Fiction: Oceanic Fiction and Religion

views updated


Oceania names the lands of the South Central Pacific. It is an area bounded to the west by the east coast of Australia, to the north by Hawai'i, to the east by Easter Island (Rapanui), and to the south by New Zealand (Aotearoa). Spanish explorers had charted Pacific Islands in the early seventeenth century, and James Cook discovered parts of New Zealand in 1769 and both Hawai'i and the east coast of Australia in 1788. However, oral narrative began in Oceania long before there was any contact with European culture.

In Australia two migrant groups existedone arriving some 70,000 years ago, almost certainly from Indonesia, and the other about 50,000 years ago, most likely from southern China. Modern Aborigines are the descendents of these groups, although precise lines of descent cannot be drawn. Nor is it known how Aboriginal religious practices derive from the migrants. Yet it is correct to speak of Aboriginal religions, not religion. It was the arrival of the European culture that changed the perception of the indigenous population and made its beliefs and cultures appear more homogeneous than they likely were. The first narratives on the continent take the form of song cycles, which are not well translated by either the term fiction or poetry.

With the exception of Easter Island, which was reached from South America, the Pacific Islands were settled by Asians. Between two and three thousands years ago, migrants used Melanesia as a base and branched out from there to Fiji and Tahiti. The Hawaiian islands appear to have been settled by Polynesians, who set out from Tahiti about 1,600 years ago. In New Zealand migrants started to arrive some 1,500 years ago from Melanesia, and by 1300 ce a significant Polynesian settlement appears to have been in place. Hawai'i and New Zealand share legends of gods and goddesses that originated in Tahiti. Stories of Maui, who fished for islands, and Tawhaki, who visited the heavens, can be found on many islands. The notions of mana and tabu on which so much twentieth-century speculation about religion dependsderive from Polynesia and influence the stories told about the spirit world. Unlike the polytheistic islanders, the Aborigines follow totemic religious practices. Yet, on neither side of the Tasman Sea is it possible to recover a pristine sense of beliefs before European colonization. With the European settlers came Christianity. The first Anglican service in Australia was held in 1788. Not until 1814 did Samuel Marsden (17641838) establish a mission in New Zealand, whereas missionaries arrived in Hawai'i in 1820, following a royal decree for the natives to give up paganism. Throughout Oceania, narrative fiction followed only on Christian settlement.

Religious Narrative Fiction

A narrative fiction oriented to religious themes began in Australia in 1838 with John Curtis's Shipwreck of the Stirling Castle. It turns on the tale of Elisa Fraser, shipwrecked on K'gari (now Fraser Island) in 1836. Mrs. Fraser's faithlike that of the Children of Israel (and like Jesus in the wilderness)is put to the test. Her story is retold by Patrick White in A Fringe of Leaves (1976) but with the female character, Ellen Roxburgh, who has lost her faith in the Christian God and is supported solely by a faith in life itself.

Aboriginal religion appears briefly in James Tucker's Ralph Rashleigh (1845?) but is quickly dismissed as infantile, a matter of warriors' ghosts. Tucker's character Rashleigh is aware that the Aborigines regard certain sites as sacred but interprets their awe simply as fear of supernatural beings. About the same time, Charles Rowcraft's novel The Bushranger of Van Dieman's Land (1846) at least admitsalbeit somewhat patronizinglythat the black people have souls. Not until White's The Tree of Man (1955) and Voss (1957) is there an authentic sense that Aborigines discern a true spirit in the land. Randolph Stow, especially in To the Islands (1958), casts Aboriginal spirituality as superior to imported Christian beliefs. The character Stephen Heriot, a sixty-seven-year-old missionary, loses his faith and with the help of an Aboriginal guide gains a visionary understanding of the Kimberlies. His spirit eventually merges with that of the land.

Returning to the nineteenth century, Christian moralism is strongly felt in the stories of Mary Vidal collected in Tales for the Bush (1845). As with Curtis's Elisa Fraser, the perspective is female. However, now decency rather than survival is the pressing concern. Christianity reveals itself mainly in the need to keep the working people honest and the Sabbath holy. A stronger evangelical current is felt in Caroline Leakey's The Broad Arrow (1859), which, like Ralph Rashleigh, is set in Tasmania. The heroine is sentenced to life imprisonment there, becomes a "fallen woman," and then finally repents. In the mid-twentieth century there is still interest in the Hobart of convict times, although it is characteristic of the times that Hal Porter's novel The Tilted Cross (1961) appeals to Christianity for its symbolism rather than for its spiritual discipline. Throughout the nineteenth century and well after, Australia is represented as a dangerous place for inexperienced Europeans, and more often than not, the land punishes their innocence. Thus there are many stories of children lost in the bush, the best known of which remains Marcus Clarke's "Pretty Dick" (1869). The poor boy dies in the unforgiving landscape, but when at story's end the reader is informed "God had taken him home," the narrator's tone is hardly comforting.

A skeptical attitude toward religion, combined with an anticlerical attitude, gain force in the late nineteenth century. Both can be felt in The Bulletin in the 1890s, the magazine's heyday. Only among Catholic writers are clerics at all well regarded; elsewhere, it is remembered that the established Church was rarely a friend of the poor. The Victorian era continues to attract contemporary novelists. In Oscar and Lucinda (1988), Peter Carey shows an Anglican minister of that time who, like Pascal but with rather less spirit, regards the religious life as a bet on the existence of God. It is more indicative of the late-twentieth than the nineteenth century, however, that when Oscar dies he begs forgiveness for his part in the death of Aborigines.

Two geographical figures largely organize the plane of religious experience in Australian fiction: the island and the desert. Neither is simple. If the island can be a site of suffering (as it is for Curtis and White), it can also be a metaphor for death transfigured by native understanding (as it is for Stow). It can also be a new Eden. So it is in Martin Boyd's Nuns in Jeopardy (1940) and Thea Astley's Girl with a Monkey (1958). In Voss and To the Islands, the desert is a metaphor for a spiritual quest, whereas for Kim Scott in True Country (1993), the Outback stands for the sacred. In the middle of this plane of religious experience, a variety of figures can be found: White's Stan and Amy Parker in The Tree of Man as a new Adam and Eve; a sense of the divine in the landscape in Elizabeth Jolley's Palomino (1980), as well as a folding of the notion of pilgrimage in her Mr. Scobie's Riddle (1983); and a discernment of vocation in David Malouf's Remembering Babylon (1995).

Denominational and Religious Influences

Of the Christian denominations, the Catholics have spent most time exploring the institutional dimension of religion in Australia. Thomas Keneally's Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968) is set in a seminary and casts a comic eye on ecclesial politics and theological niceties. In New Zealand, Elizabeth Smither also attends to post-Vatican II perplexities in her story "Sister Felicity and Sister Perpetua" (1994). A novelist of ideas, the Australian Morris West has gone the furthest in Church politics in his "Vatican series": The Shoes of the Fisherman (1963), The Clowns of God (1981) and Lazarus (1990). Gerard Windsor examines an Australian salesman in Ireland hawking religious accessories in his novella That Fierce Virgin (1988) and hints at mystical depths older than Christianity. The theme of Catholic childhood, often guilt-ridden, has received ample treatment in twentieth-century Australian fiction. Gerald Murnane's Tamarisk Row (1974) and A Lifetime on Clouds (1976) represent the strain at its most enduring.

Predominantly Christian since settlement, Australia also has sizableand growingnumbers of Buddhists and Muslims. Yet, of the non-Christian faiths, only Judaism figures to any extent in Australian fiction. It does so significantly in White's fiction, beginning in The Living and the Dead (1941), and then with more force in Riders in the Chariot (1961), The Solid Mandala (1966) and The Eye of the Storm (1973). In Riders in the Chariot, Judaism and Christianity are confronted when Mordecai Himmelfarb, maker of bicycle lamps and a Jewish mystic, is crucified on a jacaranda tree in Sydney. Keneally's Schindler's Ark (1982) tells the story of Oskar Schindler who risks his life to help Polish Jews. Could a new religion be formed in the New World? Nevil Shute considers the possibility in Round the Bend (1951), in which a Malayan aircraft mechanic becomes the leader of a new religious movement. In The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1930), Henry Handel Richardson shows a grieving hero succumbing to spiritualism, and Kylie Tennant casts a wry eye on Southwell Vaughan-Quilter of the Order of Human Brotherhood in her novel Ride on Stranger (1943). Helen Garner's Cosmo Cosmolino (1992) treats New Age spirituality in the character of Maxine who shares a house in Carlton, Melbourne, with a fundamentalist, a skeptic, and a visiting angel. Garner is not the only Pacific writer interested in divine messengers: New Zealander Elizabeth Knox has an angel as a central character in her novel The Vintner's Luck (1999).

Patrick White saw Puritanism as a flaw in the Australian character. More so than in Australia, though, a strong strain of twentieth-century New Zealand fiction has been a diagnosis of and rebellion against a narrow-minded and unimaginative religious conservatism. It too is identified as Puritanism, although, as for White, the word indicates a belated Victorian prudery, loosely regarded as required for progress, rather than the fierce religious impulse of the early New Englanders. Jane Mander is the first to treat the theme in her The Story of a New Zealand River (1920), and Frank Sargeson approaches it in his early short stories, "A Good Boy" (1936) and "Good Samaritan" (1936), as well as in the novel I Saw in My Dream (1949). Joy Cowley's story "God Loves You, Miss Rosewater" (1978) should also be mentioned for its amused look at puritan sexuality. However, Maurice Gee provides the most pointed critique of the dolorous world, beginning with In My Father's Den (1972) and then in his "Plumb trilogy," especially the first volume, Plumb (1978).

Religious Themes

Religious themes appear from time to time in other works by New Zealand writers. Sargeson's story "Tod" (1938) poignantly evokes the human need to call on God. Allusions to Maori myths can be found in Witi Ihimaera's Tangi (1973), Keri Hulme's The Bone People (1983) and Patricia Grace's Potiki (1986). Note should also be made of Apirana Taylor's story "Carving up the Cross" (1990), which examines an artist's thwarted desire to combine Maori and Christian symbols. Michael Brown examines the transmigration of souls in his The Weaver's Apprentice (1986), whereas Vincent O'Sullivan observes a French nun who works among the poor in Believers to the Bright Coast (1998). As in Australia, a consciousness of a spirit in the land surfaces from time to time. Sargeson's story "Gods Live in Woods" (1943) is an instance, whereas Roderick Finlayson's story "Wi Gets the Gospel" (1937) sympathetically notes the loss of mana from the land for Mauris Ihimaera's story "The Greenstone Patu" (1977) identifies a powerful spirit in a patu (hand club). Special mention should be made of Tales of the Tikongs (1983), stories by the Tongan writer Epeli Hau'ofa that examine the ways in which the Bible has saturated the local culture.

Missionary activity in Hawai'i is the focus of Ruth Eleanor McKee's The Lord's Anointed (1934), a novel that stirred up controversy among descendents of the original missionaries. Jonathan and Constancy Williams are missionaries who came to the island in 1820; they exist side by side with historical characters and serve to highlight the hardships of daily life. Constancy relates in her diary that she feigned her conversion when smitten by Jonathan. The Return of Lono (1956) is O. A. Bushnell's historical novel about James Cook's last voyage to Hawai'i. John Forrest, the narrator, is the medium in which tensions between the faith exemplified by William Bligh and enlightened reason embodied in Cook are played out partly, if unknowingly, within himself. Without the slightest trace of original sin, the natives have nonetheless fallen victim to local priestcraft, he thinks. Hawai'i is at once a horrible place, filled with cruel gods and terrible injustices, and a paradise of graceful, generous people, an Eden that is soon to be lost by dint of the very presence of the white man. A clash between ancient Hawaiian spirituality and contemporary values is explored through the character of Mark Hull in John Dominis Holt's novel Waimea Summer (1976).

See Also

Christianity, article on Christianity in Australia and New Zealand; Cosmology, article on Oceanic Cosmologies; Oceanic Religions, overview article and article on Missionary Movements.


Charlesworth, Max. Religious Inventions: Four Essays. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. Study of Aboriginal religions in chapter 2.

Hogan, Michael. The Sectarian Strand: Religion in Australian History. Ringwood, Australia, 1987. History of religion in Australia.

Lindsay, Elaine. "Not the Desert Experience: Spirituality in Australian Women's Fiction." In Religion, Literature, and the Arts, edited by Michael Griffith and Ross Keating, pp. 23951. Sydney, Australia, 1994. Australian women's fiction and religion.

Scott, Jamie S., ed. "And the Birds Began to Sing": Religion and Literature in Post-Colonial Cultures. Cross-Cultures: Readings in Post/Colonial Literatures in English, vol. 22. Atlanta, Ga., 1996. Chapters on New Zealand and Tongan fiction.

Strum, Terry, ed. The Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English. 2d ed. Auckland, New Zealand, 1998. Excellent chapter by Lawrence Jones on the New Zealand novel.

Swain, Tony, and Garry Trompf. The Religions of Oceania. New York, 1995. Anthropological study of Oceanic religions.

Sumida, Stephen H. And the View from the Shore: Literary Traditions of Hawai'i. Seattle, Wash., 1991. Study of fiction in Hawai'i.

Williams, Mark, ed. The Source of the Song: New Zealand Writers on Catholicism. Wellington, New Zealand, 1995.

Kevin Hart (2005)