The Representation of Maori Women in the Novels "Once Were Warriors" by Alan Duff and "Baby No-eyes" by Patricia Grace

Resistance and Social Change in Postcolonial Literature

Term Paper, 2012

15 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of content

1. Introduction

2. The status of Maori women in New Zealand
2.1 The status of Maori women in New Zealand before colonisation
2.2 The status of Maori women in New Zealand under the English law and today...

3. The character of Beth Heke portrayed in Alan Duff's novel „Once were Warriors“

4. The character of Te Paania portrayed in Patricia Grace' novel „Baby No­eyes“

5. The representation of Maori women in the novels

6. Conclusion

Cited Work List



This essay explores the representation of Maori women in two novels written by Maori authors. One book is the highly controversial and bestselling novel of Alan Duff “Once Were Warriors”, which was first published in 1990 and later turned into a movie adaption by Lee Tamahori. The other book I will focus on is written by the famous author Patricia Grace, who is known for creating stories with powerful women characters. The title of the book is “Baby No­eyes” and it was first published in 1998.

Both novels deal with resistance and social change and we can find representations of strong Maori having a positive influence on their family and their environment. The main struggles with effects of colonialism and imperialism after the English settlers arrived are topics in both books. The main characters Te Paania and Beth Heke seem to be very different at the beginning, but both represent the ideal of a Maori women, being a leader and a warrior.

In the next chapters I want to give a short introduction to the social status of Maori women in New Zealand before the colonization and after the English settlers arrived. Then I will compare the characters of Beth Heke from the novel “Once were Warriors” and Te Paania from the novel “Baby No­eyes”. I want to focus mainly on their struggles and the finding of solutions for their own well­being and the well­being of their family. Finally, in the last chapters I want to draw a conclusion and find out, in how far the representation of the Maori women serve each novel’s wider political project.

2. The status of Maori women in New Zealand

The status of Maori women has changed over the years due to the western influence and the colonization through the English settlers. To understand the actions and the representation of the Maori women in the novels I want to give a brief overview of the social status/mana of Maori women. I mainly focus on the text Maori Women: Caught in contradiction of a colonised reality by Annie Mikaere.

2.1 The Status of Maori Women before Colonization

Mikaere claims, that the role of the Maori can be only understood in their traditional world view which consists of the natural order of the universe, the interrelationship of all living beings and the over­arching principle of balance (cf. Mikaere 1). Maori men and women should be seen as part of a whole and women played a special part of connecting past actions with present happenings.

According to Annie Mikaere there are many indications for a balance and equality between men and women. One example is a linguistic explanation. She claims, that both personal pronouns in the Maori language are gender­neutral and therefore a indication for no hierarchy of sexes (cf. Mikaere 2). Moreover she explains, that the word “whenua” means land and is also the Maori word for afterbirth. “Hapu” stands for large kinship groups but can be also translated as “pregnant” (cf. Mikaere 2). Mikaere states, that those examples show the strong recognition of women in the Maori culture. Language is part of every culture and can represent the different social status a man or woman can have in a certain society.

Childbirth was not seen as punishment in life like in Christianity. Maori women were very liberated, they were even allowed to dress like men. Assaults on women were regarded as crimes and highly punished. Maori women had their support from their own family/whanau and a marriage was not a transferal of property from father to the husband of the woman. A Maori woman remained in her whanau, even after deciding to live with the whanau of her husband. A divorce was not a sin or carried no stigma. Compared to a christian women, Maori women were more free, independent and liberated. (cf. Mikaere 2)

2.2 The status of Maori women under English law and today

With the arrival of the first English explorers and settlers, a new culturally specific understanding of a role and status of women came to New Zealand. The family/whanau ­ as Maori have known it before ­ got destroyed and this was most damaging for the Maori communities. The European ethic of individualism could not deal with the traditions and the world view of the Maori peoples.

In 1909 the Native Land Act was established by the Crown and it required Maori to undergo marriage ceremonies. Those influences changed the role of a Maori women towards her husband - Mikaere explains, that a Maori woman became dependent on her husband and isolated at home as care givers for her family (cf. Mikaere: 7). Maori women were expected to be obedient to her husband, at the same time men became the head of a family.

The situation has not changed much nowadays. Since colonisation is not a finished process, women still struggle with the cultural and social change caused by the English settlers. In a Maori women government report of 2007 there are many evidences, that Maori women remain almost absent from consultative and advising facilities set up by the English Crown (cf. Mana/Status of Maori Women, 2007 / p. 2­5). Moreover Maori women are often isolated from the support of their whanau. Mikaere claims, that this kind of isolation is not only physically but also culturally. Many Maori women suffer from overwork, domestic violence and mental illness (cf. Mikaere 13).

Beth Heke in “Once were Warriors” is an example of a Maori woman, struggling with the loss of the support of her whanau. The destructive impact of christian ideals and the English common law principles can be best seen in Alan Duff’s novel. Mikaere states, that the Maori society got disrupted by the arrival of the English settlers and nowadays Maori women are still struggling alone ­ they don’t mix with Pakeha feminists (cf. Mikaere 14).

3. The character of Beth Heke portrayed in Alan Duff’s novel “Once Were Warriors”

Beth Heke lives with her kids and her husband in the council estate Pine Blocks, a life which is unfortunate and exhausting for Beth and her family. The husband, Jake Heke is alcohol addicted and aggressive, regularly beating up his wife. The elder son Nig joins a gang and the younger brother Boogie is send to an approved school after getting caught prising a car. After the daughter Grace is raped forced to commit suicide, Beth finally decides to leave her husband and goes back with her family to her own whanau.

The character of Beth Heke changes during the novel, she is represented as a obedient, torpid woman, who turns into a strong and independent symbol of the Maori culture. Beth is aware of her miserable situation, but not able to change it. She seems helpless and weak at the beginning of the novel.

Good luck to you, white man, for being born into your sweet world, and bad luck to you, Beth Heke (who used to be a Ransfield but not that life was so much better then), for being married to an arsehole. And yet I love him. Just can ’ t help myself. ” (qtd. in Duff: 7)

Beth is coded as financially and mentally depending on her husband, knowing that he is treating her bad. We can see, that the Christian ideals influenced the family­live of Maori people and changed the free status of the woman to an obedient wife. Beth is represented as hopeless and resigning, unable to improve her own situation.

She had dreams then. But they got lost along the way. Sixteen years is a long time. For dreams to stay alive. ” (qtd. in Duff: 8)

On the day of the court hearing of the younger son Boogie, Beth cannot accompany him. She fails to fulfill her role as mother and her daughter Grace is accompanying him instead. This scene shows the broken home of a Maori family background and again Beth is represented as a woman, who cannot change her own situation. The ordinary roles of a family are represented as disrupted. Beth fails and her daughter is the one, fulfilling the duties of a mother and housewife.

However, Beth is represented as a loving and caring person, feeling pity for the miserable life of her own children. She also feels responsible for the poor children of her neighborhood, but again she is unable to react and just can resign. Duff shows with the following quote, that Beth's family is not the only one in Pine Block having a hard life. Beth's family is just representing the whole miserable life of all Maori inhabitants of Pine Block.

(...) once Beth ’ d watched a kid ­ oh, the poor little bugger ­ one rainy afternoon out her bedroom window, a wreck across the street, and knew from the jerking movements the poor little fucker was masturbating. Made her weep. Turn her eyes away and weep. ” (qtd. in Duff: 15)

Beth is coded as alcohol addicted and angry and dissatisfied with herself. After getting beaten up by her husband again, she does not take any steps to change the situation, but decides to drink and smoke in the kitchen until her children come home. Drug addiction and drug abuse is one of the main topics dealt with in Duff's novel. For the Maori population represented in the Pine Block neighborhood it seems to be the only solution to make the life more bearable.


Excerpt out of 15 pages


The Representation of Maori Women in the Novels "Once Were Warriors" by Alan Duff and "Baby No-eyes" by Patricia Grace
Resistance and Social Change in Postcolonial Literature
University of Potsdam  (Institut fuer Anglistik)
Historiography and Trauma in Recent Maori Literature
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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maori, trauma, post-colonial, literature, new zealand
Quote paper
Friederike Börner (Author), 2012, The Representation of Maori Women in the Novels "Once Were Warriors" by Alan Duff and "Baby No-eyes" by Patricia Grace, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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