Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011
14 Pages, Grade: 1,0
1 Australia’s Question of Identity
2 The Concept of a Nation
3 The Myth of Ned Kelly
4 Peter Carey’s True history of the Kelly Gang
4.1 The Purpose of Carey’s Style of Writing
4.2 The Question of Ned as a National Hero
4.3 The Leitmotif of Cross-Dressing
5 True History of the Kelly Gang as a Role Model
6 Words Cited
British colonist, Irish immigrant, Aborigine...the list of different groups that define themselves as “Australians” is endless. Since Australia’s society can be seen as a “puzzle” consisting of European and Asian immigrants living together with Aborigines, the indigenous Australians, there is no unique culture. In other words, there is no one shared story, no essential Australian identity. Australia’s understanding of national identity to answer the question of who “we” (as Australians) are is and has always been an important part of literature, too. To get an insight into the Australian way of life it is important to investigate how literature constructs and shapes the understanding of a national identity. Just by analysing texts, including writings that have “[...] been ignored or excluded during the process of canonization” (Assmann 23) we are able to reconstruct the understanding of a national identity. Thus, although Australia, due to its heterogeneity, does not have a shared story, literature is able to design one.
One important class of literature that is essential to trace down shared values of a nation, a story that unites all members of a group, are legends. According to the Oxford dictionary, a legend, also called a myth, is defined as “a story from ancient times about people and events that may not be true [...]” (Hornby). It can be said that every culture has its own national legend that is being transmitted from generation to generation, serving as a shared history within one’s culture.
One of the most popular narratives of Australia is the legend around the Kelly Gang. The leader of the gang, Ned Kelly the notorious bushranger, can be compared to other literary heroes like, for example, Robin Hood, that stand for the prototype of a criminal but are also associated with the utmost generosity and kind-heartedness. His story has been created in multiple mediums like books, songs, poems and even cinema movies that are portraying the figure of Ned Kelly in many different ways. They have all shaped the understanding of Ned as Lena Margit Eberlein a national hero and made his story to an important part of Australian’s culture.
Due to the various retellings of the Kelly story, it is out of question that the figure of Ned Kelly imposes meaning to Australia’s past. One narrative, however, made the Kelly story as popular as it has never been before: True history of the Kelly Gang. In contrast to other narratives around the Kelly gang, the figure of Ned, as a national symbol for Australia, is not taken for granted. Peter Carey’s novel does not intend to picture Ned Kelly as a national hero but wants to challenge the reader’s understanding of his or her identity. Instead of portraying the legend Ned Kelly as symbol that is shared by all Australians the novel questions the way Australians define themselves as “we” by the means of a joint national hero.
The survey that will be given refers to Peter Carey’s True Story of the Kelly Gang and shows how his novel questions Australia’s identity with the image of the national hero Ned Kelly. Firstly, it will be explained how the social construct of a national identity refers to the idea of a cultural memory. Subsequently, it is shown how Peter Carey uses a certain style of writing to confirm the reader in his opinion about the existence of a national hero named Ned Kelly as the writer of the novel. Afterwards it will be depicted how the heterogeneous figure of Ned is portrayed in Carey’s novel in order to question the reader’s understanding of a national hero. Finally, it will be demonstrated why Carey uses the theme of cross-dressing to allude to Australia`s comprehension of identity and gender. On that account, the way how Australians see them as we, united by the Australian hero Ned Kelly, is questioned and simultaneously forces the reader to rethink his view on national identity.
To begin with, it seems advisable to define briefly the concept of national identity. According to Anderson, a nation is always “imagined”, meaning a social construct established by the members of a society. It can only be imagined because “[...] the members of even the Lena Margit Eberlein smallest nation never know most of their fellow member [...]” (Anderson 6) and therefore construct a community to which they feel connected.
In this community the members share common links to the past and cultural traditions that define them as we. Those traditions and shared values can occur, for example, in forms of songs or poems that are dealing with a nation’s past. Since we have not experienced our cultural past on our own we are just able to absorb retellings of our history and form a so- called “social group memory” or “collective memory” (Assmann 175). This cultural memory establishes an identity that separates itself from the otherness that does not share in the same memory (175). Consequently, the concept of an Australian nation is defined as an imagined construct shaped by a cultural memory.
The myth around the Kelly gang can be seen as a form of “social group memory” that has become fundamental, not only for the retelling of history as folk legend, but also for Australia’s construction of a national identity. The story of the Kelly Gang is transmitted orally but also in form of historical documents. The Jerilderie letter that was originally dictated by Ned Kelly to Joe Byrne in 1879 confirms Australia’s nation in its belief in the existence of the myth Ned Kelly (Jose 224). This only surviving piece of writing should justify the gang’s actions and make clear how the Irish had suffered unjustly under the British colonial rule. It is still exhibited in the State Library of Victoria and seen as one of the most important cultural documents of reconstructing Australia’s past (224).
Ned Kelly, as an icon for Australia’s identity has occupied Australians ever since his death and became one of Australia’s most powerful narratives.
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