How successfully did Coonardoo explore issues and ideas which had been ignored by earlier Australian writing

Coonardoo: Comparison Other Literary Works and Analysis

            Katherine Susannah Prichard is an innovative writer who was far ahead of her time in the content she offered in her novels. Australian literature in the first half of the century, which was the period in which she wrote, did not contain subjects that challenged the views and norms of society such as love and sex between blacks and whites. The period in which the work was written was harsh for the white Australians who were trying to get used to the harsh terrain and tame it. Literature at the time was therefore full of loss and betrayal as is Coonardoo which is a tragedy. The novel explores tension between the genders and races. It is a tragic story about Coonardoo, an aboriginal woman who falls in love with Hugh, a white man who then causes her death for what he sees as her betrayal.

At the time the novel was written, it caused controversy over the inclusion and seeming sanction of a taboo subject; sex between whites and blacks. The novel inspired such controversy that Prichard, in the second publishing of the novel, had to write a preface in which she justified her work as accurate both socially and historically. Shoemaker (2004) stated that Australia was not open to the subject of interracial interaction for at least fifty years of the novels’ publishing which goes to show how advanced Prichard was in her ideas. The novel also offers insight into the aboriginal culture for which it was widely praised and given an award by The Bulletin (22 August, 1928, p. 9).

In her depictions, Prichard deviated from literature at the time in that she treated the aborigines as a people who had a life and culture that is not necessarily lesser than that of the whites. The respectful, almost reverent, depiction of the culture does not reflect standards at the time, since, as shown by the book Inventing Australia: Images and Identity by Richard White; the image of the aborigines as heathens was a prevalent at the time. From the white’s point of view their culture was primitive as evidenced by the ceremonies involved which were proof to their suppositions. This can be illustrated by the view by Mrs. Bessie that initiating Coonardoo into sexual relations would have been bad for her. However, she later comes to the conclusion that she should have let her go on with the ceremony. The whites did not seek to understand the aborigines’ culture but rather went on to see them as “[…] men of Sodom, sinners exceedingly” which was somewhat justified by some phrenologists who gave credence to the view that the Aborigines were indeed an inferior race (White, 1981, p.65).

These suppositions came at a time when national types were being described with the white Australians trying to define their national type in relation to their mother nations. At the time, superiority and inferiority theories were being formed as a way of relating and comparing Australian whites to the rest of the world (White, 1981). Also, these types helped make it easier to discriminate against, and therefore condemn the aborigines to lower stations in life and the associated afflictions which included low pay and little or no education.

In the same period, Charles Darwin came up with the evolution theory in his book The Origin of Species which was used as a scientific explanation for the aborigines’ supposed inferiority. The theory was used to designate the aborigines a people who had little in the way of competition and therefore they were supposed to be extinct (White, 1981, p. 68). This is because, as proposed by the theory, those species that could not compete effectively became extinct. Therefore, the whites justified their behavior by extending the theory to races, with the race that had more capability dominating over the other. In Coonardoo, Hugh says that he is “[…] goin’ to marry white and stick white” when he is questioned by Geary. This indicates the view held by whites at the time; that the black race was inferior.

Hugh’s passion for Coonardoo was nurtured by their closeness since childhood; a relationship that was not supposed to be in reference to societal views at the time. The struggle with his love for her and is revealed when he plays with his child with Mollie while thinking of the child he had with Coonardoo. It is stated that she “[…] was a stake, something to hang on to”, going further to say that he had “[…] never had been able to think of her as alien to himself”. This is the cause for the controversy at the time; the fact that a white man could feel any romantic inclinations towards the blacks who, according to the social Darwinist theory as used by the white Australians, were inferior to the whites and therefore having sexual relations with them was unacceptable to the whites. There were inquiries into whether Australian whites were superior or inferior to their European counterparts and there were differing thoughts on this. From these inquiries, Australian white types emerged based on reassessments. These types were described as independent, having a vigorous frame, and having a manliness of bearing (White, 1981, p. 71-75).

This ideal Australian had other competing versions which are examined by Lake (1929) who describes the versions that prevailing at the time which included the domestic husband type and the free bushman type. The bushman type had “[…] freedom from the ties of family” and is shown to have preferred sexual encounters with Aboriginal women who would not give them any responsibilities (Lake, 1929). Therefore, the sexual relations that Geary pursued with Aboriginal women could also be seen as a direct product of the ideas prevailing at the time. Prichard uses the prevailing views to reinforce the authenticity of the story’s setting and increasing its realism and therefore it has great impact on the reader as evidenced by the furor caused by the book.

Realism is also used when Coonardoo is shown having sexual relations with Geary. The realism is used to express the need she has had since Hugh has been avoiding her as a lover and has not fulfilled his need for her or hers for him. She is “[…] fascinated as a bird to a snake” and “[…] she could not resist him since her need for him was “[…] as great as the dry earth for the rain”. This realism deviates from the greater style of the book which is romantic and at times nationalistic as evidenced by the passages describing the beauty of the land. Huggan (2007, p. 92) compares the novel to Xavier Hubert’s Capronica (1938) and states that both are passionate attacks on exploitative patterns of aboriginal socialization. He further observes that Prichard […] over-romanticizes aboriginal culture” and that Prichard uses Coonardoo as a desire for a new interracial dispensation that would take over current views.

In the book, the whites’ views are clearly questioned as shown by the treatment of Geary who is revealed to be a drunkard and is seen by Mrs. Bessie as shameless. His shamelessness is portrayed by his having sex with Coonardoo while knowing she is attached to Hugh. Also, he keeps a black woman openly which at the time was a taboo. The questioning of the moral standing of whites’ challenges the prevailing social Darwinist theory used to justify and portray them as superior to the blacks.

Coonardoo changed the representation of black and white relationships in Australia at the time. Prichard uses shifting perspectives which allow her to represent blacks as intelligent beings and therefore going against the whites’ views. However, Muecke in the book Textual Spaces: Aboriginality and Cultural Studies states that it is impossible for whites to understand who Aborigines really are. He states that discourses are “[…] produced by ideological apparatuses such that meaning effects are generated which make coherent classifications of the institutional structures and the behavior of individuals within them” (Muecke, 1992). This is based on the fact that the whites use their language, and therefore, phrases, grammatical selections, and formations which affect how they say and understand about Aboriginal culture. Therefore, Prichard offers the reader a view into the mind of the Aborigines though this may be limited by her own views and the effect her culture have had on her. Despite this, her change of view from the white to the black allows her to illustrate the conflicting views held by the two sides which had not been done by literature at the time.

Prichard has used this center of intelligence (the aboriginal) in other works such as in “Happiness”, a story which does not use an Aboriginal narrator, but which holds views that reflect the Aboriginal experience (Goldie, 1993, p.55). The analysis and tropes used in the sections with the aboriginal point of view are all aboriginal; also, the use of ethnography, which is the use of ethnic text in reference to aboriginal terms, helps Prichard to further show the aboriginal point of view. Webby (2000) points to the fact that the foregrounding of aboriginality is a distinguishing feature in Coonardoo. However, she also points out that Coonardoo’s fate is determined by the desire of white males. Coonardoo is, argues Webby, a mediator between white men and the land and that their desire for the aboriginal women would place them in a spiritual relationship with the land if it honored.

However, differences exist between the two races as indicated by Muecke (1992) who suggests that, in discourses made by white Australians, the Aborigines were referred to as “them” which delineated them from the whites and therefore discussions involving aborigines were less involving. If the Aborigines were to make use of the word “we”, he observes, it would sound as a political threat to the whites.

The uninvolved portrayal of aborigines extends to scholarly work in the field of anthropology. In the field, the point of view of the aborigines is left out with the questions and analysis done being from the point of view of the whites. This poses a question into the authenticity of the results delivered by the anthropologists and seeks to address the question of whether it is possible, using only the view of the whites, to understand fully the nature of the aborigines. Their point of view, argues Muecke (1992), is essential in understanding them and their cultural heritage. This is supported by the book, Coonardoo, in which Mrs. Bessie, Hugh’s mother, realizes that she has done a mistake in delaying the sexual initiation of Coonardoo by her husband to be Warieda. In an Aboriginal ceremony in which she is invited, she glimpses “[…] another world, the world mystic, elusive, sensual and vital of these primitive peoples’ imagination”. She banishes the idea that she could be part of the ceremony which indicates that the culture is far removed from her own and can only be explained satisfactorily by the aborigines themselves. The thinking of the aborigines is therefore central to other’s understanding of aboriginal culture and, consequently, they should be given a voice as Prichard does.

The book Coonardoo examines and challenges existing views which are assumed to be right by the whites. Coonardoo is used as a vessel; she represents the black community and shows their efforts into trying to better their situation. Prichard uses the voice of the blacks-through Coonardoo- to represent the aborigines’ situation with greater impact and she achieves this through the depiction of their troubles which are shown to be common to those of the whites. This is astutely illustrated by the love between Hugh and Coonardoo which is itself testament to the commonness of their needs. In the book, it is clear that the stereotypes existing at the time are untrue which is shown by the common suffering of the two communities in the inhospitable land that hosts them. Therefore, the book, unlike earlier texts, is successful in showing that the two communities, though differing in their culture and values, are essentially the same people with similar needs and facing the same problems.





















Goldie, T. Fear and temptation: the image of the indigene in Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand literatures. McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP,1993.

Huggan, G. Australian literature: Post-colonialism, racism, Trans- nationalism. Oxford University Press, 2007.

“Judges’ Report”. The Bulletin. vol. 49, no. 2532, 22 August, 1928, p. 9.

Muecke, S. Textual Spaces: Aboriginality and Cultural Studies. New South Wales University Press, 1992.

White, R. Inventing Australia: images and identity, 1688-1980. Allen & Unwin, 1981.

Lake, M. “The politics of respectability: Identifying the Masculinist Context” Images of Australia: an Introductory Reader in Australian studies. (Whitlock, G. & Carter D, Eds.) Univ. of Queensland Press, 1992.

Shoemaker, Adam. Popular Perceptions of an Unpopular People, 1929-1945 .2004. 16th     September 2009. <>

Webby, Elizabeth. The Cambridge companion to Australian literature. Cambridge University Press, 2000


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