Women in relation to Australian texts have more widely touched onto the issue of women recently, where the texts oftentimes use Australian cultures and identities as a focused theme. The 1998 novel Eucalyptus (Bail 1998) questions this crucial issue, while commenting on the land and peoples of Australia. The novel somewhat manages to convey an independent woman, yet cannot fully embody a true feminist text due to its lack of deeply exploring what makes feminist literature. In this essay I will discuss Eucalyptus’s relation with the postmodern feminist theory, the instances of parody present in the text, and the way it incorporates the Australian landscape as a theme, whilst looking at how it studies Australian cultures and identities.
The exploration of women’s writing began more prominently in the 1970s in Australia, which started to question the culture and the role that women had in society. Literary works of the past were questioned within these new texts and many writers emerged that were considered to be feminists (Huang 2013). This sense of clearly empowered women’s writing defies the idea that Bail’s novel can be studied as a completely feminist text, because it uses the controlling father figure of Holland to determine his daughter’s marriage. This idea alone negates what seems possible to crucially implement an equal-gendered text. As Bail’s writing progresses, Ellen, Holland’s daughter, finds her voice to stop the enlisting of men who must be able to name all of Holland’s eucalypts on his property. However, once Ellen begs Holland to stop, he ignores her. This sets the notion that while Holland wants Ellen to be happy, he does not value her opinion. This central idea of arranged marriage does not encompass what it means for a woman to be able to form decisions without the help of another man. While feminist writing follows the narration of an independent protagonist that is female, Bail’s novel has interchanging perspectives of both Holland and Ellen. Whereas the readers know the name of the man whom Holland wishes to be Ellen’s partner, Ellen’s love interest is only referred to as “the stranger”, which questions Ellen’s autonomy. The text therefore does not completely symbolise a feminist novel, and is matched by Le Masurier’s view (2007, p. 132), who says, ‘Overtly feminist novels have tended to focus on the forms and genres of social realism, the confessional, and the Bildungsroman to represent the usually marginalised realities of women’s lives in a patriarchal society, and women’s awakening political consciousness’. This point suggests that feminist texts demand to capture the struggles that women have faced in society that have led to a realisation to need change. Bail’s text is not able to do this entirely, because the main woman in the story does not make decisions for herself, but are made by those around her.
Feminist texts do not depict women as perfect entities, and instead will depict them realistically, which is important when striving for gender equality. It is crucial for men to be a part of the feminist agency, which correlates to the ability that men possess to potentially write feminist literature (Klocke 2013). This theory should be the most plausible one because the definition of “feminism”, as defined by Oxford Dictionaries (2016), is, ‘The advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes’. This definition reinstates that whilst feminism is a women’s movement, the ideology behind it involves the inclusion of all genders. Bail’s novel can be considered a feminist text because it advocates equality between the main characters of Holland and Ellen, however does not fully grasp the perception of a woman forming ideas that are completely separate from a man. As Holland continues to search for his ideal version of the perfect man for his daughter, Ellen does little to protest her father’s absurd quest. Instead, she spends her time in the impressive-sized garden, listening to stories that are told by the stranger. Her inability to stand up to her father not only pushes the plot along, but creates the sense that Ellen is unable to communicate effectively with the men in her life. When Ellen is alone, like she often is, she ‘pictured herself somewhere else; and how could that ever happen?’, showing that she is powerless and cannot distance herself from her life with her father. Simms (1979, p. 305) states, ‘One major difficulty, as seen by commentators, with equating feminism with the struggle for women to gain freedom through participation in the public sphere is that it ignores the political nature of women’s historic attempt to gain autonomy within the family; “domestic” feminism has been coined to describe that phenomenon’. Domestically, Ellen is not equal with her father, who shows clear traits of a domineering and restrictive man. Domestic feminism is only partially commented upon in Eucalyptus, and therefore cannot wholly live up to this important part of feminism. The fact that Ellen is portrayed as perfect impacts the way that the readers view her, and the belief of women being perfect is impossible.
Eucalyptus parodies the fairytale genre and comments on the unrealistic and overdone nature of its history. The character of Ellen reads as though she is a princess trapped in a castle, alike to the fairytales of Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, where the princess is rescued by a prince. The text parodies this old fashioned writing by using its modern day setting. Ellen waits for her prince to come to her, which he does, by telling her stories: ‘So absorbed had Ellen become in the slowly told stories of the stranger, so much a part of her day now, she took little notice of the eucalypts behind the stories; she allowed the world, which was his and far beyond, to come to her’ (Bail, p. 87). This element of interweaving modern day aspects achieves the creation of a unique piece of writing, because it helps integrate the important sense of female empowerment. The reader becomes aware that the fairytale nature of the novel should not be taken seriously. Although one of the first sentences is, ‘Once upon a time there was a man…Not the most original way to begin’ (Bail, p. 3), this deters the readers from believing it is a fairytale, but actually a parody. Again by saying, ‘The idea that Holland’s daughter was like the princess locked in the tower of a damp castle was of course false’ (Bail, p. 53), the readers can distance the novel from being one of a fairytale. Hateley (2005, p. 1023) writes, ‘Postmodern parody can potentially be seen as a “testing ground” for academic principles because it bears with it the possibility of reifying and critiquing what remains symbolic or implicit in traditional realist narratives and their circulation by the critical community’. By incorporating parody in the novel, Bail achieves in questioning what it means to be a feminist, as Ellen is trapped figuratively in her father’s house, rather than literally, like a princess with no means of escape in a castle. He notes that in modern day society, women are yet to be freed of the social mores of marriage and domestic duties, and uses Ellen’s story as a way of eliciting this problem. Henceforth, Bail’s text parodies the old fashioned fairytale stories to comment on how women can be independent from men.
Bail’s novel produces the great theme of landscape, which covers what could be perceived as one of Australia’s identities. Holland’s fascination with eucalypts stretches into his adoration for the Australian landscape. His two loves are his land and his daughter, where, ‘Within each step the landscape unfolded and named itself…It all belonged to him’ (Bail, p. 3), however he understands that ‘this here place would be an empty shell’ (Bail, p. 164) if Ellen were to leave him. Holland observes that the landscape is what defines the country, as he says, ‘Art is imperfect, unlike nature which is casually “perfect”’ (Bail, p. 131). Landscape clearly has its own identity in the novel, and is seen is as a primarily important part and defining feature of Australia (About Eucalypts n.d.). In relation to the issue of gender equality, this theme of landscape creates a sense of equality of the sexes due to the calming effect it has on the characters. In relation to other texts in Australian literature, this theme differs to what is usually seen, where fear is often shown through the landscape. In Eucalyptus, the landscape provides comforting and humorous qualities, which is the opposite to Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1967), as the landscape is the key factor in the mass hysteria after two women go missing. However, an opposing view could be that the landscape is in fact a term of punishment for Ellen, and could be seen as something that is feared by her due to the way she is confined there. Although Eucalyptus does not touch onto the problems of the Indigenous Australians’ struggle of land ownership, it is worth noting because they are part of Australia’s identity. Holmqvist (2013, p. 29) theorises, ‘[A] ghostly or eerie aspect of the Australian cultural landscape may have stemmed from a lack of acknowledgement of the Aborigines and their culture despite the fact that Aboriginal beliefs were still very much present and influencing the mythical character of the rural Australian landscape’. Therefore, the questionable nature of the Australian landscape could be a result from the lack of cultural recognition for the Aboriginal people, hence the sense of fear that the landscape in Australia can possess. Landscape is used in the text to unite both the genders, and in that sense is able to constitute as contributing to the feminist movement.
Bail’s novel clearly portrays the male as the dominant figure through the use of his language regarding Australia’s culture. Holland, the narrator, immediately states of Australia, ‘Let’s not forget about the shapeless women, the crude language, the always wide horizon, and the flies’ (Bail, p. 1-2), which advocates his views that Australia is not perfect. It also pinpoints that his story will not showcase that of a proper feminist reading, as he sees the women in Australia as “shapeless”. The view that he has on his daughter is similar, yet he sees her as having a “speckled beauty” (Bail, p. 32), and therefore worthy of his time in protecting her and finding her an eligible suitor. While not constituting as a great feminist text, the novel does show instances of feminist writing, such as Holland’s realisation that Ellen ‘has no idea what men took and discarded, how they went about it’. This proves that Holland is able to note that men are capable of showing inequality, and hopes to ensure that his daughter is not burdened with a man who does not understand this. The men in Eucalyptus do not portray the old Australian idea of the bushmen, as they are rather timid and unadventurous. Holland cares deeply for his daughter and spends his life tending to his hundreds of different species of eucalypts. Using the bushman concept in one’s writing would not help provide what is needed to create a feminist piece of literature, so Bail’s novel recognises that the idea of the bushman is outdated. The weekly magazine entitled The Bulletin commented on society, particularly in a cruel way between 1880 and 1918, and the works sometimes mentioned feminists negatively (Thompson, 2013). Bail’s text achieves in distancing itself from these old views that was the Australian culture during the nineteenth century, and is able to write a narrative from the point of view from a man who does not represent the idea of the bushman. As the bushman theory is clearly exclusive from women, it shows an obvious lack of equality between the sexes. However, the bushman culture has lessoned and has not been as prevalent during recent years, where, ‘After 2000 years of contact between bushmen and other peoples, the questions of who exactly is a bushman, and what bushman culture is and where it comes from, have become a major subject not only of academic but also of political discussion’ (Wright et al. 2014, p. 735). Feminism during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were criticised in literature like The Bulletin, where the idea of the bushman was projected onto white males in Australia. Bail’s novel pushes away from this idea to succeed in showing more of a feminist perspective.
Murray Bail’s Eucalyptus evidently attempts to portray a feminist text, but cannot entirely be classified as one because of several reasons, such as the character of Ellen’s inability to make decisions for herself. It parodies the fairytale genre by setting the novel up with generic fairytale features, and using a modern day setting. In relation to the issue of women, the different identities and cultures in Australia have shaped over the years to include women more generally. Eucalyptus does not seem to match the same feminist novels that were present during the 1970s, and thereby does not contribute greatly towards feminist literature. The idea of both landscape and the bushman relate to this novel, and can be tied in with the important theory of feminism, which lastly somewhat makes this novel sympathetic towards women.
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