Transformation and growth of the McIvor family in David Malouf's "Remembering Babylon"

Term Paper, 2012

12 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Transformation and growth of the Mc Ivor family in David Malouf's

"Remembering Babylon"

1. Introduction

David Malouf's Remembering Babylon takes place in the 19th century in the outback of Queensland, Australia. The main character, Gemmy, a dark and uncivilised creature, appears out of nowhere one day and brings a lot of tension into the white settlers' village. He moves in with the Mc Ivor family, whose daughter Janet and adopted nephew Lachlan were amongst those who found Gemmy. Both children form a strong bond with Gemmy (though in very different ways), as does Mrs Ivor, who accepts him with much love from day one. Only Mr Ivor is sceptical at the beginning, but also grows to like the new family- member eventually. According to Doty and Risto (1996; p. 102), the main subject Malouf portrays in this novel is what they call "the characters’ struggling to achieve wholeness". Furthermore, Gemmy accordingly acts as a “catalyst for the other characters' growth and transformative experience”. This essay explores some of the main characters' transformation throughout the novel, as well as how their relationship to each other changes. This transformation is found to take place partly through Gemmy coming into their lives, as well as due to the originally Scottish family having immigrated to Australia.

2. Janet

Especially after Lachlan has come into the family’s life, young Janet feels invisible and unappreciated, longing for more of a sense in her life. When Lachlan arrived, he had been a disappointment to Janet, who had looked forward to him joining the family very much. With his snobbish attitude towards them he makes her feel humiliated straight away:

Janet saw, because he set out in his superior know-all way to make her see it, that the things they had been saving to show him, all their little treasures and secrets, were in his eyes poor- she had not seen till now just how poor. She felt humiliated, as if the poverty was in them From the first day of his arrival, there is always a struggle between her and Lachlan. Not only does she have to share her beloved mother with him, he segregates Janet by talking to Ellen in a Scottish accent. Janet is also no longer free to do as she wants, as Lachlan’s assumption of superiority shadows her and everything she does (cf. p. 56). Next to the ‘glowing’ and ‘radiant’ Lachlan she also starts to feel ugly: "She slipped away and stared into a glass but could find no such beauty- no promise of it either- in herself" (p. 58) More than that, the mere fact that he is a boy lays out a much brighter future for him than she would have. Janet on the other hand does not want to lead a life much like her mother’s, and in all her unhappiness is desperate, if only in her thoughts, to get away from the dull and ever so predictable life in the settlement: “She pored over books, anything she could lay her hands on that offered some promise that the world was larger, more passionate, crueller -even that would be a comfort- than the one she was bound to (p. 58)”.

One day, she discovers a small piece of delicate pink skin underneath the crust of dirt, which amazes her so much that to her “it might have belonged to some other creature altogether” (p. 59). She is intrigued by the thought that underneath her crusted skin lay a finer being that had somehow been covered up in her”. She becomes almost ecstatic, the whole world suddenly seems beautiful to her (cf.p. 60). She then goes on to dream about the fantasy character she would be destined to be, had her parents not “settled her fate” differently by calling her “plain Janet” (p. 60). And although she returns to reality quickly, stating that she was a “practical child and sceptical of mere feelings” more of these very spiritual experiences can be found later on, as well as epiphanies which seem to have quite an influence on her life.

The biggest transformation, or rather the biggest source of her transformation however, is when Janet starts working with the bees at Mrs Hutchence’s. Before she starts going to Mrs Hutchence’s house, Janet is in constant competition with Lachlan, who, when he joins the family, has a very negative influence on her life: “The struggle between them was fierce (...) she resented his easy assumption that he was superior, should take the lead in all their doings and that she must naturally yield to him” (p.56). Here some hidden gender issues can be found. The pure fact that Lachlan is a man makes him have a brighter future to come, which becomes obvious even at this early stage of their youth, for instance when when Lachlan goes hunting with the other men, and she is excluded from it. However things change when Janet starts going to Mrs Hutchence, which Lachlan, realises immediately when he sees her there first, and feels threatened in his role in her life:

He had taken for granted always that their lives were intertwined, by which he meant that her chief concern must be him. She did nothing to deny it, but was absorbed, he saw, in a world of her own that he had no part in (p. 164).

Later she realises that “the bees, now, were a necessity to her, as if without them she could never enter into her own thoughts” (p. 138). When Janet is with the bees, she manages to escape out of her own mind into the bees’ “communally single one”, so that she would know “what it was to be an angel” (Laigle, 1995, p. 141). Eventually, when a whole swarm of bees cover Janet’s body she emerges with 'a new body' as a 'new mind’ inside her separates itself from her old one, the two of them sending contradicting messages (“stand still, stand still. It was her old mind that told her this. (...) “You are our bride, her new and separate mind told her” (cf. p. 142). Eventually Janet becomes an expert on bees, much like Ms Hutchence. Later, when Janet has become Sister Monica she keeps glass hives to be able to watch the bees’ organised procedures and rituals which she had always found fascinating:

It was like peering into the City of God (...) into the life of little furryheaded angels with a flair for geometry and some power (this was the great Problem she had set herself) of communicating. The form of it was plainly visible, she knew (...) but her mind in its human shape could not grasp it, though there had been a moment, long ago, when she had known it, of this she was convinced. (p. 191- 192)

Furthermore, the bees become a symbol for Janet's identity, which she expresses by later having both local and imported bees. Just as she and her family immigrate to Australia, and try to blend in with the country's culture, Janet expects the intelligent bees with their strong communication to be able to do the same. Nonetheless, she does not seem to be able to understand how the bees communicate exactly. This can be seen as a symbol of her not understanding humans around her either. Just as there "had been a moment long ago when she had known of the bees communication, and how it worked" (p. 192), there had been a time when she had known the people around her, and how to read them, too. When Lachlan arrives, and through the events involving Gemmy however, she seems to have lost track with human's behaviour just as well and keeps herself more and more to herself, later changing completely in her personality.

2.1 The relationship between Janet and Lachlan

What is striking about the relationship between Lachlan and Janet is that, as irritating as he behaves towards Janet, she does not want to, and ultimately cannot, truly reject him. Lachlan comes, after all, from Scotland, the sacred home her mum had told her so much about. From all the stories she has heard, Scotland, where Janet herself has never been, has become a magical place to her. Therefore Janet had high expectations for Lachlan’s arrival. Imagining Scotland as "a world more alive and interesting, more crowded with things, with people too", he was supposed to "bring some of that with him" (p. 54). When he then arrives and acts with no gratitude for what they offer him (cf. P. 55) but only with arrogance, she feels humiliated and angered by him, yet when she mocks him to get back at him she feels as she was "going against herself" (p. 55). She would hate and love him at the same time, if only for her heritage which she does not want to be spoiled as her dream of a better life.

However, a time arrives when Lachlan experiences the same feeling of being left out as Janet must have done when he speaks Scottish to her mother, or when he is off hunting with the older men. When Gemmy is attacked at night, Janet is there and silently shares this experience with her parents, while nobody wakes Lachlan up, he is not even told the following morning. He notices something must have happened, yet nobody tells him, so that he has to find out from his companions in the playground, which is very bitter for him:

He felt betrayed on all sides. That Janet had been there and he had not. That he had slept through it like a mere kid. That they had let him sleep, as if he could be no help, and had afterwards kept it from him (p. 160).

For Janet on the other hand, this night has meant great gratification. For once she had something to share with her parents again which Lachlan was not part of . What is more, Janet will later describe a moment where her mother kissed her "as if in recognition of something between them that the others were to be kept from" as "the true moment of her growing up. This special moment can be seen as Janet's introduction into adulthood. Her mother seems to have decided that she is old enough to find out and be part of what is happening that night to Gemmy. She does not send her back to bed or tells her to look away. It is like she would 'move into the circle of adults' through this night. Neither does her mother see the need in talking through this, for a child possibly traumatic experience with Janet again, but only gives her a kiss in recognition of what happened instead. There seems to be no need to bring this night up again, since she appears to be old enough to deal with it herself.

Lachlan however, knows that things have changed when realising that she has her own little escape from day-to day life which has been made miserable by him. With going to Mrs Hutchence for tea, and later to work with the bees, Janet has created a world to herself, a world that does not include him. Lachlan’s desire to always be at centre-stage prevents him from simply joining in to the tea-party at Mrs Hutchence's when he comes across it in Chapter 17. He feels self-conscious and thinks Leona is making fun of him when she is trying to include him. He does not want to be included into what he sees as a silly game which she plays with several men in the group and reacts with indignation. However, when she subsequently draws back he takes offence all the same. This demonstrates that he is a very difficult character, showing a lot of pride and having a great desire to dominate others (cf. Laigle, 1995). Thus he would not be able to mix with such a large and versatile group, which Lachlan realises and leaves. Turning away from Mrs Hutchence's house though also means to turn away from Gemmy, which will become a traumatic experience for the boy who will years later still dream about the moment he last looks at Gemmy when he walks away.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


Transformation and growth of the McIvor family in David Malouf's "Remembering Babylon"
Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg
David Malouf's Remembering Babylon
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ISBN (Book)
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transformation, mcivor, david, malouf, remembering, babylon
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Anja Schulte (Author), 2012, Transformation and growth of the McIvor family in David Malouf's "Remembering Babylon", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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