Gail Jones' "Sorry". Writing Style, Setting and Characters

Seminar Paper, 2013

25 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents




4.4. MARY



1. Introduction

This seminar paper was written for the course "SE Literature Seminar - Australian Literature" in the summer term 2013 at the University of Vienna. It contains reflections about the style, setting and main characters of the novel titled "Sorry" by Gail Jones.

2. Style

Jones’ writing style can be described as characterized by the usage of simple- structured sentences. The vocabulary, however, seems to be somewhat unusual for modern readers and therefore not very easy to read. Although characters are sometimes characterized directly (e.g., " Pearl was as rotund and smoothly white as her name suggested, and like Billy she was deaf," Jones, Sorry 197), the novel is dominated by characterizing the characters indirectly through the narrator's description of dialogues, actions and reactions of the characters (e.g., Nicholas as violent: "Nicholas tried to reason with his wife, but ended up hitting her", Jones, Sorry 16; Stella as bad mother: "Aboriginal women took Perdita into care for hours and Stella barely noticed her daughter's absence", Jones, Sorry 29). Sometimes, parts of dialogues are presented in direct speech which makes the narration and the characterisation of the characters more realistic and lively (e.g., "Sis […] had family all over, she said, all over the place, ebrywheres, ebrywheres roun [sic] here", Jones, Sorry 44).

In order to create suspense, the novel is not written in a direct and linear manner. It starts shortly after Nicholas Keene was killed. It is, however, unclear who killed him. Then the novel is dominated by flashbacks until the continuation of the murder scene at page 91. The murder scene is then repeatedly revisited (see Jones, Sorry 124) and the reader gradually gets new pieces of information. At the beginning of the novel, the situation after the murder is described in such a way that the reader thinks Mary was the killer. For the readers it soon becomes clear that information sources are restricted: Perdita had been traumatized by the death of her father, subsequently developed a stutter and lost her memory of what actually had happened. Furthermore, the contribution of the other witnesses seems to be very limited as Billy was unable to speak and Stella does not seem to be a very reliable information source given that she performed as Lady Macbeth when her husband was killed. At page 190, the readers are confronted with Perdita's suspicion that "her mother had murdered her father", however, this theory is soon discarded when Perdita's memory fully recovered (Jones, Sorry 193).

At some points, the narrator also uses foreshadowing and flash-forwards in order to inform readers about future developments of characters (e.g., "Stella died at the age of sixty-eight", Jones, Sorry 10; "he too would later suffer from compulsive reminiscences", Jones, Sorry 117; "That was the point, Perdita would realise much later, at which, in humility, she should have said 'sorry'", Jones, Sorry 204).

However, Jones' novel also has some rather experimental aspects which might break the expectations of the readership and thus could be perceived as irritating and impeding the reading flow (Jaggi par.7). One of these aspects is that the running text is sometimes interrupted by lengthy passages and even whole sonnets quoted from Shakespeare. Although this is quite unusual for a novel, it makes sense because it is used as a means of indirect characterisation and has relevance for the past.

Another irritating aspect is that the novel is narrated not in a single narrative mode, but sometimes in the first person, by a narrator that can be clearly identified as the main protagonist Perdita herself, and at other times in the third person, by a narrator whose identity is not explicitly made clear throughout the novel. Both narrative modes are switched repeatedly and unsystematically (at least for the average reader) without premonition or warning.

There are different interpretations for the usage of this narrative device. First, both narrators could be the main protagonist Perdita. Evidence for this interpretation would be that the third person narration is presented from a perspective focalizing on Perdita with complete insight into her thoughts. In this case, it could be that Perdita uses the third person view for more immediate descriptions of her younger self, and the first person view for more reflective retrospective description of her older self (i.e., at the time she is narrating the story). This interpretation can be backed up by the fact that the first person narrator Perdita tends to describe developments in the future that her younger self would not have known (e.g., "Of my complicated childhood, this event haunts me still […]", Jones, Sorry 135). However, the problem with this interpretation is that this distinction has not been implemented coherently by the author throughout the novel. There are also some paragraphs where the author uses the third person narrator to look into the future ("That was the point, Perdita would realise much later, at which, in humility, she should have said 'sorry'", Jones, Sorry 204).

Second, in the interpretation above, both narrators represent Perdita who seems to be credible and reliable, giving a truthful and non-selective account of her opinion and inner thoughts. However, there is one aspect that might call the assumption of a reliable narration into question, at least if both narrators are thought to be Perdita: both narrative voices at times have very detailed (almost omniscient) knowledge of what had happened and what other people had thought when Perdita was born and even before her birth (e.g., "[Nicholas] married my mother, I think, as some obscure, even unnameable, compensation. It was certainly not love […]", Jones, Sorry 4-5; "He wished privately […] that the newborn baby would not survive", Jones, Sorry 25; "He privately realised now that he would never become a famous intellectual", Jones, Sorry 39). Given the lack of communication with both of her parents, it is very implausible that they have told her these things1. One possibility to resolve this contradiction would be to maintain that Perdita withdrew from reality and simply reconstructed her past (see Koren 86) just as her mother did when she told the Ramsays that Nicholas had been killed by a bomb (Jones, Sorry 188). Given that Perdita's mother suffered from mental problems and dementia in her later life, it is possible that the narrator Perdita has suffered a very similar fate as her mother ("She feared, above all, becoming her mother", Jones, Sorry 208.) Perdita's being raised in an extremely dysfunctional setting, her trauma and the fact that she adopted the snow dream from her mother (Jones, Sorry 46, 214) could be used to make this interpretation even more plausible. Switching from the first person to the third person could be interpreted in a similar way as Perdita's mother's switching from reality to the realm of Shakespearean drama. In this case, Perdita would be an unreliable narrator.

Moreover, the switching could be regarded as purely experimental in order to achieve a certain effect in the readers, without any relevance for the story's plot. One reason for its usage could be to make the reading experience more dysfunctional in order to parallel the dysfunctional family relationships and the traumatic speech problems of Perdita. The usage of two different narration modes thus might be the "literary equivalent of the double vision induced by headaches […]" (McCrea 7).

Another reason could be that the switching to the third person narration is introduced in order to increase the distance of the readership to the main protagonist and to reduce reading speed in order to achieve a more thoughtful reading experience, because readers are forced to stop, reorientate and adapt themselves to the current mode of narration.

Finally, McCrea argued that the usage of only one narrative voice might be problematic from a postcolonial perspective because it tends "to reinforce the master narratives of patriarchal imperialism" (1). Jones' usage of a mixture of two different narrative voices might be a good compromise of the authorial thirdperson narration that "may seem all knowing" and the personal first-person narration that "may offer [only] a limited perspective" (1).

3. Setting

The novel is set in "the remote north-west" (Jones, Sorry 14) in the outback of Western Australia. The first part of the novel plays mainly in a shack next to a cattle farm twenty miles south-west from Broome and at some parts directly in Broome. Although the plot of the novel is fictitious, the historical events and the descriptions of every day life of the people in Broome very closely "corresponds to reality" (Koren 7). Broome was "largely an Asian and Aboriginal town, built around the pearling and cattle industries" (Jones, Sorry 15). The Keene family, which are the main characters of the story, belonged to the "tiny white community" (Jones, Sorry 15). Broome can be described as a rather desolate and barren city with "[c]orrugated iron shacks lined in red gravel roads, many of them rusted […]" (Jones, Sorry 15). It is interesting to mention that the author herself had spent part of her childhood in Broome (Jones, Shanghai Library Talk par. 6), which could be a reason for the detailed and accurate descriptions of the landscape and the surroundings.

Broome was one of the few places in Australia that had been attacked by the Japanese during the Second World War (see O'Connor 1). Some time after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, Broome "was emptying out" (Jones, Sorry 114), because the Japanese pearl divers were imprisoned and most other inhabitants were relocated to the South. At this time, the Keenes and the Trevors were evacuated to Perth. To the disappointment of Perdita, the main character, Perth was not a "stony, monumental and grand" place with "avenues, statues and spouting fountains", but it was "boring and unmonumental" (Jones, Sorry 116).

Regarding the timeframe, the novel takes place after the First World War until the end of the Second World War. Important years are 1930, when Perdita was born (Jones, Sorry 4), 1941, when Nicholas Keene was stabbed, Perdita developed her stutter, and the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor (Jones, Sorry 114) which led to the relocation of Stella and Perdita from Broome to Perth, and 1950, when Mary died of appendicitis (Jones, Sorry 210).

4. Main characters

4.1. Perdita Keene

Perdita Keene, the protagonist of "Sorry", was born in 1930 as the daughter of Nicholas and Stella Keene. She was not a planned child and her parents regarded her as "a mistake, a slightly embarrassing intervention" (Jones, Sorry 4). Her father wanted to abort her (see Jones, Sorry 22) and after birth hoped that she would die (see Jones, Sorry 25). Both Nicholas and Stella almost totally neglected her. Fortunately, the half-caste house helpers Sal and Daff took on a motherly role towards Perdita, raised her lovingly and showed her "what it is like to lie against a breast […]" (Jones, Sorry 4). When Perdita reached school age, Sal and Daff "disappeared with no warning" (Jones, Sorry 32). Instead of being sent away to school, she was home-schooled by her psychologically unstable mother. Perdita would later find out that a lot of what was taught to her was actually false and distorted by Stella's "addled vision of the world" (Jones, Sorry 35). During those years, Perdita learned many quotes taken from the works of


1 In other passages, such as in the following (Jones 74-75), Perdita makes clear that she has these limitations of knowledge:I have never discovered what treatment my mother received, or why, each time, her absences were so long […] she never spoke to me of her condition. […] By the time I was old enough to ask her, she was not interested in replying and had already begun, in any case, to enter the honeycomb of dementia.

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Gail Jones' "Sorry". Writing Style, Setting and Characters
University of Vienna
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writing, style, setting, characters, gail, jones, sorry
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Christoph Burger (Author), 2013, Gail Jones' "Sorry". Writing Style, Setting and Characters, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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