Representation of Space in David Malouf’s "The Conversations at Curlow Creek"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2018

17 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Theoretical framework
2.1 The concept of space
2.2 Representation of Australia in settler-colonial discourse/ literary works

3 Spatial representation of Australia as opposed to Ireland in Malouf’s The Conversations at Curlow Creek
3.1 Representation of Australia
3.2 Representation of Ireland
3.3 Contrasting juxtaposition of Australia and Ireland

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

“In the field of postcolonial studies […], space has always been central.” (Teverson, Upstone 1). Nature as the most central aspect of space and its particular representation constitutes a permanent trait of Australian settler literature, finding expression in vivid depictions of the overwhelming vastness and harshness of the Australian landscape (cf. Huggan, Tiffin 31f.). Scholars of Antipodean culture emphasise the power of nature on both personal and national matters. With respect to Australia, Krahn (2000) points to the impact that space has on self-conception, arguing that notions of space/ place have been central in the cultural self-definition of settler colonies like Australia, since difference in place is the most visible marker distinguishing the colony from the imperial motherland. In Australian literary discourses, place is very much tied up with landscape, presumably as difference in landscape foregrounds the distinguishing difference of place. Landscape is thus used to emphasise the distinctiveness of Australia, from earliest colonial writings to the present day discourses of nationalism, literature and tourism (Krahn 29).

Against these backgrounds and with the objective to corroborate theoretical foundations on the representation of Australia in (pre-)colonial (literary) discourse, The Conversations at Curlow Creek by David Malouf will be analysed and examined with regard to the spatial representation of Australia as contrasted with Ireland, juxtaposing the portrayals of both countries by highlighting their major disparities adverted to in the novel. In the course of this, dichotomies as one identifiable literary device, which serves as an amplification of the images the author aims at getting across, will be pointed to.

Prior to that, the concept of space will be elaborated on, providing a definition and conceptual differentiation within the scope of narratology. Furthermore, the characteristic representation of Australia in colonial discourse will be expounded, particularly relating to aspects of landscape.

Finally, a conclusion based on the results of the textual analysis will be provided, substantiating the underlying theoretical foundations.

2 Theoretical framework

The following chapter aims at expanding on the concept of space, a fundamental category that structures human experience along with time (cf. Ryan 420). First, a definition of space will be provided, followed by an elucidation of its role and diverging levels in narratology. Subsequently, the aforementioned, prevalent representation of Australia in colonial discourse will be gone into in further detail.

2.1 The concept of space

According to Ryan (2009), “[r]epresentations of space are not necessarily narratives -think of geographical maps, landscape paintings, etc.- but all narratives imply a world with spatial extension, even when spatial information is withheld” (Ryan 420). However, it is difficult to find an unambiguous definition of ‘space’, as various sources define it from different angles and dimensions. The Oxford English Dictionary, inter alia, defines space as the “[p]hysical extent or area; extent in two or three dimensions”1, whereas The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, defines it as “[…] an extended manifold of several dimensions […]; in particular, the three-dimensional manifold in which physical objects are situated and with respect to which their mutual positions and distances are defined” (DiSalle 866f.).

Within the scope of narratology and related fields, the concept of space needs to be differentiated into literal as well as metaphorical uses (cf. Ryan 420f.). The majority of spatial concepts advanced in literary as well as cognitive theory can be found on a metaphorical level for they fail to capture physical being, as, for instance, the concept of mental spaces, “[…] which are constellations of meanings held together in the mind” (ibid. 421). Furthermore, the indivisibility of space and time needs to be pointed out as all “space-occupying” events extend over a certain period of time (cf. Buchholz, Jahn 551).

In narratology, the relevance of the concept of space is not restricted to the representation of a particular world, which serves as a “[…] container for existents and as a location for events” (Ryan 421). Textual spatiality can be subdivided into four forms at the minimum, the most significant of which will be focused in the following, namely narrative space.

Strictly speaking, narrative space concerns the physical environment in which story-internal characters live and move (cf. Buchholz, Jahn 552). This space is characterised by numerous conditions. Firstly, by boundaries which distinguish it from co-, super- and subordinate spaces. Secondly, by objects it comprises. Thirdly, by the living conditions which this space holds and, ultimately, by its temporal dimension. Consequently, narrative space includes particular landscapes and atmospheric conditions at a specific time (cf. ibid.).

A useful distinction is put forward by Ronen (1986), who speaks of ‘framing’ spaces as “[…] places and locations which provide a topological determination to events and states in a story” (Ronen 423). Her ‘frames’ “[…] differ according to their position in the overall organization of [...] the fictional universe” (ibid.). Whereas a setting stands for “[…] the zero point where the actual story-events and story-states are localized, […] the actual immediate surrounding of an object, a character or an event”, so-called ‘distant frames’ cover “[…] spatial locations capable of extending over a sequence of actions, events and situations” (ibid.). These literary spaces, which are “[…] outside the spatial focus of the narration (i.e., outside story-space), are no less significant than frames forming part of the actual story-space” (ibid.).

There is no established terminology to distinguish the levels/ layers of narrative space, however, the following part of this subchapter will be based on five principal, partly previously mentioned categories suggested by Ryan (2009) (cf. Ryan 421).

1) ‘Spatial frames’: “[T]he immediate surroundings of actual events, the various locations shown by the narrative discourse or by the image.” Spatial frames may be considered “shifting scenes of action”, which can blend into one another. For instance, a kitchen frame can turn into a bathroom frame as the story-internal characters move about in the house (ibid. 421f.).

2) ‘Setting’: “[T]he general socio-historico-geographical environment in which the action takes place.” As opposed to spatial frames, the setting represents a fairly stable category, spanning the whole text (ibid. 422).

3) ‘Story space’: “[T]he space relevant to the plot, as mapped by the actions and thoughts of the characters.” It entails all spatial frames as well as all places referred to in the text “[…] that are not the scene of actually occurring events” (ibid.).

4) ‘Narrative (or story) world’: “[T]he story space completed by the reader’s imagination on the basis of cultural knowledge and real world experience” (ibid.).

5) ‘Narrative universe’: “[T]he world (in the spatio-temporal sense of the term) presented as actual by the text […]”, together with all the counter-factual worlds created by characters as, among other aspects, beliefs, wishes, assumptions or hypothetical thinking (ibid.).

These levels are described from a fixed perspective as ultimate products of interpretive performance, however, they are gradually unveiled to the reader throughout the text’s temporal development. The dynamic way of presenting spatial information may be referred to as the ‘textualisation of space’, which turns into a ‘narrativisation’ when it becomes the setting of a temporally evolving action (ibid. 423).

Moreover, Buchholz and Jahn (2008) distinguish three general ways of representing space, the latter of which pertains verbal narratives: ‘scenic presentation’, which is the case in theater, ‘depiction’ in the case of film or pictures and ‘description’. This literary description “[…] relies on gapping and audience cooperation to accomplish its task” (Buchholz, Jahn 553). Deictic expressions such as “here” and “there” play a crucial role in prompting the readers to project themselves into the scene of action and, even more importantly, to picture the setting, assuming the viewpoint of an observer (cf. ibid.).2

2.2 Representation of Australia in settler-colonial discourse/ literary works

“Australia’s vast wilderness formed the subject of a wide variety of colonial texts throughout the nineteenth century” (Macneil 47). When looking at the works of Australian authors composed during the time of settlement, one notices that the original native Australian landscape, where settlement took place, “[…] typically an arid or semi-arid grassland biome, was invariably described as a barren, bleak environment, devoid of any meaningful vegetation” (Lynch 10). Expressions such as “nothing but prairie” or “nothing but land” were used as typical and frequent descriptions, disparaging the Australian environment and vegetation with the aim to convey a sense of disappointment at the ostensively stark, desolate landscape in which a new life somehow had to be constructed (cf. ibid.; cf. Lynch, “Nothing but land”: Women’s narratives, gardens, and the settler-colonial imaginary in the US West and Australian Outback 375).

According to Lynch (2014) and Rechniewski (2016), such representations of the Australian nature served to rhetorically clear the way for the ensuing “[…] physical imposition of a new landscape regime” (ibid.; cf. Rechniewski 17). The country fell under the conception of terra nullius 3, land that belonged to no one, or at least to no one “[…] whose rights a white man had any obligation to respect”, granting its appropriation to the settlers (Lynch 380). Myers (2013) points out that once the European colonisers reached Australia, they were overwhelmed by a landscape, which, in their eyes, “[…] [w]as characterised by a succession of absences. Not only were there so few people, but also there was no history, no cultural context within which the land could be understood, no basis for interaction with it except in terms of hostility and brute conquest. For them the land was without form, and void […]”, driving the settlers to support and spread the myth of terra nullius (Myers 51, 53).

Arthur (2003) argues that a common feature of settler language present in myriad works is the “cliché of deficiency”, portraying an “un land” waiting for the arrival of European settlement in order to finally become an actual, legitimate land (cf. Arthur 85). Such clichés or paradigms of deficiency play a fundamental role in settler-colonial imagery and prove to be sufficiently flexible to be employed against a wide range of potential targets, most of which were of botanical nature. She suggests that “[…] to use the lexicon of the un land is to see the country as potentially fenced, grazed, drained, cleared, populated, known, explored, discovered, named, and so on – potentially colonised” (ibid.).

Following the expulsion of native people, hence, succeeding efforts concerned the extinction of much of the “deficient” and often referred to as threatening Indigenous vegetation and its transformation by replacing it by imported species from the settler-colonists’ original, sophisticated and civilised home (cf. Lynch 382). Discourses which characterised the Australian bush/ outback as dangerous played a determining part in the generation of colonial as well as rural mythology and, hence, the presentation of the Australian nature. Widely spread, powerful images of the outback as oppressive and intimidating were opposed to images of the landscape being formed and subdued by white settlers in order to make it useful for a civilised living, “[…] often through the use of brute force”, a central aspect which can be found in a multitude of fictional (post-)colonial literary works (Myers 56). In the light of the fact that the actual purpose of early-settler literary works was to arouse and reinforce this “national mythology” and national awareness, the picture of “taming the landscape” is highly significant (ibid. 57).


1 Oxford English Dictionary (February 10, 2018)

2 Settler colonialism as opposed to so-called “extractive” colonialism constitutes a process, in which the colonising force “[…] is intent not simply on gaining control of the resources and labor of the local community, but on owning its land as well” (Lynch 378). This involves eradicating and ostracising the Indigenous peoples, appropriating their land, efforts to exterminate their culture and conventions as well as their residual claims to territory while concurrently generating political institutions with the purpose of normalising and sustaining settlement – “[…] a process we would call ethnic cleansing today” (ibid.).

3 According to Ashcroft et al. (2007), the expression terra nullius stands for “land belonging to nobody” (Ashcroft et al. 257). It is used in two different ways. Firstly, for land which has no sovereign and, secondly, for land “[…] where there is no recognizable tenure in land (either property rights or cultivation)” (ibid.). This expression is frequently used is discourses regarding attitudes of colonists in the Australian colonisation (cf. ibid).

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Representation of Space in David Malouf’s "The Conversations at Curlow Creek"
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Patrycia Gellert (Author), 2018, Representation of Space in David Malouf’s "The Conversations at Curlow Creek", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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