The Making of a New Zealander by Frank Sargeson, 1940

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by Frank Sargeson, 1940

Frank Sargeson's "The Making of a New Zealander" was first published in the Christchurch periodical Tomorrow early in 1939. He then entered it in the Centennial Literary Competition, in which it was judged first equal, and collected it in his 1940 volume A Man and His Wife. The title points toward the kind of cultural reference that is left implicit in the story itself and that underlies much of Sargeson's work.

In its method, world, and attitude the story is typical of Sargeson's classic period (1935-45). The method turns on the point of view. It is a first-person narration told by an involved observer who is looking back on the experience but still uncertain of its significance, if any: "What I want to tell is about how I sat on a hillside one evening and talked with a man. That's all, just a summer evening and a talk with a man on a hillside. Maybe there's nothing in it and maybe there is." The title points to a significance beyond the narrator's ability to articulate. From the point of view follows a language appropriate to the narrator—laconic, understated, vernacular, literal. Also from the point of view comes the structure, that of the anecdotal yarn appropriate to such a speaker—open-ended, seemingly casual, yet implicitly epiphanic.

The world of the story is that of most of Sargeson's early work. The place is rural North Island in New Zealand, perhaps North Auckland, during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The society in the background is dour, joyless, puritan, and conservative. Its primary representative in the story is Mrs. Crump, the hardworking wife of a farmer. She is dominating and judgmental, approving of her neighbor Nick only because he works hard and is loyal to his mate. Also representative of New Zealand society is the narrator, a casual laborer with a real feel for work on the land, a man of sensitivity and intelligence but someone rootless and repressed. At the center of the story is Nick, a Dalmatian immigrant trying to succeed as an apple grower on marginal land. He works hard, and puts too much manure on his apple trees, in order to succeed in the New Zealand way, but he finds real meaning only in mateship. He is sure that somehow "it's all wrong" in a society in which the concern is "money, money, money, all the time," where even marriage is sacrificed to economic necessity. Thus, as he proclaims to the narrator, he is a communist. He knows that Mrs. Crump would not approve, but then he sees her as a woman who would be happier in a less commercially individualistic and more communal society such as the Dalmatian, although he also knows that she is not aware of this.

The plot of the story, such as it is, consists of the conversation between Nick and the narrator and of its aftermath. Nick states his sense that something is wrong, and the narrator thinks that Nick may be right but disapproves of his politics. When Nick says that he is a New Zealander, the narrator knows that this is not really true but that Nick is not a Dalmatian any longer either. They agree to talk again, but the narrator is sacked the next day for telling Mrs. Crump that her heart is in the wrong place. (He meant that she should be in Dalmatia.) He goes to town to drink and to get Nick off his mind.

To be a New Zealander, the story implies, is to be relentlessly practical and materialistic, lacking any close relationship with the land and valuing only the money to be made from it. Thus, despite his efforts to adapt, Nick cannot be a real New Zealander because he is too emotional and wants more from life than material success. The story thus implies that New Zealand society, as formed over its first 100 years, is in some ways unnatural, running counter to basic human needs and values. It is not "God's own country," as New Zealand would like to believe, but a place where it is "all wrong." The narrative method, asking the reader to read between the lines and see what the narrator cannot articulate or even allow himself to feel, makes the meaning all the more powerful. The reader is required to participate to make sense of the story. As in much of Sargeson's work, less is more.

—Lawrence Jones