Quotation Why is this person significant? Effect on novel’s ideas
Dr Zhivago 
…and others

Note: this table is preparation  for the rich assessment task for this section.

Students should read the essay by James Bradley accompanying this resource. What is Bradley saying about the way Jones references texts? What is he saying about why this is being done and the impact it has?


Rich assessment task (Receptive mode):

Gail Jones draws on a wealth of literary and artistic texts to create the aesthetic background to the book.

For this task students should research two of the references to understand their significance.They should include either Magritte or Dr Zhivago as one of their choices.

They then write a response to this statement:

  • Intertextuality is one way of asserting that the space of Five Bells is as much cosmopolitan as Australian.

Students can present this as a podcast lecture of five minutes.

Use of the table of references that they have collated and their reading of the essay by James Bradley that supports this resource will be very useful in completing this task.
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A writer of ideas

Her [Jones’] novels are often ways of thinking, through the fictional form, the theoretical issues that preoccupy her in her essays. 

(Dixon, 2012 p.1)

This final section of the resource will offer some possible theoretical perspectives that can be applied to the novel  and suggest ways that students can build up their knowledge and add complexity to their thinking. Professor Dixon’s article on Jones offers some frameworks with which to interpret the book.

The two theories that will be considered are: Psychogeography and trauma theory

Situationism, urbanism and psychogeography

Psychogeography is made up of two words Psychology and geography, so it can be understood as being the psychology of a place or, in other words, the emotional impact of place. But it goes beyond this simple definition. Students should read the following two quotations closely and highlight any terms they want explained. The second paragraph will unpack the ideas in a way that should clarify what the theory is about:

In his 1958 essay, ‘Theory of the Dérive,’ Debord recommends that instead of moving through the modern city according to its rules, the resistant individual should drift through it, surrendering themself to the often wayward impulses generated by personal memories, chance encounters, momentary architectural attractions, or residual clues to the pre-history of the city embedded in its contemporary built environment. By using their own desires, memories and imagination as a resource, the urban drifter can ‘aestheticise’ the otherwise banal and affectless urban landscape. The inner responses experienced during a dérive were to be the subject of a new science, psychogeography, a study of the ‘affective comportment’ of individuals engaged in urban drift.

(Dixon, 2012, p.4)

Like the Situationists, Jones’s characters are engaged in urban drifting. They take up the invitation to disobey the city’s rules, and to develop alternative strategies: the discovery of chance encounters with others, the memory of some image or line from a painting or poem that triggers associations, the unpredictable effect of ambiguous architectural spaces. They discover ‘aesthetic’ situations and surrender to the tidal undercurrents of history and memory concealed beneath the banal surface of modern capitalism. Each of Jones’s characters … allow[s] their memories and passions or chance encounters to affect their passage through Sydney. In the opening pages, each is drawn across the city toward Circular Quay, though following different routes through the city’s transport system and its architectural spaces.

 (Dixon, 2012, p.6)


Students should practise their own psychogeography. Take them to a nearby park or even around the school. As they drift they should record impressions, and the direction in which they walk. What buildings did they gravitate to? How did they perceive these buildings? what memory did the space trigger? How did they see the people around them? Back in the class they can share sensations.

Ask students to google psychogeographic images; they can see the different ways psychogeographic maps are created.

  • They should focus on a couple of maps and consider critically if each map shows: drifting, memory, chance encounters, architectural attractions, clues to prehistory of city.
  • Then they can return to the book and draw a psychogeographical map of one of the the characters. They can devise their own type of map showing the drift through the city, the sensations, the contacts with buildings , people, memory. How will they show past and present?
  • They can read the section on psychogeography in Dixon’s article.
  • Reflection – students should write a reflection on the impact of this new theory on the way they saw the spaces around them and the way they understood the book

Trauma theory

Trauma theory is centred on how people deal with trauma and the impact of trauma through the ages. In novels it is about characters’ engagement with their own trauma. Students can read the following explanation of trauma theory and how it is conveyed in novels:

We can define trauma studies as the application of clinical definitions of trauma to the explanation of cultural processes in general: that is to say, the conditions of trauma suffered as a pathology by individuals are applied as an explanatory paradigm to the culture as a whole (Luckhurst 4). This has led scholars in literature, cultural studies and the visual arts to study the circulation of trauma through such media as personal memoirs and testimony, novels, cinema, photography and public memorialisation. Clearly, several of Jones’s characters in Five Bells suffer the clinical symptoms of individual trauma. A question that might be asked is whether the culture Jones depicts as a whole can also be said to be a culture of trauma. In other words, does Jones depict traumatised individuals or a culture of trauma?

(Dixon, 2012, p.8)

The trauma novel must have a narrative form that inherently disrupts time and chronological narrative. That is to say, because of its repetitive and disruptive symptoms, trauma requires a literary form that departs from conventional linear sequence. Trauma narratives, then, incorporate the rhythms, processes and uncertainties of traumatic memory within the temporal structure of the work (Luckhurst 88). It is for this reason that the stylistic innovations of modernist novels like Mrs Dalloway are regarded as foundational to the trauma aesthetic and trauma novel, especially free indirect discourse, prolepsis, and the flashback or analepsis.

(Dixon, 2012, p.9)

Students can test Five Bells against the criteria for the form of the trauma novel cited above:

  • Does the narrative form of Five Bells disrupt time and chronological narrative?
  • Is there evidence of traumatic memory?
  • Does it use the stylistic innovations of free indirect discourse? Prolepsis? Flashback (analepsis)?

Free indirect discourse is a third person narration that may slip into and out of the characters’ thoughts and feelings.

Prolepsis is about what will happen while the text is still in the present. The omniscient narrator can’t resist telling us what will happen. It can be created in mixed tenses: (Ellie would discover today… Elie would recall… Ellie will be troubled (Five Bells p. 19). It can also be seen  when the character knows what will happen (Death was swooping towards him: she saw it in an instant (p. 9);  even as a child she had read what is yet to come written in the lines of a face. (p. 10 Five Bells)

Analepsis is flashback which forms the majority of the novel.

Ask students:

  • Why is each of these narrative devices (free indirect discourse, analepsis and prolepsis) relevant to the idea of trauma?
  • What trauma does each character face?
  • The ‘usual horrors’ in the newspaper intrude into the book at different stages (pp. 20, 48). Why does Jones include references to world atrocities?
  • How does each character deal with trauma?
  • What is Jones saying about trauma?
  • Explore the role of forgiveness in trauma. Pei Xing thinks that “there were types of forgiveness that make life go on” (p. 109) and she accepts the apology of Hua her previous gaoler (p. 115) but James feels the forgiveness of the parents of the girl who drowned in his care is “heartbreaking” (p. 144) but he had “wanted to say ‘Forgive me, forgive me'” (p.193). Why is forgiveness so important?


Rich assessment task (Productive and receptive modes):

An analytical response

Students write an extended analytical response to the following:

  • “The power of the message lies in the writing.” Discuss with reference to one of the themes in Five Bells.

Students need to:

  • focus on one theme,
  • collect notes from the text as evidence,
  • organise their notes into three ideas for paragraphs,
  • create a thesis statement that controls all the ideas.

The introduction must:

  • respond directly to the question with a thesis statement,
  • state the book title and author name,
  • suggest the areas for discussion.

Paragraphs should:

  • have a topic sentence (point),
  • elaborate on the topic sentence,
  • give examples which are explained,
  • link clearly to the thesis statement.

The conclusion should:

  • return to the thesis,
  • offer an overview of what has been discussed,
  • not have new ideas.

The model essay for this resource (by James Bradley) is useful for teaching essay writing.

Ask students to:

  • Circle the thesis statement.
  • Highlight all topic sentences.
  • Underline the examples which may be quotations or  paraphrases.

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