Introductory activities

The novel The Harp in the South, set in Sydney in the late 1940s, is written about the era after the Great Depression and the Second World War when families were still extremely poor and often destitute.

The visual texts below, which form the basis of these introductory activities, allow students to respond to imaginative, factual and critical texts and to understand the complexity of meaning in the writing about early Sydney. Through careful analysis of the visual texts or photographs students form a deep understanding of meaning. When viewed critically, visual texts, like photographs, provide a wealth of information about other cultures and other times.

Ask students to select two photographs from the six below and to identify what they observe and what they infer about life in Surry Hills.

Observation Life in Surry Hills in the 1940s
What do you observe?
What do you infer?

The codes and conventions of visual images must be taught so that students understand how metalanguage is used to deconstruct visual images. The photographs should be analysed using a visual grammar which includes subject, object, setting, colour, perspective, framing or social distance, lighting, use of action, and use of angle, symbols, signs and repetition. Photographs of people can be further deconstructed by using the following framework:

Expression Image and quotation
Facial expression
Touch and proximity
Body language
Costume or clothing

Carefully observe the image of the shopkeeper in the doorway of the grocery store on the corner of Riley and Fitzroy Streets (Surry Hills, 1934) and complete the table on codes and conventions on that photograph.

There are numerous original photographs of Sydney from this period, many of which can be found at Dictionary of Sydney.

The photographs listed below provide views of Sydney focusing on the poverty and degradation of many areas of the city in the early 1900s. Use the photograph titled ‘Children Playing in Frog Hollow in 1949’ to complete the above frameworks.

Children playing in Frog Hollow, Surry Hills 1949

Demolition of Exeter Place, Surry Hills 1900

Backyards, Exeter Place, Surry Hills 1900

Grocery store on the corner of Riley and Fitzroy Streets during bread price war in the Depression, Surry Hills 21 August 1934

Cleveland Street Public School interior showing infants class December 1909

McElhone Place in Surry Hills, one of the slums of Sydney 1930s


Personal response on reading the text

Use your impressions of the images above to write an imaginative description of Surry Hills in the past.
(ACEEN022)   (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN032)   (ACEEN035)

Anticipation Guide

An Anticipation Guide consists of a series of statements about a text. The statements may be accurate information or common misconceptions. Before reading the novel, students categorise the statements as either true or false. The Anticipation Guide can be downloaded (PDF, 72KB) for student use.

The Anticipation Guide encourages students to consider the knowledge, attitudes and beliefs that they bring to the text. It helps them to predict the information in the text and to determine the importance of what is read. It motivates students to reveal the misconceptions or preconceived ideas about a topic that might interfere with their comprehension and learning.

Once finished reading the novel, students then review their initial assessments, using the think-pair-share method to discuss what they have found.


Synthesising task

Using the various personal and social contexts of Park’s novel, students are to write their own 300–500 word ‘biographical’ childhood stories as if set in Surry Hills just after the Second World War. Students should concentrate on the personal and relational aspects of their lives, rather than on the living conditions portrayed.
(ACEEN029)   (ACEEN032)   (ACEEN033)   (ACEEN034)   (ACEEN035)   (ACEEN037)

Close Study – The Text


Sections of The Harp in the South seem to be largely autobiographical as Ruth Park herself had experienced hard times. As a young girl, she had been unable to take up a scholarship due to extreme poverty. When returning to her unpretentious college, she had to wear the nuns’ hand-me-down underwear.

Ruth’s husband, D’Arcy Niland who had a heart condition, worked the shearing circuit during the war. Soon after returning to Sydney they occupied tiny rooms in Surry Hills. There was Ruth, her husband, the five children and D’Arcy’s brother, Beresford. Living conditions were reminiscent of that of the Darcy family of the novel itself. During the Depression her family had been bankrupted and lived with the families of Mrs Park’s numerous sisters. In her early years of marriage, Park also lived in the Surry Hills slum when there was a wartime housing crisis.

The ‘Hills’ as they were called, were full of Irish people, “when their grandfathers and great grandfathers arrived in Sydney they went naturally to Shanty Town, not because they were dirty or lazy, though many of them were that, but because they were poor.” (p. 1).

Park depicted a range of characters, writing with feeling and empathy. She created characters within a humorous portrayal of slum life, characters who were reminiscent of those in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. The post-war residents included the Irish, the Chinese and Europeans.

Park used both direct and indirect characterisation to develop the personality of her characters. Direct characterisation tells an audience directly of the character’s personality, whereas in indirect characterisation shows things that reveal the personality of the character. Use the proformas below to prepare character sketches of these characters:

  • Miss Sheily
  • Charlie
  • Jimmy Lick
  • Delie Stock
  • Mr Gunnarson
Direct characterisation
Type of direct characterisation Description  Quotation
Description of home
Character traits
Marital status
Character’s speech
Working class used
Indirect characterisation
Type of indirect characterisation Description Quotation
Effect on others


Synthesising task

Use the information compiled from students’ work above together with the quotes provided below to write character sketches for each of these characters:

  1. Miss Sheily
  2. Charlie
  3. Jimmy Lick
  4. Delie Stock
  5. Mr Gunnarson

Each of the character sketches should begin with these quotes:

  1. “She was a mystery woman and no mistake.” Mumma speaking of Miss Sheily (p. 183)
  2. “I’ve got everything I want in the world.” Charlie (p. 224)
  3. “It’s gratitude that you should be feeling Jimmy. Ah, it is a sad thing to think that poor little yeller heathen won’t ever see the face of God in heaven.” Mumma of Jimmy Lick (p. 17)
  4. “Pardon me Mrs Stocks. Indeed, and the children will be most grateful to you.” Father Cooley to Delia Stocks (p. 44)
  5. “Gunson not right. I am Gunnarson. It is Swedish name. Please I would like to speak to the lady with black dress, white face, who say ‘Caesar’s ghost.’ (p. 145)

(ACEEN029)   (ACEEN032)  (ACEEN034)  (ACEEN035)   (ACEEN036)   (ACEEN037)


Social realism in the Surry Hills slums

As a young writer, Park had the ability to cultivate a social realism similar to that portrayed by John Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men. She was able to create a warm and sometimes humorous portrayal of slum life while highlighting the horrors of squalid tenements, windowless rooms and the ever present bedbugs. It was abject poverty that made the Irish gravitate to the slums.


Synthesing activity

According to the Macquarie Dictionary, a slum is a squalid and overcrowded urban street and, in most descriptions, inhabited by very poor people. It can also be used to describe a house or building unfit for human habitation. Choose one these dictionary meanings. Find references to your chosen definition in the novel and write a detailed and analytical essay of approximately 500 words describing the ‘slum’. In particular make special consideration for how both you as writer and you as reader are positioned. What points of view are you applying, especially in contrast to those that you might have adopted in the earlier task in the previous section?
(ACEEN022)   (ACEEN024)   (ACEEN034)   (ACEEN035)

Now rewrite the description of the slum as if it is a short news article for a radio news podcast. Think about the change in purpose and audience, tape the news report and present a class report on Surry Hills. Ensure that you include examples of social realism such as idiomatic language or colloquialism but include them as direct quotations.
(ACEEN028)   (ACEEN032)   (ACEEN033)   (ACEEN034)   (ACEEN035)   (ACEEN036)

Alternative versions of the text

The Harp in the South was dramatised into a television mini-series in 1986 starring Anne Phelan and Martyn Sanderson. Its sequel, A Poor Man’s Orange, followed in 1987. Both are excellent interpretations of the stories, filling in the details of the sights, sounds and smells of Surry Hills and especially of 12 ½ Plymouth Street. They both realistically portray the poverty-stricken Darcy family. See clips from Australian Screen Online, with full copies available for loan from the same source or the National Film and Sound Archives.

The serialisation of the novel into a six-part mini-series, screened on a weekly basis, affected the structure of the novel. Consider the following:

  • The chapters/episodes needed to be about the same length.
  • The chapters/episodes needed to end on a tense note or to create anticipation about what was to follow.
  • Characters speech, gestures and appearance had to be readily recognisable.
  • Characters can be stereotyped.
  • The plot requires varying levels of crisis every few episodes.

Look again at the structure of the chapters and discuss in class the effect of serialisation on the structure of the novel. What sorts of skills would the screen writers (including Ruth Park herself and Eleanor Witcombe) and director/writer, George Whaley, bring to bear and how difficult would the process have been? Identify any significant obstacles that would need to have been overcome.

Watch a selection of episodes from the mini-series, discussing the similarities between the film and book. Write a summarised comparison between the book and film using the following headings:

  • setting
  • characters
  • plot or events

In your comparison, highlight both similarities and differences and comment on the portrayal of various characters and events and how successful they have been. Justify your views with examples from both the mini-series and the novel.


Prior to undertaking this activity students should be familiar with a range of cinematography terms. The attached explanation by Timothy Heiderich should prove useful.

Now watch excerpts from the mini-series, again taking particular note of the cinematography. Select one scene to discuss the cinematographic techniques and the effect they have on the viewer.

The scene where the nuns visit the sick Roie could be used.

Your scene discussion ought to form the final paragraph of the comparison above. Note how lighting, costume and speech have an effect on characterisation and especially the portrayal of class. In the recommended scene the contrast is especially noted between the Darcy family and the clergy and nuns from the Catholic Church, the working class and the middle class.

Cinematography is the art of visual storytelling and finds a unique way of showing the everyday life of ordinary people. Watch the scene again and use the following aspects of cinematography to explain the detailed characterisation:

  • Shots and especially the close-up
  • Movement
  • Angle
  • Framing
  • Panning


Rich assessment task (productive mode)

The film version shows the lives of the people of Surry Hills (especially the women), depicting their trials and tribulations as they live through difficult times. It is a realism of the portayal of adultery, pregnancy, childbirth and abortion. Note this extract concerning Delie Stock.

But Delie Stock hadn’t come because of stones bunged through her window. Though there were plenty of them. She had come with a purse full of money.

Sister knew her, of course. Hurrying home through a winter afternoon, long ago, she had seen a young Delie Stock squatting on the church steps and being sick between her shoes, and another time she had seen her violently hammering a policeman on the head as he half-carried half-dragged her to a small dark green van that was waiting. And, even in the seclusion of the Convent, Sister has heard rumours, the legends and the fabulous scandal that had sprung up about this woman.

– Chapter 4, p. 37

Delie is presented as perhaps the most notorious female character in the novel. She is known throughout Surry Hills as one of the most disreputable females in the district. She is the epitome of all that is wrong with the population living in Surry Hills. But she does present another side, the generous and kind-hearted woman, the person who wants to help others.

Look at the role that Delie plays in the novel, how she represents the seamier side of the Surry Hills population. Begin by recounting her life as the brothel madam and sly grogshop owner then move on to the role of philanthropic donor as representative of women and girls in Surry Hills.

Read through the attached extract about the madam, Dora, from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (PDF, 212KB). There are many similarities with Delie.

Write a detailed character sketch of Delie of around 500 words, including paragraphs comparing and contrasting Delie with Dora. In all instances justify your statements and conclusions with evidence from the texts, including quotations.
(ACEEN024)   (ACEEN025)   (ACEEN028)   (ACEEN032)   (ACEEN034)   (ACEEN035)   (ACEEN036)   (ACEEN037)

Rich assessment task (receptive mode)

Create a book trailer for The Harp in the South. The audience for the book trailer will be older teenagers. A class screening of the book trailers will be held at the completion of the rich assessment tasks. The podcast of James Ley with Alice Pung should be used to provide more ideas for the trailer.

The podcast with Alice Pung speaking of The Harp in the South presents a portrayal of class and the marginalised. Race, class and humanity were presented in the vernacular of ordinary people, the people who were sidelined or marginalised in Australian culture. For many people at the time, they were scandalised that Park had written this book about child abuse, prostitution, Sydney slums, accidents, alcoholism and street violence. Most of the critics of the time were men but they tended to write without censure. Ruth Park was considered the Charles Dickens of Australia for The Harp in the South and its sequel, dealing with ordinary people in stories released in serial form.

  • Students are to watch some examples of book trailers from YouTube such as the one on The Hunger Games. Work together in pairs to identify the structures and features of a book trailer. Look especially at the number of slides and the length of the captions.
  • Students brainstorm and identify the main points of the plot. Use a Story ladder to record the synopsis of the plot. The Story Ladder can be as long as required.
Story ladder

  • Students brainstorm or use mind maps to identify the most interesting parts of the novel to incorporate in the book trailer.
  • The pairs of students compose a storyboard of the plot and plan the transitions and effects. It is important to have planned your effects and transitions to provide the atmosphere required in the photo story. Ensure that you make a script and add it to your storyboard.
Shot Caption Transitions Music Angle Pacing
  • Make a search of image sites to find the best images, choosing royalty-free or creative commons licensed images.
  • Next search music sites for the tune to match the length of your book trailer.
  • Working with their partners students create the book trailer using software such as Movie Maker or Photo Story.

Class screenings of the book trailers will be held at the completion of the rich assessment task. Teachers can choose how they might wish to assess the paired student work.
(ACEEN022)   (ACEEN026)   (ACEEN029)   (ACEEN031)   (ACEEN033)