Introductory activities

Students could start to read the novel before the unit begins, writing chapter summaries as outlined below.

Contemporary Australians are aware to various degrees that the first British settlement in the colony at Port Jackson (today’s Sydney) was established as a prison for convicts and that other convict settlements were set up in places such as Macquarie Harbour and Port Arthur in Tasmania and on Norfolk Island.

  • Initiate a class discussion to find out what prior knowledge students have of the conditions in Britain which led to the need for a convict settlement on the other side of the world, of the transportation system and of convictism in the Australian colonies.
  • Read to the class the poem ‘The Old Prison’ by Judith Wright and analyse it in terms of its message and its literary features.
  • Similarly, read selected extracts from The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. Read passages that parallel scenes from the novel.
  • Have students search online for documents about Martin Cash, the ‘gentleman’ bush-ranger, and Bishop Ullathorpe who led a campaign against continued transportation to the Australian colonies on moral grounds. Explain that Marcus Clarke would have been aware of both the bush-ranger’s account of his adventures in Tasmania and of the anti-transportation campaign and these may have influenced the writing of his novel.
  • Ask students to speculate about the meaning of the title of the novel.
  • Have students explore one aspect of the history of the penal colonies in Tasmania that has captured the popular imagination in recent times, the story of Alexander Peace, the cannibal convict. Some of this may be attributable to the popularity of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels and the films made from them. Students will also be aware of the recent Wolf Creek movies, examples of Australian Gothic Horror. (Remind students that the character of Gabbett in For the Term of His Natural Life is modelled on Pearce.)


Personal response on reading the text

1. Keeping a reading journal

Ask students to keep a reading journal as they read the novel for the first time, keeping a record of events and their responses to them, by writing a series of chapter summaries.

2. Writing a journal-type entry after reading the novel 

Ask students to write a response to the novel in the form of a journal entry. The journal entry should be a piece of continuous prose in which students consider: 

  • Textual features related to possible genres. (Is this novel a romance, a murder-mystery, a historical novel?)
  • The social context of the classroom and how other students make meaning of the novel. (Are the students fairly similar or different in terms of background, gender, ethnicity, for example? Obviously, class discussion around these issues needs to be handled with sensitivity. However, as long as there is goodwill among class members discussion should be productive, encouraging students to become aware of how their social identity affects how they read and the meanings that they make.)
  • The psychological response of students to various characters. Empathy? Revulsion?
  • Their own experiences. (Have they ever been to Port Arthur or Norfolk Island on holiday?)
  • Different responses by different cultural groups. (For example, by a conservative ‘law and order’ group? By a prisoner support group like Sisters Inside? Are these differing cultural positions likely to be reflected among students in this classroom? Students should be asked to share their ideas in pair interviews and later in whole class discussion. Students could also be asked to contribute to a class blog if this facility is available to the class. This would have the advantage of allowing students the opportunity of expressing an opinion without the pressure of having an immediate, perhaps ill-considered, response from other students.)

(Students should read the attached example model response for The Lord of the Rings (PDF, 109KB) to help them with this exercise.)


Outline of key elements of the text


Explain to students some different narrative structures and have them consider these in relation to the structure of this novel:

  • The Hero’s Journey. (Does this apply here?)
  • Mythic structure. (Four archetypes: romance; tragedy; satire and irony; comedy. Which describes For the Term of His Natural Life?)
  • Aristotle’s theory. (A three-stage plot structure: a weakness in the protagonist’s character; self-recognition by the protagonist; a ‘reversal’ in the protagonist’s situation. How well does this describe the plot of this novel and its protagonist, Rufus Dawes?)



The tendency for most readers is to think of the characters in a novel as real people. The author creates this illusion by providing some information about them which readers then embellish.

Ask students to create a retrieval chart on which they list the following information headings:

  • Physical appearance,
  • Behaviour,
  • What they say,
  • Reactions of other characters,
  • What the author says,

relating to the major characters from the novel:

  • Rufus Dawes,
  • Maurice Frere,
  • Sylvia Vickers,
  • Sarah Purfoy,
  • John Rex,
  • James North,
  • Reverend Meekin.


Writers do not usually begin with themes or issues but instead with characters and situations. The themes in a novel then emerge as characters interact with each other in the episodes that make up the plot of the novel. However, it is also possible that an author does begin with a theme in mind and then assembles the elements of the novel to develop that theme.

Ask students to brainstorm the themes that they think emerge from a reading of For the Term of His Natural Life.

Here are some that they might think of:

  • the role of fate in our lives,
  • the nature of love,
  • materialism versus spirituality,
  • crime and punishment,
  • state power and the individual,
  • representations of masculinity and femininity,
  • man’s inhumanity to man,
  • colonialism.

Ask students to rate the themes in order of importance, 1–6 etc., on a two-column table, one headed ‘Readers in 1874’ and the other ‘Readers in 2015’. (Of course, explain that readers today can only make an educated guess about what readers in the past have considered important.)

Then, ask students in small groups or a whole class discussion to share their lists and examine perceived changes over time.


Synthesising task

Ask students to prepare and deliver a short talk to the class on one of the following topics.

  • Explain which character was of most interest to them and reflect on how the author has positioned them as readers to ‘read’ that character. Explain that the character may be interesting because of the complexity of their representation or because they are simply a major character but ask students also to consider the possibility that they actually ‘read’ themselves into the character. (This is particularly applicable for female readers who might resist reading the story from the position of the male protagonist.)
  • Explain which theme of the novel they think would have most resonance with modern readers.
  • Respond to the climax and resolution of the plot by giving a personal view on how satisfactorily they think the author has concluded the novel.


The writer’s craft

Narrative structure

The narrative structure of a novel includes a number of elements which work together to give the text coherence and position readers to make a preferred reading of it.

Analysing narrative structure

The following statements are based on the various elements (in bold text) that contribute to the structuring of the plot of a novel. Ask students to show on the table whether they agree or disagree with these statements about For the Term of His Natural Life and defend their answers to classmates. (This can be done in pairs or small groups).

Then, students should be asked to engage in a whole class discussion, justifying their stance and giving evidence from the text to support their position:

Statements about the narrative structure of For the Term of His Natural Life   Agree Disagree
The narrative structure tracks the moral and spiritual development of the protagonist, Rufus Dawes.
Some of the characters in the novel are organised in binary groupings*, either oppositional or complementary.
The action of the story is generally organised in chronological order but the author does include chapters which explain events in the past.
Setting is used in the novel to provide a horrifying backdrop to the protagonist’s struggle to retain his humanity.
The changes of time and physical settings outlined in the Contents pages represent stages in a journey involuntarily undertaken by the protagonist.
A number of incidents are included in the plotting of the early part of the story to thwart any attempt by the protagonist to reclaim his past life and identity.
Several potent symbols are used late in the novel to enhance the meaning of its climax and resolution.
Most characters in the novel are placed within the two main groupings, convicts and representatives of State power and authority.
A binary grouping means that elements in the grouping are arranged in an ‘Either…….Or’ pattern. For example: black/white; male/female; day/night; etc. Here you are to look for binary groupings of characters.


Approach to characterisation

1. Characters as signifiers

Readers are typically encouraged to ‘read’ characters as real people. The illusion that characters are real people is created not just by the writer but also by the readers themselves who flesh out from their own knowledge and experience the bare bones of what the author has provided.

However, a more modern approach to fictional characters is to ‘read’ them as carriers (or signifiers) of certain attitudes, values and beliefs.

Ask students to complete a table, with the headings shown below, listing what attitudes, values and beliefs are associated with each character and giving evidence to support their views.

Character Attitudes, values, beliefs Evidence

(A simple illustration of this idea is the representation of the character, Atticus Finch, in the famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Readers generally ‘read’ Atticus as an admirable real-life hero fighting for justice for his client against the ingrained racial prejudice of the townsfolk in the small Southern town of Maycomb.

However, another way of ‘reading’ this character is as a collection of liberal, progressive views to which a proper name has been attached. Other characters similarly mobilise other attitudes, values and beliefs which are either opposed to those represented by ‘Atticus’ or aligned to some extent with one of these extremes or the other).

Do this for the following characters:

  • Rufus Dawes
  • John Rex
  • Sylvia Vickers
  • Sarah Purfoy
  • James North
  • Maurice Frere
  • Reverend Meekin


2. Characters: oppositional and complementary links

Ask students to think about the relationships between pairings of characters in the novel. The relationships between characters can be either oppositional or complementary but either way the links are important to the narrative structure and themes of the novel.

Students are to identify the two characters in each of the paired relationships described below.

  • These two are double but opposite, one representing complete self-interest and the other a pure love for another.
  • One of these is defined entirely by brute force and physicality and the other by his gradual movement towards spiritual redemption.
  • These two are linked by a one-sided, rather oppressive romantic attachment on the part of one of the characters and no reciprocal sentiment on the part of the other.
  • These characters represent two opposing faces of organised religion, one having a smug view of religion as an adjunct to the State while the other is racked by guilt and self-doubt.
  • One of these characters represents an ideal nineteenth century version of womanhood, willing to accept male direction, while the other is active and independent.
  • One of these characters is motivated by a lustful and illicit desire for the other who is driven to escape a loveless marriage.
  • These two characters are linked by mutual self-interest, one pursuing the demands of sensual desire and the other using the first’s position of power for her own motives.
  • The male character in this pair is represented as an example of gross masculinity and the female as a representation of ideal femininity.

Point of view 

Explain to students that the method of narration used in this novel is called ‘third person omniscient’ narration. That is, an implied ‘author in the text’ (not the ‘flesh and blood’ author) narrates the action of the story. However, this does not mean that the story is told from a completely neutral, disinterested point of view. Rather, the narrating voice can tell a part of the story from the perspective of one of the characters and then change the point of view to that of another character.

Students should look for ways in which the author gives characters an ‘interior’ life in which their thoughts, feelings, perceptions and motives are revealed. Students should also look for the use of direct speech (signalled by verbs that realise the ‘saying’ process) as a way of presenting a character’s point of view. Verbs such as ‘cried’, ‘shouted’, ‘condescended to reply’, ‘uttered one dismal cry’, ‘said’ and so on allow characters to express a particular perspective on the events of the novel.


Mikhail Bakhtin, a theorist of language, thought that all language was dialogic. That is, that any utterance is a reply to a previous utterance. Give students short extracts from the novel where a statement by one character is answered by a statement by another character. Look for how many ‘voices’ may be involved in even a short stretch of text and identify the issues that the ‘voices’ are responding to.


Here are some ‘voices’ on the topic of the treatment of convicts. Ask students to identify the speaker in each case.

  1. “You don’t know what convicts are, or rather what the law has made ’em – yet”. (p. 79)
  2. “Kindness might do much for them. After all, they are our fellow-creatures”. (p. 79)
  3. “You can’t complain. You have broken the Law, and you must suffer”. (p. 227)
  4. “So they are (wild beasts)” (p. 244)
  5. “Don’t they sometimes invite our sympathy?” (p. 295)

A more contemporary example of the use of dialogic ‘voices’ can be seen in this summarised newspaper article (PDF, 132KB), also dealing with the prisons’ system.

Language use 

Ask students to find examples in the text where the style of language use changes according to changes in genre. Scenes selected could include:

  • the foiled mutiny on board the Malabar (Action/adventure);
  • Dawes’ heroics at Macquarie Harbour (Hero story);
  • descriptions of Gabbett (Australian Gothic);
  • Port Arthur flogging (Realism);
  • the final scene with Dawes and Sylvia (Romance).

Students should try to describe the use of language in each case.

This can be done as a written exercise with groups of students assigned one of the topics above to investigate. They can share their findings in their groups and then present them to the whole class.


Synthesising task/activity

This exercise could, later in the unit, be a major culminating rich task. However, at this point in the unit, it is better to regard it as a way of showing students how to gather relevant material from the novel and how to organise that material into an analytical exposition. Therefore, there is no requirement for students to pursue this task through to completion. The process outlined in the slideshow for The Divine Wind (PPT, 328KB) by Garry Disher will hold them in good stead when they are working on the culminating rich tasks.

Students are to select one of the important themes from the novel and analyse and explain how elements of the narrative structure, the author’s approach to characterisation (including point of view and voice) and his use of language have contributed to the evolution of that theme and the positioning of readers towards it.

Ways of reading the text

In contemporary times new theoretical perspectives are available for reading representations of people, places, events and things. The following applications of theory could be broached with students to promote further research and discussion:

1. A feminist reading of women characters in the text and of the author’s attitude to the several relationships between men and women in the novel.

The following quotes come from James North’s diary, (Book IV, Chapter 57, p. 351): “……strong intellect in women went far to destroy their womanly nature” and, “The woman who possesses masculine force of intellect is abnormal.” Students might  like to debate whether these are views attributed to North by the author or whether they may reveal the attitude of the author himself and the society in which he wrote.

These attitudes would obviously not be acceptable today in our hopefully more enlightened society. However, there is still plenty of evidence that women suffer disadvantage and discrimination within society. The incidence of domestic violence against women, for example, suggests that equal status for women is at times quite shallow.

Ask students to engage in a formal debate on one of the following topics:

  • That quotas should be introduced to ensure that all major political parties select women candidates to contest half the electorates at the time of a general election.
  • That arranged marriages are more likely than marriages based on romantic attachment to produce stable long-term unions.
  • That all couples who wish to live together should be required by law to take part in a binding civil ceremony.

(These debates could be conducted as whole class arguments with students aligning themselves with one side or other of the proposition.)

Another related issue is the representation of relationships between men and women in the novel. Students could debate whether, in fact, the marriage of Captain Vickers and his wife Julia is the only relationship which involves mutual love and respect. Is marriage, then, an essential part of ‘a natural life’? Is North right when he writes in his diary,”….marriage is but a partnership – a contract of mutual fidelity” or is there more to it than that?

2. A post-structuralist perspective on crime and punishment.

Introduce students to Michel Foucault’s discourse theory. Foucault theorises that in the modern era authorities do not have to impose social control through naked direct and excessive violence but that power instead is distributed everywhere in society through discursive formations which privilege those who control the discourses.

There is a hint of this in James North’s reference in his diary (Book IV, Chapter 59, p. 365) to Jeremy Bentham’s device of the Panopticon (“some wiseacre in England”) of “eighteen radiating cells” arranged in the shape of a pentagon so that prisoners can be observed by one guard in a sentry post in the centre of the pentagon but can never know whether they are being observed or not. In this situation prisoners internalise external control and instead police themselves.

Ask students to consider this little mind experiment: “You are driving home very late at night and the traffic light ahead turns to red. There is not another car anywhere in sight. No-one is around. There are no CCTV cameras at this intersection. What do you do? Chances are that you wait until the light turns to green. Agreed? But why? Foucault would say that you have internalised the gaze of the legal authorities and have policed your own behaviour.” Students might like to debate this proposition.

Refer students to a short explanation of discourse theory.

3. A post-colonial reading of the novel.

Could this novel be seen as a writing back against the colonial power, Britain, at a time of growing nationalist sentiment? (Even today Queen Elizabeth is the constitutional head of Australia; note also that the British flag, the Union Jack, is still a part of the Australian flag.)

4. A marxist reading of the British class structure which could only be held in place by mass repression through the courts and the system of transportation?

5. A queer theory reading of the novel.

Issues of homosexuality are raised in the novel, especially in the horrific scenes involving the young prisoner, Kirkland. Students may prefer instead to focus on the close homo-social relationship that develops between Rufus Dawes and James North, culminating in the dramatic final scene in the Norfolk Island prison.
(ACELRO37)   (ACELRO38)   (ACELRO39)   (ACELRO41)   (ACELRO42)


Comparison with other texts


The writing of a novel within the conventions of a particular genre immediately pre-disposes readers to have certain expectations of that novel and to anticipate a particular reading of it. Therefore, ask students to identify which genre(s) Marcus Clarke may have modeled his story on. Consider these possibilities:

  • a historical novel,
  • a romance (in the Aristotelian sense of an innocent protagonist caught in an unreal world),
  • an example of Australian Gothic horror,
  • a murder mystery with a colonial backdrop.

Students can do this exercise as homework and then share their thoughts with other students in groups or in whole class discussion.
(ACELRO38)   (ACELRO40)   (ACELRO45)   (ACELRO46)   (ACELRO47) 

Students should discuss the possibility that Clarke has actually stitched together features of all the genres listed above and find examples to support this possibility.

Historical fiction versus the writing of history

Many of the episodes in the novel are actually based on ‘real’ events that occurred in the Australian colonies in the nineteenth century. Does that make For the Term of His Natural Life a work of history or simply a fiction with a historical background?

Does this matter?

Here is what the novelist Hilary Mantel, who has won two Man Booker prizes for her historical novels about Tudor England, has said about who owns the representation of history: historical novelists or historians: “there is inevitably a great marshy area of interpretation…There aren’t two categories: historical fact and historical fiction; there is an area in between..” (Quoted in Australian Book Review, June-July 2015 No. 372, p. 55)

Students could relate this quote to other Australian novels such as The Secret River (Kate Grenville) and The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (Henry Handel Richardson), which also present versions of Australian history, and decide whether they are prepared to accept these novels as reasonable interpretations of that history.

Show students the TV miniseries, The Secret River, and ask them to write a short review of it, considering it as a piece of historical reconstruction.

Students should read LL Robson’s article which explores the accuracy of Clarke’s use of historical data.

Students can also view trailers from several films inspired by the Alexander Pearce story, Dying Breed, Van Diemen’s Land and The Last Confession of Alexander Pearce (full movie) and consider the likely authenticity of each as a piece of historical account in the light of Hilary Mantel’s statement above and their own earlier research about Pearce. This can be done in small group discussion.


  • There is direct mention of the novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe in For the Term of His Natural Life. The story of Rufus Dawes’ exertions in Book II, Chapter 26 is reminiscent of the story of Robinson Crusoe, a resourceful English seaman who survives a lengthy period cast ashore on a desert island. The protagonist is brave and ingenious, an admirable example of European individualism. Students should re-read Book II, Chapter 26 and debate whether the author has used the example of Robinson Crusoe as a model for his representation of Rufus Dawes at this point in his novel. Students should consider the possibility that Marcus Clarke is trying to show that, once released from the brutalisation of the convict system, Rufus Dawes can flourish as an individual.
  • In Book IV, Chapter 62, p. 380, James North recommends a French novel, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas to Sylvia. He explains that it is about “an unjustly imprisoned man, who, escaping by a marvel…devotes his life and fortune to revenge himself.” Discuss how this reference is an ironic parallel to Clarke’s own story and consider that it may even have provided some inspiration for it. (The description of Dumas’ novel as a ‘romance’ may help students to decide what sort of story Clarke thought that he was writing).
  • The idea of the split personality or doppelganger was made famous in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. This novel was not published until 1884 but students should still consider the possibility that the idea that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ could co-exist in the one person was current in the late nineteenth century and influenced Clarke in his representations of Rufus Dawes and John Rex.


Language and stylistic effects

Various language/stylistic techniques are used in the novel to achieve narrative and dramatic purposes. Match the language techniques outlined in the table below with the example from the novel in the right-hand column.

Language/stylistic techniques Examples                                 
A. The use of sensationalist language to represent the horrifying brutality of floggings.B. Highly detailed descriptions of settings, including specific locations,
the work routines of prisoners and their living conditions.C. The use of some symbolism.D. Highly emotive verbs used to represent the pain and anguish of Rufus Dawes as he is punished.E. The language of Romantic fiction used in the final union of Rufus Dawes and Sylvia Frere.F. The language of the religious hysteric in James North’s self-reproach and appeals to his God.G. Use of formal Standard English but the occasional use of slang and non-Standard English.H. Use of irony. 

I. Use of long complex sentences.


J. Use of figurative language.

1. “But as a hardened prisoner…had said, ‘God’s terrible far from Port Arthur.'” (p. 288)2. “Rufus Dawes, awakening from his stupor, saw in the midst of a sunbeam…the woman who came to save his body.” (p. 413)3. “The river seemed to flow sluggishly, as though thickened with blood and tears.” (p. 254)4. “Doctor’s bin morticing the prisoner what was flogged this morning, sir,” said Troke, “an’ we’re cleanin’ up.” (p. 279)5. “On the heights above the esplanade rose the grim front of the soldiers’ barracks; beneath the soldiers’ barracks was the long range of prison buildings, with their workshops and tan-pits.” (p. 258)


6. “Lashing the sheet to the pole which served as a gunwale he laid the sleeping child by her mother, and tearing up the strip of bark on which he had been sitting, moved to the bows of the boat.” (p. 184)


7. “The lad’s back, swollen into a hump, now presented the appearance of a ripe peach.” (p. 275)


8. “The eyes of the man and the woman met in one long gaze.” (p. 439)


9. “He shrieked imprecations…”; “He cursed…”; “He blasphemed…” (p. 276)


10. “O God, give me strength! Aid me! Help me! I struggle but I am weak! O Lord, look down upon me!” (p. 272)



Synthesising task


Readers will interpret a novel not just at a personal level but from the perspective of the attitudes, values and beliefs promoted within the discourses to which they belong and from which they derive a particular worldview.


Each student will speak as a panellist who discusses and reflects on the novel just studied, For the Term of His Natural Life. Panels will consist of four to six students who will take turns in presenting speeches and asking and answering questions in an assigned role. The panel discussion addresses the focus question:

‘If For the Term of His Natural Life is a classic Australian novel, then how should we, as contemporary Australians, respond to its themes?’

Students will respond to the focus question in their assigned roles. To do this successfully they will have to reflect on the attitudes, values and beliefs of the discourse to which they belong.

The roles are:

  • a judge
  • a historian
  • a civil rights lawyer
  • a feminist
  • a writer of historical fiction
  • a conservative politician

Roles will be assigned by the teacher.

In role students must demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of the novel. They must also demonstrate an understanding that their particular readings of the themes of the novel have been influenced by their assigned reading positions.

Each student will present a prepared, individual speech which explains a reading of the themes of the novel from the perspective of the assigned role and then engage in an impromptu question and answer session.

See the discourse information sheet (PDF, 118KB) to help with this exercise.
(ACELRO45)   (ACELRO46)   (ACELRO47)


Rich assessment tasks

1. Responding


The meaning of a novel, or any other text for that matter, is never in the novel but rather in the interplay between text, reader and the social and cultural contexts within which it is read. Therefore, it is interesting to see how versions of the text have been received and interpreted at different times in the past and then to speculate on how the text is received in our own time.

For the Term of His Natural Life has been adapted as a film (in 1929) and as a TV mini-series (in 1982). An analysis of short sections of both versions will reveal what aspects of the story have been emphasised in those versions at those times in history.

The students’ task is to view the beginning of the Norman Dawn 1929 film (especially the two slides of explanatory text (58 seconds to 1 minute 30 seconds) and the trailer for the 1982 mini-series starring Colin Friels. Then students are to:

  • analyse each version, paying close attention to the techniques (language, visual techniques and speech) used to represent certain concerns of the novel in the film;
  • explain what interpretation of the novel they think each movie clip is promoting;

and then: 

  • link each interpretation to what they think may have been dominant social and cultural values at the time of production of the two versions. (Students should be able to infer these from the clips themselves).

Next, students explain their analyses to the class in a short presentation or to classmates in a small group discussion.

Finally, students are to design a short story board to promote the current film version of the novel to make quite explicit what concerns of contemporary Australia are reflected in this latest film interpretation of the novel.
(ACELRO49)   (ACELRO50)   (ACELRO52)

2. Creating

The scenario:

Recently a public debate has begun about the types of literature that young people should be reading in Australian schools. There are those who argue, for example, that recent contemporary novels have more relevance and interest for young readers while others argue that ‘classic’ Australian novels which have stood the test of time have greater value for students of literature.

As a result of this debate, the National Library in Canberra has planned a conference on this issue and has called for contributors with a view on the topic to submit a literary essay (an analytical exposition) arguing a case for one side or the other of the debate.

The task:

Students are to write a literary essay (analytical exposition) arguing that the classic Australian novel For the Term of His Natural Life remains a relevant and worthwhile novel for Australian students of literature in Years 11 and 12.

In the essay students will need to explain how the subject matter of the novel remains relevant and worthwhile to a contemporary readership, giving evidence of the author’s technical competence in the structuring of the novel and his use of language and consider the possible readings of the novel in a contemporary socio-cultural context.

Each student’s role is that of an expert reader of the novel. The audience at the conference will be educated, modern Australians who will be able to read each essay in a booklet of collected submissions.
(ACELRO45)   (ACELRO46)   (ACELRO47)