Introductory activities

This novel deals with troubling issues in Australia today. Daily publicity given to the online posting of intimate photos of young women, sexting via smart phones, anonymous bullying of women on blog sites, ‘slut shaming’ and so on seem to indicate an unprecedented level of hatred of women in the national community. It is possible that reading and responding to the issues raised in this novel could be difficult for at least some female students and especially those who may have some personal experience of being the butt of misogynistic behaviour. Male readers may also feel discomfited by this novel. They may feel that they are being put in the ‘hot seat’ by discussion around the themes of the novel. Hopefully, any awkwardness produced by class discussion will have been dissipated during the completion of the introductory activities below.

The teacher is to guide the introductory activities with an emphasis on the ways in which patriarchy is limiting and controlling for both females and males.

[Students could start to read the novel, writing chapter summaries (PDF, 111KB) while the class engages in the following introductory activities.]

1. The power of patriarchy

Begin by explaining the meaning of the word ‘patriarchy’ (literally ‘the power of the father’, which can be translated into ‘male control of society’). Then explain that The Natural Way of Things is a contemporary Australian novel that deals with the explicit punishment of women who have transgressed against the rules of patriarchy. Explain also the meaning of the word, ‘misogyny’, a hatred and contempt of women.

Below are examples of Australian men displaying misogyny towards Australian women. Each example is followed by questions to provoke classroom discussion.

However, before students look at the examples below, the teacher should ask them what other examples they can suggest from their experience of the world and from the media. (One bizarre example could be Kyle Sandilands’ bullying interview of a teenage girl who made rape allegations against her family.)

2. The position of women in Australia? The case of Eddie McGuire and Caroline Wilson

Begin by outlining the controversy over comments made by Eddie McGuire (PDF, 179KB), a TV celebrity and Australian Football League (AFL) club president, about being prepared to give money to a charity if someone would drown Caroline Wilson, a senior sports writer for Fairfax Media in Melbourne. He made these comments on a radio station on 13 June, 2016. (Wilson had previously criticised McGuire on various issues involving the AFL).

Then conduct a whole-class discussion based around these questions:

  • What do you think was Eddie McGuire’s motivation for what he said?
  • Was he suggesting that there are certain areas of Australian social/cultural life that should be off-limits to women?
  • If so, what roles do men like Eddie McGuire think that women in Australia should occupy?
  • In Australia are only male commentators allowed to talk about football?
  • Has Caroline Wilson pushed up too hard against the limits of what a woman is allowed to do in her society? Should she be punished for transgressing against the unwritten rules of football?
  • Eddie McGuire later apologised for his comments but said that he was only joking. What does this tell us about social attitudes in Australia? Should we be concerned?
  • Did Caroline Wilson bring it on herself by being a strong, out-spoken woman?
  • Is blaming the victim in this case similar to blaming the victim in rape cases?
  • How important is it to be careful about the use of language?
  • Is mainstream media controlled by powerful ‘white men’?

3. The Hay Institution and other examples  

Ask students to research information about the Hay Institution for Girls. Charlotte Wood has said that she heard about the Hay Institution in a radio documentary on ABC Radio National. This institution has been investigated by the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

  • Ask students to list what features of life for the girls in the Hay Institution are reproduced in the novel.
  • Have students find out information about the treatment of Aboriginal boys at the Don Dale detention centre in the Northern Territory. An ABC Four Corners program in July, 2016, revealed the systematic abuse of young men in this institution.
  • Refer students to the publication in August, 2016, of a cache of documents about the abuse of asylum seekers at the Nauru Detention Centre.
  • Initiate a discussion with students about how marginalised groups of people have been treated in each of these cases.
  • Ask students to research the meaning of the German slogan ‘Arbeit macht frei’ that appeared at the entrance to the concentration camp at Auschwitz in Poland during the Second World War and compare that to the Hardings International slogan, DIGNITY & RESPECT IN A SAFE & SECURE ENVIRONMENT in The Natural Way of Things.
  • Ask students if they think that a comparison between the German concentration camps and the other institutions named above is a valid one.

4. ‘Slut-shaming’ at Wesley College, University of Sydney

Ask students to consider why women in Australian society are still the victims of misogyny (hatred of women) and intimidated by comments made by male media celebrities or anonymous trolls on social media sites or even ‘slut-shamed’ in the year book of Wesley College at the University of Sydney in 2014.

Have students read the synopsis of this case (PDF, 153KB) and then discuss as a class these questions:

  • What is a ‘slut’?
  • Why should sluts be shamed?
  • How was the shaming carried out?
  • Were the boys involved also named and shamed?

‘Slut-shaming’ in The Natural Way of Things

Ask students to track the use of the word ‘slut’ (either stated or implied) through the novel. Ask them to discuss why the ‘girls’ resist naming themselves or being named as ‘sluts’. The following references are particularly relevant:

  • ‘Oh sweetie. You need to know what you are.’ (pp. 18 and 46)
  • ‘…her survival depends on this electric white question. What am I?’ (p. 37)
  • ‘In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are… minister’s-little-travel-tramp and that-Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog…They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut’ (p. 47). Ask students: what is the effect of the use of hyphens in this quote?

Something to think about: 

The answer to the question of why women are still victimised by men may lie in the binary opposition (PDF, 114KB) between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ women in the social history of Australia. See the section below.

However, before moving to the next section, ask students to complete the exercise on representation of character in The Natural Way of Things using the linked file above on binary oppositions.

5. Damned Whores and God’s Police

Damned Whores and God’s Police is a social history of Australia written by Anne Summers. It was first published in 1975 but a conference in 2015 to mark the 40th anniversary of the first edition agreed that there are many continuing examples of issues raised in the book. (The conference archive contains audio of all the talks given at the conference.)

In this book Summers argues that women in Australia from about the 1850s were ‘colonised’ by the patriarchal order into taking on primarily the roles of wife and mother (God’s police) in order to provide order and stability in what had previously been a wild, unruly convict society in which the women had been loose and immoral (damned whores.)

According to Summers this binary opposition still persists.

Ask students to read this short extract (PDF, 108KB) from pp. 12–13 of the introduction to the 2016 edition of Damned Whores and God’s Police and then complete the three-level guide (PDF, 112KB). [See first the note on three-level guides (PDF, 114KB)].

Then, share with students this quote from Julia Gillard, the first female Australian prime minister: ‘As a woman wielding power […] I was never going to be portrayed as a good woman. So I must be the bad woman, a scheming shrew, a heartless harridan or a lying bitch.’

Discuss with students how Julia Gillard fits within the ‘good’ woman/‘bad’ woman paradigm established by Anne Summers.

6. The treatment of Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister

The appalling treatment of Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, by many in positions of power in Australia including influential media figures provided the cultural and historical context for Charlotte Wood’s novel. Journalist, Chloe Hooper, wrote an article about Julia Gillard that appeared in the August 2013 edition of the Monthly magazine just prior to the federal election later in that year. Students may be interested in reading the whole article but even a short extract (PDF, 168KB) from it gives some of the flavour of the sorts of attacks made on Gillard at the time.

7. Women’s ‘selves’ and their bodies

On page five of the novel Yolanda stands in front of a mirror and takes an inventory of her body: ‘Good body (she was just being honest, why would she boast when it had got her into such trouble?)’

Later in the novel she again wonders about the disconnect between her own sense of ‘self’ and her footballer rapists’ sole focus on her body, her flesh.

  • Ask students to find other examples in the novel of responses to Yolanda’s body, even when she was a child. (How is she positioned, for example, by the footballers?)
  • Ask them to debate whether Yolanda may have been partly responsible for what happened to her. (Consider her assessment that she made ‘one terrible mistake.’)
  • Ask students who it is they think determines the way women should look in our culture. Introduce them to the concept of the ‘male gaze’.
  • Have students brainstorm examples of where the male gaze operates to control the way women present their bodies. A good place to start would be with examples from the novel itself.
  • Ask students to discuss/explore whether one’s sense of ‘self’ can exist separately from one’s awareness of one’s body. (This is a bit philosophical but should provoke some interesting class discussion.)
  • Foreshadow for students how Yolanda finally escapes the constraints of the ‘male gaze’ and metamorphoses into an animal. (She loses her human form but gains total self-possession. This also fits in with the identification of the female with nature which is a major theme of the novel.) Ask students if they think that it is possible for women in our culture to gain self-possession without reference to the male gaze.
  • Discuss the purpose of the uniforms, the bonnets, the head shaving and so on once the ‘girls’ have been incarcerated. Is this a way of neutering the provocation of women’s bodies which is a key theme of the novel?

(ACELR054)   (ACELR060)   (ACELR061)

Feminism

An overview:

Feminism is the name given to successive ‘waves’ of activism by women to gain political, social, economic and legal equality with men. Modern feminism began with the Suffragettes in Britain in the early twentieth century but arguably, the fight for women’s rights began much earlier with Mary Wollstonecraft, who lived in the eighteenth century and wrote a treatise called A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792.

Ask students to do some research on feminism. A very useful resource is the Reading Australia unit on The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer, a famous Australian feminist. Another very good resource is the Gender and Education website.

Students will also find it helpful to track the evolution of feminism through the ‘three waves’ referred to below.

‘First-wave’ feminism

The Suffragettes fought for suffrage and gender equality. This involved women fighting for equality with men and the right to participate in civic affairs and professions previously denied to them.

‘Second-wave’ feminism

This phase of the feminist movement began in the early 1960s and ended in the early 1980s. There were several different branches of ‘second wave’ feminism including Germaine Greer’s ‘Liberation Feminism’ (based on Marxist economic theory) and Betty Friedan’s ‘Equality Feminism’. Important issues for feminist activists in this second wave included reproductive rights (access to contraception; availability of abortion), women’s rights within the family and the workplace and divorce and custody rights.

‘Third-wave’ feminism

A major focus of third wave feminism has been to explore the very nature of what is meant by sex and gender. Indeed, until the work of Berkeley theoretician, Judith Butler, no distinction was made between the two terms. Butler and her associates now defined sex as biology (and nature) while gender referred to learned social roles (or nurture.) Butler’s ideological position is that the allocation of gender roles in a patriarchal society is designed to maintain male social and cultural dominance. The situation, though, is not as simple as this might seem. Butler challenges the idea that there is an underlying universal and essential femininity. Her theory is that gender is performative, that there are many different possible performances of gender roles and that these performances constitute in themselves the category ‘gender’ and finally the category ‘sex’. There is no underlying reality; both ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are constructs.

Given the complexities of Butler’s theory nevertheless, until recently the concept of ‘sex’ has been assumed to mean either male or female, based on biological criteria. However, this unproblematic division has been challenged by new categories such as ‘trans-sex’ and ‘intersex’. The concept of ‘gender’ is even more fluid. For example, the social media platform Facebook has, since 2014, listed fifty-six possible gender descriptions from which users can choose to identify themselves.

Again, until now there has been a fundamental tension between ‘sex’ (biology: how ‘God’ intended us to be) and ‘gender’ (sociology: how we have been shaped by social conditioning). However, recent research in neuroscience has again expanded both concepts, and recent research has explored the possible interplay of genetics (biology: nature) and life experience (the social: nurture). Followers of Judith Butler may well feel that science could vindicate her position that the deliberate performances of gender roles can enter a feedback loop with our biological beings.

The above is obviously a very potted overview of an important theoretical and ideological approach in third-wave feminism. Teachers and students can obviously explore further in the linked material. However, enough information has been given for students to make some possible links between, say, Butler’s theory and The Natural Way of Things.

For example:

  • What aspects of female ‘nature’ (biology) are foregrounded in the novel?
  • How are these paralleled in the natural world beyond the compound?
  • What gender roles have the ‘girls’ played/performed in their lives before imprisonment?
  • Have these roles conformed to the demands of patriarchal power?
  • What roles do the ‘girls’ perform in the compound? Is there a greater range  of performances?

Many more questions like these could be explored.

Now, another interesting theoretical issue arises:

Luce Irigaray, an earlier feminist theorist thought that there was in fact an essential femininity (an idea rejected by Butler, as we have seen) but that it could not be represented because language was in fact masculine. This idea was reinforced by a French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, who theorised that the meaning of language was anchored by the signifier of the phallus, an abstracted symbol of the male penis. This posed a great problem for feminist thinkers. How could women express themselves in the symbolic system of the patriarchy? Another feminist theorist, Julia Kristeva, came up with this answer: that before the entry of boys and girls into the symbolic system of language there was an earlier language that they had experienced that she labelled the semiotic. This is, for example, the language of poetry.

For Kristeva the symbolic refers to the elements of grammar, syntax, logic and so on that are usually thought of as constituting language. By contrast, the semiotic refers to non-linguistic aspects of language such as rhythms and sounds that can nevertheless express powerful emotions.

A significant development in the novel is that Yolanda communicates through language less and less until finally she scarcely speaks at all. ‘Her voice was dull in her throat; she had not spoken in days’ (p. 180). Ask students if they think it is possible that Yolanda is simply withdrawing from the phallocentric language of men.
(ACELR053)

 

Personal response on reading the text

1. Thinking about the title

The title of this novel is particularly resonant with a number of possible meanings. Ask students to brainstorm what meanings the title could have. Here are some discussion starters to prompt students’ suggestions:

  • On page 176 the author actually uses the phrase ‘the natural way of things’ to suggest that women are blamed by the culture (through the use of language, in this case the use of the passive voice of the verb and the thematising of women) for their own victim-hood (e.g. ‘a woman was raped’, not ‘a man raped a woman’).
  • There is a repugnance felt even by women themselves for ‘what came out of you’ (p. 122): a placenta, periods.
  • This is balanced immediately by ‘what you were capable of’ (the inherent power of women?).
  • Without modern body products the girls’ bodies start to revert to greater naturalness (p. 114: ‘their pubes grew bristling back’).
  • Yolanda (p. 237: ‘She dreamed of an animal freedom’) and Verla (p. 257: she had been ‘a cuttlefish, a worm, a tree’) are both associated with nature.
  • Nature is seen as beautiful, redemptive.

Challenge students with this idea: is the author suggesting that women are part of nature and men of culture? Feminists would challenge this binary proposition that femininity is essentially biological. They argue that femininity is a cultural construct. Ask students what they think.
(ACELR058)

2. Writing a journal entry after reading the novel

Ask students, once they have finished reading it, to write a response to the novel in the form of a journal entry (PDF, 117KB). They should draw upon the ideas that they generated in their chapter summaries completed during their reading of the novel. The journal entry should be a piece of continuous prose in which students reflect on the social issues addressed in the novel, the likely themes dealt with, the plot and the main characters, the central problem and how this leads to conflict. The journal will also allow students to reflect on the readings that they are making of the novel and to consider whether they are the ideal reader that the author may have had in mind when she was writing the novel. (This concept will obviously have to be explained to students.)

Students should be asked to display their journals electronically to the class to generate class discussion and give feedback to class members.
(ACELR061)

3. Different responses to the novel

  • A focus on the reader. Introduce the concept of the ideal reader and of preferred and alternative readings of the novel. Encourage students to express to the class and defend with reference to the text the readings that they are making of the novel. (Students are bound to make different readings.) Explore the idea of ‘self-reflexivity’ and ask students to reflect on what their readings may tell them about themselves. If several ‘interpretive communities’ emerge during class discussion encourage students to reflect on this also.
  • A focus on the author. Students should do some research on Charlotte Wood, her earlier works and more recent articles and interviews, to gain some understanding of the attitudes, values and beliefs that inspired her to write this novel. (A number of links are included in the More Resources section at the end of this page.)
  • A focus on the novel as literary text. Students should focus on the allegorical nature of the novel, or its fantasy elements, or the author’s use of language to construct the world of the novel.
  • A focus on the political elements of the novel. This novel won the Stella Prize for 2016 and was on the shortlist for the 2016 Miles Franklin award. Apart from its literary merit it has obviously struck a chord in contemporary society. Students should speculate on how Charlotte Wood has added her voice to the current debate about misogyny in Australia.

(ACELR058)   (ACELR064)

 

Outline of key elements of the text

The story

  • Begin by explaining the distinction between ‘story’ and ‘plot’. A story is a series of events as they happen in chronological order. Some of those events may already have happened as a ‘pre-story’ before the plot begins. This is obviously the case with the stories that explain the reasons for the incarceration of the ten girls who have been brought to the outback prison.
  • Discuss these ‘pre-stories’ with the class. Ask students whether the stories resonate with their own experience of the sort of popular culture within which they live.
  • Have the class summarise the unfolding ‘pre-stories’ of the ten ‘girls’  and map them against real world events. (e.g. p. 66, Lydia from the cruise ship who was left for dead in the toilets and the real story of Brisbane mother Dianne Brimble.)
  • Ask students to consider how implicated popular media such as reality TV shows are in demonising the ‘girls’.

The Plot

  • Begin by explaining the concept of a narrative arc: the flow of events in a plot from the orientation, through a middle section involving complication and conflict, to a conclusion that resolves the issues raised in the plot.
  • Ask students whether they agree that The Natural Way of Things has a three-part structure. If so, ask them to mark off the beginnings and endings of these three sections and then consider the narrative function of each section within the broad narrative arc of the story.
  • Since Aristotle*, narratologists have tried to identify the basic plot shapes of stories in Western culture. Aristotle came up with a three-part plot structure: a weakness in the protagonist’s character, self-recognition by the protagonist and a ‘reversal’ in the protagonist’s situation. Ask students whether this plot shape could apply to The Natural Way of Things. (Obviously students will first have to decide which character is the main protagonist in the story.)

* An ancient Greek philosopher.

  • Another recognisable plot shape is the Hero’s Journey. Have students debate whether this plot shape could apply to this novel. Again, they will have to decide which character might be the ‘hero’ of this story and they will have to explain how the template of the hero’s journey could be placed over the events in this story.
  • Discuss with students the fairly ‘open’ nature of the ending of The Natural Way of Things and invite them to speculate about why the author was not able to provide greater closure.
  • The ambiguous nature of the ending allows readers to write their own endings. In an interview at the 2016 Sydney Writers’ Festival, Charlotte Wood quotes two women readers of the novel, one of whom felt a sense of ‘power and triumph’ and the other ‘a sense of utter despair and defeat’ at the end of the novel. Discuss with students how the ending could be read in either of these two ways.
  • In more contemporary times various narratologists* have again attempted to identify basic plot shapes. Students should explore Ronald Tobias’ Master Plot 5: Escape or Christopher Booker’s Voyage and Return and consider these as other possible plot shapes for this novel.

(* theorists who study the nature of stories.)
(ACELR059)

Character

The Natural Way of Things has been described as a parable, a simple allegorical tale that holds up to readers a mirror reflecting some aspect of unacceptable human behaviour in the hope of changing that behaviour. Charlotte Wood has created a small cast of characters and placed them in the microcosm of a prison compound in the Australian bush to make a point about an issue in the outside world.

The characters in an allegory ‘stand for’ abstract ideas and concepts. For example, in his play, The CrucibleArthur Miller uses characters and events in seventeenth century Puritan Massachusetts to represent broad political forces in the USA in the middle of the twentieth century. In The Crucible the prosecutor, Danforth, represents the abstract idea or concept of the power of the State and the protagonist ‘stands for’ the integrity of the individual defending his sense of self at all cost. The author depends upon readers to make the connection between the story and its characters and events and ideas in the world in which the story now circulates.

If The Natural Way of Things is read as a parable about the punishment of women who transgress against the ‘rules’ of patriarchal society today (mainly by speaking out about their sexual liaisons with powerful men), ask students to identify the abstract ideas and concepts represented by these characters.

 

Character 

 

 

Ideas and concepts 

 

Yolanda

 

 

Verla

 

 

Boncer

 

 

Teddy

 

 

Nancy

 

 

The other ‘girls’

 

(ACELR061)

Themes

Ask students to brainstorm the themes that they think emerge from a reading of The Natural Way of Things.

Here are some themes that they might think of:

  • misogyny;
  • the operation of patriarchal power in society;
  • social control;
  • human rights;
  • stereotyping, socialisation and conditioning of women (and thus, men);
  • Feminism;
  • Environmentalism – the oppression of the natural world and the attempts to control women.

(ACELR062)

 

Synthesising task

Representations of gender in the media

Third-wave feminists such as Judith Butler argue that femininity is a cultural construct produced by representations in literature and in popular culture. In this way, they say, women are socialised and conditioned into certain ways of being. Stereotypes of masculinity and femininity are thus created within the male/female binary oppositions that you explored earlier.

Your task: Option 1

Analyse two magazines, one aimed at a male readership and the other at a female readership, and then report to the class about whether representations in these magazines reinforce stereotypical constructs of masculinity and femininity.

Method of work:

  • Find two magazines, one targeted at a male readership and the other for women readers. Men’s Health and Sports Illustrated would be examples of the former and, say, Girlfriend or Cosmopolitan of the latter.
  • Do a quick scan of the tables of contents of the two magazines and note the topics covered.
  • From your scan, list the areas of personal and social life that each magazine covers. Are they similar or markedly different?
  • What are the primary roles of men and women as represented in the magazines? Are there any representations that challenge stereotypical roles? For example, a man shown as a nurturer; a woman in a non-stereotypical role such as a tradie or a business woman?
  • How are women represented in the men’s magazine and men in the women’s magazine?
  • Look at the images of men and women in the photographs. Do a quick analysis noting colours, layout, use of written text to accompany images, vectors that lead the eye to a focal point and so on.
  • What is the main message about being male and female conveyed overall by these two magazines?

Your task: Option 2

Prepare a report on how men and women are represented, and represent themselves, on various social media sites including Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. Investigate and explain the ‘rules’ for men and women for these sites. Are these ‘rules’ gender-specific? Research how someone like Zoë Foster Blake has commodified herself and her cosmetics business via her Instagram account. Analyse the representations of herself and her family that she has used to do this. Explain whether these representations recycle gender stereotypes of traditional femininity.
(ACELR054)   (ACELR063)

The writer’s craft

Narrative structure

The statements in the table below refer to the possible structuring of The Natural Way of Things.

Ask students to show on the table whether they agree or disagree with these statements and defend their answers to classmates. (This can be done in pairs or in small groups.)

Students should then be asked to engage in a whole-class discussion, justifying their stance and giving evidence from the text to support their positions.

 

Statements about the narrative structure of The Natural Way of Things.

 

 

Agree 

 

Disagree 

 

  1. The novel has a three-part narrative structure signalled by the three sections: Summer, Autumn and Winter into which the author has organised the plot.
  2. The structure of the novel does conform to Aristotle’s theory that a plot has three elements: a sin or fault in the protagonist, a moment of self-recognition, and finally, a turn-around – a change in the fortunes of the protagonist.
  3. The novel is structured as an allegory in which the actions of fictional characters within a microcosm (a small world) provide a critical commentary on issues and events in the broader world.
  4. The action of the story is told in time order from beginning to end.
  5. Within the novel’s simple three-part structure there are multiple complications based on the shifting power relationships of all the characters.
  6. The story is structured as a journey towards self-knowledge on the part of at least some of the characters.
  7. The story is structured so that each of the ten women detained in the prison compound is contrasted with an ideal woman-hood in the world beyond the electric fence.
  8. The characters in the prison compound are organised into two simple binary groupings, the girls and the guards.
  9. The story is brought to a satisfactory resolution with the conflicts introduced in the complication phase finally resolved successfully.
  10. The conclusion to the novel could actually serve as a reorientation for a new story focusing on the character Verla after she gets off the yellow bus.

(ACELR054)   (ACELR059)   (ACELR060)

Approach to characterisation

1. Grouping the characters

One of the reviewers of The Natural Way of Things is quoted on the back cover of the novel describing it as a ‘dystopian parable’: a simple fictional tale set in a frightening place that is designed to teach a moral lesson about a real-world issue. A very famous dystopian parable is George Orwell’s novel, Animal Farm, in which he used animal characters located in the ‘small world’ (microcosm) of an English farm to represent different groups of people in Russia from the period of the Russian Revolution in 1917 to Stalin’s later reign of terror. This allowed him to make some powerful observations about what was otherwise a very complex political situation.

Charlotte Wood has done something similar in The Natural Way of Things. She has created a small cast of characters and placed them in the microcosm of a prison compound in the Australian bush to make a point about an issue in the outside world. The Character Groupings chart (PDF, 177KB) shows how the characters in her novel could be organised.

  • Ask students if they agree with this grouping of characters.
  • Challenge students with the separation of the two main characters, who are also transgressive women, from the other girls.
  • Ask students what significance they might attach to the collapse of these groupings as the novel continues into its later stages.

2. The construction of characters

The real-world issue addressed in the novel is obviously the appalling misogyny of many men who operate within powerful social/cultural institutions that endorse their behaviour and allow them to act with impunity towards women. In the novel these social/cultural domains include politics, sports, online gaming, celebrity television, religion, the leisure/tourism industry and so on.

This misogyny is evidenced, for example, by the ongoing epidemic of domestic violence. In a dystopian parable about this issue it is likely that the characters will occupy narrative niches or roles that allow the author to examine the nature of this dystopia and to explore the possibility of a more hopeful future or at the very least to suggest a likely outcome to the events of the story.

However, to engage the interest of readers, to provoke emotional responses from them and ultimately to position them to make a preferred reading of the novel the author must deploy various techniques of characterisation to construct believable characters and to put them into action in the story.

A starting point for understanding the construction of character in this novel is to use the following chart to analyse each of the characters in the story.

Character retrieval chart

Name of Character:
 

Element 

 

 

Example 

 

Possible effect

 

Naming:

 

 

Physical appearance:

 

 

Background information:

 

 

Actions:

 

 

Verbs linked linked to character:

 

 

Speech: What is said:

 

Tagging of speech:

 

 

Reactions of other characters:

 

 

Stereotyping:

 

 

Interiority:

 

 

Growth/change:

 

 

Oppositions:

 

  • As a whole class exercise, work on unpacking the construction of the character, Boncer, using this retrieval chart.
  • Explain to students the meanings of terms used in the chart if they are not already familiar with them, e.g. interiority; stereotype; speech tagging.
  • Compare the class findings with the completed example (PDF, 109KB).
  • Ask students to use the notes from their chart to write a profile of Boncer and then compare their work with the completed model (PDF, 102KB).
  • Then allocate individual students to other characters in the novel from either the ‘guard’ group (Teddy or Nancy) or the ‘transgressive girls’ group and ask them to unpack these characters in the same way, using the retrieval chart.
  • Have students share their findings with the whole class through individual presentation.
  • Then ask students to use their notes to write a profile of their allocated character in the style of the Boncer model (PDF, 102KB).

3. Hegemonic/non-hegemonic masculinity

  • Ask students to research the meaning of the word ‘hegemonic’. Then, ask them to attempt an explanation of the phrase ‘hegemonic masculinity’. Brainstorm the ways in which the character Boncer represents hegemonic masculinity.
  • The character, Teddy, on the other hand, is a somewhat ‘transgressive’ male figure. As a class, research and discuss the meaning of the word ‘transgressive’ as it applies to Teddy.
  • Find and list examples of the ways in which Teddy is represented as non-hegemonically masculine (e.g. he is ‘beautiful’, ‘golden’, ‘desirable’, etc.) and yet is also viciously misogynistic in the way he talks about his girlfriend. (See references on pp. 12, 57, 61, 72, 74, 97, etc.)

4. The main characters and a possible meaning for the story

Students will anticipate that an author will devote more narrative resources to constructing the main characters in the story. Arguably, in this novel the main characters are Yolanda Kovacs and Verla Learmont so students should expect to generate more information about these characters when they complete the chart for them.

  • Organise pairs of students to work on the two main characters. They will find that Yolanda and Verla have been more intricately drawn.
  • Ask students to reflect on the possibility that Yolanda and Verla – at an abstract level – represent complementary qualities of womanhood.

(ACELR053)   (ACELR054)   (ACELR058)   (ACELR061)

Setting

1. Setting as microcosm

The American playwright Arthur Miller set his play, The Crucible, in the small village of Salem, Massachusetts, in the year 1692 – even though it addresses the theme of political persecution in the USA in the 1950s. This allowed him to explore complex issues in a simple setting. Charlotte Wood has also created a microcosm in which to explore a complex issue.

  • Ask students to decide whether Charlotte Wood has succeeded in creating a believable ‘small world’ in which to set her story. What features of this world help to create verisimilitude (truth to life)?
  • Ask students to comment on whether the small cast of characters represents something of the complexity of life beyond the electric fence.

2. The homestead

Initially in the story the girls are restricted to certain parts of the homestead. Later, Yolanda is given permission to enter other parts of the homestead.

  • Have students consider the significance of the restrictions on the girls’ movements around the homestead.
  • Ask them to explain the connotations of the shearers’ sleeping quarters.
  • Ask students to give reasons for Yolanda’s increasing freedom of movement.

3. The countryside

After it is obvious that Hardings is not coming, the girls are allowed to roam in the countryside around the homestead.

  • Ask students to debate whether the author has set up a binary opposition between the homestead (the world of men: Culture) and the bush (feminine: Nature). Do the descriptions of the two settings suggest that the author considers one superior to the other? (By now students will be aware that the ‘girls’ have been removed from the ‘civilized world’/world of men and imprisoned in a ‘wild’ place and that the author has aligned them with ‘the Natural’.)
  • The character, Yolanda, becomes intimately associated with the bush setting. Have students explore the significance of this association on the development of this character.

4. The setting and ‘magic realism’

This novel has been described as a parable or allegory. It also displays some of the characteristics of a literary genre known as ‘magic realism’ which combines realistic settings with some fantastical elements.

  • Have students locate passages in the novel that describe the countryside realistically and others that seem to be part of a fantasy or dream.
  • Conduct a class debate about the contribution of the ‘magic realism’ elements in the setting to how readers might make meaning of the story. (Other examples of ‘magic realism’ can be found in the novels of Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tim Winton (Cloudstreet) and Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping).
  • Ask students to think about Verla’s dreams and hallucinations in relation to the bush and how these contribute to the development of her character. Are there elements of Gothic Horror (PPT, 1MB) in Charlotte Wood’s use of dreams and visions?

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Point of view

The Natural Way of Things is told by an omniscient narrator who narrates from a position of apparent neutrality or objectivity. Such a narrator can be thought of as a persona for the author, a sort of implied author in the text guessed at by readers but obviously not the author herself.

Below are some statements about the use of point of view in The Natural Way of Things. Students are to tick the Yes or No column for each statement and be prepared to defend their choices.

Students could be asked to move to nominated areas in the classroom according to their answers and to be ready to justify their positions on each statement.

 

Statements 

 

 

Yes 

 

No 

The narrator has:

  • Told the story from a completely neutral position.
  • Used the characters Yolanda and Verla as focalising* characters.
  • Used point of view to position readers to sympathise with all of the characters.
  • Created an interior consciousness for two characters rather than one so that their observations about what is happening to them support each other.
  • Used point of view to position readers to share the emotional life of one of the characters.
  • Created an interior life (interiority) for the Yolanda and Verla characters by linking them with verbs that realise the processes of thinking/feeling.
  • Used point of view to create a sense of the characters Yolanda and Verla as ‘real’ people in the world of the novel.
  • Used alternating chapters in the novel to move between the points of view of the characters Yolanda and Verla.
  • Used the present tense of verbs throughout the novel to create a sense of immediacy in the response of the characters Yolanda and Verla to events in the novel.
  • Used point of view to show the growth and development of the characters Yolanda and Verla.

* Characters through whose thoughts and feelings the story is told.

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Voice

The story of the novel is told by an omniscient narrator who has the power to orchestrate the ‘voices’ of the various characters in the text, each of whom has a particular view of the predicament of the imprisoned women. Boncer, for example, is given dialogue that constructs him as a stereotypical misogynist, a woman-hater. His is the ‘voice’ of many men beyond the prison compound. Other ‘voices’ in the text also echo the various differing positions of people in the community. These ‘voices’ bounce off each other as they do in conversation in the real world. In some ways the novel becomes an extended and ongoing dialogue about the position of women in contemporary society.

Readers will probably decide that in the ‘voice’ of the narrator they can also hear the ‘voice’ of the writer of the novel. However, this would be a mistake. The most that readers can hope for is to guess from clues in the novel the ideological position of an ‘implied’ or ‘ideal’ author in the text.
(ACELR053)

Language use in The Natural Way of Things      

As a way of exploring the language and style of the novel students are to complete the following exercise, filling the gaps in the text with answers drawn from the italicised list  given below. (Students can check their language choices against the completed passage (PDF, 127KB).)

Language is used in The Natural Way of Things to construct a mini-world – part realistic part fantastic – within which gender relations in contemporary Australia can be explored. The voice of the omniscient narrator is presented in __________________________, often in quite ___________________________. Less formal language is used for the directly quoted speech of various characters in order to create a sense of them as believable ‘real’ people. For example, the social class background of the two main characters, Yolanda and Verla, is differentiated by Yolanda’s occasional ________________________ (‘durries’), _____________________ (‘Wouldja like ta buy some moss’) and her ___________________ (‘fucking nowhere’; ‘for fuck knew what’) and Verla’s __________________________ (‘Admissions. Do you not even have laptops.’) Other women characters are economically constructed through physical description, directly quoted speech to give a sense of their personalities and through their location within discourses of popular culture (reality television; Jamie Oliver food shows) and consumerism (‘Phaedra’; ‘Martha Jones and Ny Fodd and Nature Science Series II.’)

The main guard Boncer is a monstrous gothic stock character, the patriarchal scourge of the imprisoned women. His position in this role is indicated by his association with ________________________ of the phallus: ‘the hard bulge of his stick’. ________________________ is used to describe him as physically unattractive (‘pale and pock-marked’; ‘greasy black hair’), bad-tempered and vindictive (‘aggrieved sulky face’) and preoccupied with his traditional view of masculinity (he calls Teddy ‘a faggot’). He constantly throws at the women the ____________________ of _________________ (‘dogs’; ‘sluts’; and so on) that men post anonymously on social media sites in the real world to threaten and intimidate women.

_________________________ is used to create a picture of the various buildings of the prison compound and of its physical location. This ____________________________________ is contrasted with the use of _____________________________ language to describe the beauty of the surrounding bush which becomes increasingly a refuge for the girls, especially Yolanda and Verla. References to stars and birds as _________________________________ occur throughout the novel. During Verla’s illnes the language becomes _____________________, hallucinatory with references to an imaginary river (‘a wide rope of bronze silk twirling’), a beautiful dream horse and Verla’s image of herself as a small brown trout in a stream. This sort of language is also used in the magic realism of Yolanda’s metamorphosis into a ‘little furred figure.’

  • formal Standard English
  • straightforward language
  • the symbol
  • use of profanities
  • vivid language
  • misogynistic insult
  • lengthy sentences
  • lyrical, poetic
  • simple detailed descriptive language
  • more educated speech
  • appalling language
  • dream-like
  • use of colloquialisms
  • symbols of freedom
  • non-Standard pronunciation

(ACELR059)   (ACELR060)   (ACELR061)

 

Synthesising task/activity

Task: Creative writing

In a program on ABC Radio National called Top Shelf, Charlotte Wood listed some of the pieces of art that had inspired and influenced the writing of The Natural Way of Things. They were:

She has also been influenced by Louise Bourgeois’ sculptures, Cells and by Spiders.

Your task:

Begin by experiencing these various inspirations, then choose one and use it as the starting point for a short piece of creative writing, preferably a story. Your writing does not need to be a direct reference to the stimulus chosen but rather a response to some idea or feeling inspired by the music, the image, the dance and so on. Brainstorm ideas and share them with classmates, do some quick writing to get some words on the page (write continuously for five minutes), and generally let your imagination run free. Later you can conference with your teacher to start to shape your ideas into a crafted story if you would like to do that.

Note: This is not necessarily to be a polished piece of writing. It is an open-ended task, an experiment in using a stimulus to provoke some creative writing. It should be fun.

However, the writing that you do now will serve as a draft for a more polished piece of writing later in the unit.
(ACELR066)   (ACELR067)   (ACELR068)   (ACELR069)

Ways of reading the text

1. A feminist novel?

Charlotte Wood has said that she did not want to write a ‘feminist’ novel. She presumably meant a novel in which the female characters stand together in solidarity against male oppression. However, it is impossible for readers to know what the writer might have intended. (When writing Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia said that she wrote, ‘to please no-one and to offend everyone.’ Students could be asked to discuss whether it is possible that this was also Wood’s project.)

Wood portrays the ways in which women contribute to their own oppression by portraying characters who judge each other based on appearance and sexual promiscuity. She has subtly demonstrated in The Natural Way of Things how women are often complicit in their own victimisation and how women’s subjectivity (‘Who am I’?) can be shaped by discourses that serve the interests of the patriarchy. Even though they have just been ‘liberated’ from the horrors of their outback prison, most of the ‘girls’ are immediately ‘hailed’ (interpellated *) by the ideology of consumer capitalism. When Perry, the bus driver, offers them sample bags of luxury cosmetics they are immediately seduced by the lure of products that ‘guarantee’ their special access to femininity. Their subjectivities (their sense of self – ‘Who they are’) are still constructed within the discourses of popular culture (“Maybe it’s a reward”, as in a reality TV show), advertising, commercialism (‘Phaedra’s maybe a Hardings partner’) and commodification (‘MarthaJones and Nyfödd and Naturescience Series II’.)

Wood skirts a central issue in feminist theory, whether femininity is culturally produced through representations of ideal femininity or an essential quality of being a woman. This opposition is played out in the novel through the characters Yolanda (‘She is almost all animal now’ p. 284 – is she a part of Nature?) and Verla who has now come to some understanding of ‘who she really is’ within the dominant culture. Yolanda has resisted control in the same way that the ‘natural’ world resists control. (Men cannot control the seasons or the falling of the rain.) On the other hand Verla has now rejected her old subjectivity constructed within patriarchy (‘I refuse’) and goes forth with an emerging sense of a new self presumably formed within the ideology of feminism.

(*Ideas of the power of ideology and of the ‘hailing’ of the individual as subject are derived from Marxist literary theorist Louis Althusser.)

2. A post-feminist novel?

English feminist author Angela Carter decided that in order to disrupt the male/female binary oppositions that produced so many gender stereotypes, she needed to create in her short stories and novels androgynous characters which exhibited the characteristics of both sexes. She believed that women needed to be represented as empowered and capable. For this reason she created memorable characters such as Sophie Fevvers, the young woman character born with embryonic wings, who becomes an aerialiste in a circus (in Nights at the Circus.) This story combines what seems to be a real world setting with fantastical elements that have been described as magic realism.

Magic realism has come to be conflated with fantasy fiction recently. However, this is not an accurate connection. Magic realism refers to any text in which, for at least one character, a constructed alternative ‘world’ in the text has as much truth value as what most readers would regard as a description of the ‘real’ world. Charlotte Wood, in an interview, has said that she needed to make her novel ‘surrealistic’, ‘fantastical’ because otherwise the story seemed to be ‘dead on the page.’

  • Ask students to identify and consider the elements of magic realism in The Natural Way of Things.
  • Do they think that the combination of the ‘real’ (e.g. the description of the old weatherboard buildings) and the fantastical elements has worked to take readers into a somewhat familiar and yet eerily alternative world?
  • Which characters are most connected with the elements of magic realism?
  • Has Charlotte Wood been able to blur sex roles and undermine gender binary oppositions in the way pursued by Angela Carter? Has she created female characters who are empowered and capable?

3. A reflection on the madness of women within patriarchy 

The madness of women is a significant motif in The Natural Way of Things. Right from the first chapter one of the two focalising characters, Yolanda Kovacs, wonders if she is mad. ‘She knew she was not mad, but all lunatics thought that.’

This motif continues throughout the novel. On page 222 the narrator, through Verla’s consciousness, tells readers, ‘They have at last, quite thoroughly, been driven insane.’

A famous literary example of female madness is Edward Rochester’s first wife in the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. This is the passage in the novel when Jane sees Bertha Mason-Rochester for the first time:

What it was, whether beast or human being, one could not, at first sight, tell: it grovelled, seemingly, on all fours: it snatched and growled like some strange wild animal: but it was covered with clothing; and a quantity of dark, grizzled hair, wild as a mane, hid its head and face…The clothed hyena, rose up and stood tall on its hind feet…The maniac bellowed: she parted her shaggy locks from her visage, and gazed wildly at her visitors.

(Note to teachers: the etymology of the word ‘hysteria’ could be explored. Literally the word ‘hysteria’ is based on the Greek word for the uterus and is used to describe an assumed illness of the mind and spirit suffered exclusively by women because of their biology. In much more recent times the symptoms of hysteria have been ascribed to the repressions placed on women by social/cultural constraints.)

The concept of madness has, over the centuries, been located within religious discourse (possession by the Devil), political discourse (dissidents who challenge the State) through to psychiatric discourse (madness is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain) today. However, notice in the passage above the close relationship between Bertha’s presumed madness and her description as a wild animal. There is an interesting comparison here with Yolanda at the end of The Natural Way of Things. (Yolanda is ‘already far away, fully animal, released.’)

Jean Rhys, a feminist West Indian writer, wrote a prequel, Wide Sargasso Sea, to Jane Eyre to challenge the problematic description of Bertha Mason’s madness in the original novel. In Wide Sargasso Sea Rhys portrays a younger Edward Rochester as an adventurer who marries a creole woman, Antoinette Mason, in the West Indies for her property and then, although he does not love her, decides to take her back to England and imprison her at his estate. (NB: in this context, a creole is a white colonial woman, in contrast to a white English woman like Jane Eyre living in the metropolitan colonising power, England. This would also be true of the original Bertha Mason-Rochester in Jane Eyre. The relationship between the colonising and the colonised is the focus of Edward Said’s post-colonial study, Orientalism.)

Here is the passage in Wide Sargasso Sea where Rochester outlines his plan:

I tell you she loves no one, anyone. I could not touch her. Excepting as the hurricane will touch that tree – and break it. You say I did? That was love’s fierce play. Now I’ll do it. She’ll not laugh in the sun again. She’ll not dress up and smile at herself in that damnable looking-glass. So pleased, so satisfied.

Vain, silly creature. Made for loving? Yes, but she’ll have no lover, for I don’t want her and she’ll see no other.

Are there interesting parallels here between the ‘madness’ of the ‘girls’ in The Natural Way of Things and that of Bertha Mason-Rochester, driven mad by denial of love and imprisonment by her husband? (Other examples could include Ophelia, driven mad by the oppression of her father, her brother and her lover in Hamlet or Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the novel of the same name by Thomas Hardy – both examples of women blamed for their own madness.)

4. A novel about the mechanisms of social control

In contemporary Australian society issues of the incarceration of marginalised groups of people have become increasingly highlighted to the embarrassment of governments: state, territory and federal. A recent Four Corners program on ABC TV revealed barbaric treatment of indigenous youths at the Don Dale detention centre in the Northern Territory. The Commonwealth Government of Australia maintains detention centres for asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea and in the Republic of Nauru, which have been compared to concentration camps. These places of incarceration are usually run secretively and their inmates demonised so that citizens are led to believe that any treatment meted out is justified.

This is the premise of an interesting but disturbing film called Ghosts of the Civil Dead, directed by John Hillcoat and made in 1988. (Teachers should note that this film has an R rating but even the summary of the film will be useful in provoking class discussion.) It is set in a maximum security prison in the Australian Outback. Sound familiar? A powerful administration beyond the prison manipulates events in the prison to produce a riot of inmates to justify the building of even more secure prisons and the use of even more brutal methods for punishing prisoners.

This is the same scenario painted in The Natural Way of Things. Powerful groups of people (drawn from government, commerce, industry, the media and so on) are prepared to use crude physical repression and more sophisticated ideological methods to manipulate society to maintain the status quo for their own benefit.
(ACELR053)   (ACELR054)   (ACELR057)   (ACELR058)

 

Comparison with other texts

Aspects of genre

1. Allegory, fable, parable

Earlier in this unit students were asked to consider The Natural Way of Things as an example of allegory, fable or parable. Students should do some quick research on this particular genre, list its characteristics and debate in small groups whether in fact The Natural Way of Things shares those characteristics.

Students may already be familiar with other texts that could be defined as allegories: The Crucible by Arthur Miller; Animal Farm by George Orwell; and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. It could be useful for students who have read any of these texts to explain to the class their allegorical features and relate them to what Charlotte Wood has done in The Natural Way of Things.

2. Dystopian fiction

Dystopian fiction is set in a frighteningly possible world that the author thinks could come into being if some current trend in contemporary society is allowed to continue unchecked. It is an answer to the question, ‘What if?’ Some famous dystopian fictions include Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell; Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. Again, students who have previously read any of these novels could share with the class what question each novel answers. For example, ‘What if the State becomes so powerful that it can control every aspect of our lives?’ – Nineteen Eighty Four. Another novel that deals with issues of infertility (similar to Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale) is P. D. James’ Children of Men (and the film adaptation directed by Alfonso Cuaron.)

3. Speculative fiction

This genre is closely related to dystopian fiction. However, Margaret Atwood, a Canadian author who has written several dystopian novels, makes the distinction that speculative fiction projects into near future situations that have already happened in the past. In her 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, she asks the question, ‘What would happen to women if a totalitarian Christian theocracy overthrew the United States government?’ (Her reference here is to the Puritan theocracy that operated in Massachusetts in the seventeenth century. The Handmaid’s Tale deals with an attempt to control women, their agency as well as their fertility, which is a corruption of ‘the natural way of things’.)

Again, students should look for situations in which women have been oppressed in Australia’s history and then frame the ‘What if?’ question that they think Charlotte Wood has answered in this novel.
(ACELR053)   (ACELR058)  (ACELR061)

Intertexuality

In her recent book about writing, The Writer’s Room: Conversations about Writing, Charlotte Wood acknowledges the influence of other Australian writers on her writing of The Natural Way of Things. She credits Amanda Lohrey (an Australian writer also on the Reading Australia list for her novel, The Morality of Gentlemen), for example, with turning her away from trying to write the novel in a realistic mode, instead moving her towards something ‘dreamier, stranger, more metaphorical; darker but more beautiful.’

Another author who has influenced Charlotte Wood is Margo Lanagan who is able to make her ‘fantastical worlds somehow completely and instantly real’. Stories in Lanagan’s anthology of short stories, Black Juice, have been described as dark fantasy but this may not be entirely accurate. In these stories Lanagan has created parallel worlds to our own: familiar and yet disturbingly different.

  • Students may be interested in reading from Black Juice stories such as ‘Singing My Sister Down‘ to appreciate a possible thematic and stylistic influence on Charlotte Wood.

Direct references in the novel to other texts and art forms include:

  • Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, the poetry anthology that Andrew gives to Verla. (And that Bill Clinton gave to Monica Lewinsky.)
  • The art of Vincent Van Gogh, a man regarded as mad who nevertheless ‘made something of his art’ (p. 220).
  • The statue by Michelangelo called the Pieta of Mary comforting the crucified Christ. (There are several scenes in The Natural Way of Things which reference the Pieta. The Pieta represents the sadness of the Mother of Christ. It is significant that Mary was pure, a virgin. Perhaps this is why major world religions have such difficulty with real-life women expressing their sexuality?)

Ask students to discuss the possible connection between these texts and art forms and the meaning of The Natural Way of Things.
(ACELR053)   (ACELR061)

Identifying and justifying language/stylistic techniques for specific narrative or dramatic purposes

In order to defamiliarise the world of the novel and make it ‘more metaphorical; darker but more beautiful’, Charlotte Wood has used a range of figurative language, including symbols, metaphors and similes.

Assign to pairs of students one of the following examples of figurative language from the novel. Ask them to suggest a possible meaning for their example and its likely effect on the overall tone of the novel.

Figurative language use   Example  Possible meaning and effect created 
Symbols 

 

  • The birds
  • Verla’s white horse
  • The rabbits (See the references to tunnels and burrows in the last chapter.)
  • Ransom the doll (Consider the possibility that the doll is a monstrous perversion of the familiar image of the baby Jesus and with the images of the Pieta. Is Christianity a patriarchal religion?)
  • The mushrooms (Verla’s ‘natural way’ of taking revenge on Boncer?)
  • Menstrual blood (and the attitude to it of patriarchal religions)
Metaphor 
  • The girls’ hair: ‘small dark creatures’
  • The traps: ‘drooping bouquet of rusting steel’; ‘rusting steel rags’
  • The girls: ‘dogs’; ‘thin feral bodies, their animal disease and power’
  • Verla: ‘a cuttlefish, a worm, a tree’; ‘seeds blown by the wind’; ‘meat’
  • Imagery from Verla’s mind: ‘a brown trout’; ‘The lizard frill flares’
  • Verla’s revolt: ‘bursting into flower in her mouth’
Simile 
  • ‘like animals’ (p. 46)
  • Rabbits’ fur ‘like fish scales’, ‘like platypus hair’ (p. 157)

(ACELR059)   (ACELR060)

 

Synthesising task

Your task

Charlotte Wood has acknowledged Margo Lanagan as an Australian writer who has influenced her greatly, especially in the way that she creates fantastical parallel worlds to our own in which she can explore important social issues or aspects of the human condition in a speculative way.

You will already have read ‘Singing My Sister Down’, a story from Black Juice that has a simple storyline and yet an atmosphere of unspeakable horror created through its subject matter and language style.

You are now to read from Margo Lanagan’s anthology Black Juice the short story ‘Red Nose Day’ to get a flavour of her style and to reflect on how a story like this might have influenced Charlotte Wood in the writing of The Natural Way of Things. Read the outline and review (PDF, 143KB) of ‘Red Nose Day’ and note the strategies that Margo Lanagan has used to create her dark fantasy.

Now play with applying some of Lanagan’s stylistic devices to your own piece of creative writing from earlier in this unit (Synthesising task 2 in the previous Close reading section of this unit.) You are not being asked to produce a polished piece of writing, but rather to experiment with crafting a story to achieve a particular effect.

(Note that Rich assessment task 2: Creating will ask you to write a new ending for the novel in which you might also like to deploy some of the techniques that you learn about in this exercise.)
(ACELR066)   (ACELR067)   (ACELR068)   (ACELR069)

Synthesising task

Persuasive speech

The Natural Way of Things has earned great acclaim, both for its quality as a piece of literary fiction and for its relevance to issues of great importance in contemporary Australian society.

You are to prepare and present a persuasive speech to a Year 12 school assembly to promote this novel as a ‘must-read’ for all older Australian teenagers, male and female. You should create a slideshow in PowerPoint to accompany your presentation. Your purpose is to encourage your listeners to read this book and engage with its themes and messages.

You are speaking in role as an expert who has studied this novel in depth.

In your presentation  you should:

  • Outline the social issue that prompted the writing of this novel.
  • Give some information about the author including material that you have gleaned from research and from interviews that she has given.
  • Give detailed information about the book’s subject matter, including plot, themes, characters and setting.
  • Explain the method of narration and how this might be designed to encourage readers to make a preferred or invited reading.
  • Explain what you think is the meaning of the novel.
  • Reflect on whether you were an ideal reader of the novel and foreshadow reasons why some teenagers, especially boys, might resist the author’s message.

Length of presentation: four to five minutes.
(ACELR053)   (ACELR054)   (ACELR058)   (ACELR061)   (ACELR062)   (ACELR063)   (ACELR064)

 

Rich assessment task 1: Responding

Preamble

Earlier in this unit you explored the way in which binary oppositions can work to define what is considered to be natural or normal in a society (a ‘centre’) and what is then marginalised or ‘othered’ in opposition to that centre.

Feminists argue that in a patriarchal society women are ‘othered’. They are ‘other’ to men who represent the centre. Feminists then look for ways to undermine the binary oppositions. One way to do this is simply to reverse the poles, giving women the positive characteristics and men the negative. Another tactic is through the use of parody, and yet another is to use Angela Carter’s tactic of disarming the supposed differences between men and women as she does in her retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story in ‘The Company of Wolves’. (It would be worthwhile reading this story at this point to see how Carter dissolves male/female differences.)

Watch the Enigma BBE video clip ‘7 days and one week’ to see how ‘othering’ works through representation (note that here the woman in the video clip is ‘othered’ both as a woman and as an ‘exotic other’ because she is Asian in opposition to the European norm) and then answer the following questions:

  • Where is the video clip set?
  • How does the Asian woman enter the scene? What meaning do you make of this?
  • What does the woman do in the clip? How do you  feel about this representation of the woman?
  • What is significant about the woman’s appearance? What is she wearing? Is it possible that the maker of the video clip has made the woman available to the male gaze?
  • Describe the woman’s demeanour as she walks through the cityscape. What is significant about the fact that the woman seems to be invisible to the other people in the city?
  • What emphasises the woman’s ‘otherness’? How is she set apart?
  • Would it make a difference to the meaning of the clip if the character was an Asian man? A white man? A white woman? How would you read the clip in each case?
  • Would you say that the representation of the Asian woman in this clip reinforces stereotypes of Asian women generally?

In a set of binary oppositions like this:

Us  Them
  • normal
  • known
  • white
  • male
  • exotic
  • mysterious
  • non-white
  • female

Where would you locate the Asian woman?

Suggest ways in which the representation of the woman as ‘other’ could be subverted, i.e. undermined. Consider some of the tactics outlined in the preamble above. (For example, you could have the woman morph into a suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying business woman, striding towards the entrance of one of the city towers.)

Write a paragraph to explain how the representation of the Asian woman could be resisted in a counter-video clip. Use this paragraph to inform your work on the task below.

* The idea for this task was suggested by a worksheet in Unit 18, Before Our Very Eyes, written by Anita Jetnikoff and David King, in Boys and Literacy, eds. Nola Alloway and Pam Gilbert, 1997, Carlton, Victoria, Curriculum Corporation.

Your task:

Create a storyboard (15–20 frames) to show how you would subvert the representation of the woman in the ‘7 days and one week’ video clip.
(ACELR054)   (ACELR055)   (ACELR056)   (ACELR060)   (ACELR061)   (ACELR065)   (ACELR066)

 

Rich assessment task 2: Creating

Preamble

This novel has an ambiguous split ending with most of the girls now being driven by Perry with his ‘powerful hands gripping the huge black steering wheel’ to an unknown destination while Yolanda enters the world of Nature and Verla faces an unspecified but dangerous future.

The novel, therefore, offers readers two possible endings. Exactly what those endings will look like will depend on the individual reader (within the constraints of their interpretive communities.) At least one woman reader has said that she finished the book with a feeling of ‘triumph’ while another felt a ‘sense of utter despair and defeat’.

How did you read the ending of the novel? Has the author given you clues to influence your reading? Which scenario interests you more, the fate of the girls on the bus or Verla’s odyssey?

Your task is to:

Write the next chapter of the novel to provide a new ending. Focus on either the story of the ‘girls’ on the bus as they are driven to a new destination with Perry or on Verla’s story.

You will need to plot your new ending to show a plausible series of events leading to greater resolution than the original novel does.

Will your ending:

  • be optimistic/pessimistic?
  • suggest solutions to the problems raised in the novel?
  • suggest how the society from which the ‘girls’ were forcibly removed can change for the better?

Scenario 1

Write your ending using the narrator as omniscient observer as in the original novel. You should still use Charlotte Wood’s tactic of using free indirect discourse to merge the voice of the narrator from time to time with the thoughts of different characters and present different voices and points of view. Of course, you can also use some direct quoted speech to capture the personalities of individual ‘girls’. Make sure, too, to use some de-familiarising language techniques to keep your ending fantastical.

Scenario 2

What will Verla do now that she has re-entered the outside world? Confront Andrew? Take her story to a sympathetic newspaper? To 60 Minutes? There are many possibilities. You must choose one and make it work. There is no need to construct Verla as a superwoman. She is simply now a feminist who knows ‘who she is’. There is no need to aim for total narrative closure. A confrontation of some sort with the dominant power structure of society would be enough.

It could be interesting to change the method of narration in this scenario to Verla’s first-person narration of events. Again, use de-familiarising language to make this story somewhat surreal.
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