In this article, we go through the plots, themes and key contextual points in the five Henry Lawson short stories set for Module A: Language, Identity and Culture.
Do you find Lawson’s stories challenging? Are you looking for ways to write about the similarities and differences between them? This is your ultimate cheatsheet for Henry Lawson! We’ll go over the main themes he explores in the stories and some key contextual points.
Module A is part of the Year 11-12 Standard English course. The clue is in the title: it focuses on language, identity and culture.
“Language” refers to the words writers use and the way they organise them into sentences and paragraphs.
“Identity” is determined by a combination of how we see ourselves and how other people see us. Our identity can be described based on physical features like our age, sex and race, as well as things like our sense of humour, our interests and what makes us happy.
“Culture” refers to the group (or groups) we belong to. Cultures can be large and diverse (for example, “Australian Culture”) or much smaller (for example, the culture of an individual family).
Are you still confused? We break down all the Module A syllabus dot points in our Year 12 English Standard Module A Guide.
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Now that you know what Module A is all about, let’s take a look at each of the Henry Lawson stories and see where they fit in.
Note: You only study five of the stories from the collection The Penguin Henry Lawson Short Stories for Module A. These are:
Four of the stories are very short. The Drover’s Wife is a little longer, and there is slightly more to say about the plot.
The protagonist (main character) of this story is the wife of a drover (a man who moves livestock, like sheep and cattle, around the outback). She lives in a remote part of the bush with her four children and her dog, whose name is Alligator.
One day she sees a snake slither under the house. Believing it to be poisonous, she puts her children to bed then stays up all night to keep watch.
During the night she remembers various times in the past when she has had to bravely defend her children against different kinds of danger. In the morning the snake emerges and the woman and dog succeed in killing it.
The ‘union’ referred to in the title is a trades union – a group of men who all work in the same industry. The story takes place in the town of Bourke in New South Wales.
A stranger arrives in town and accidentally drowns in a nearby billabong. The local people hold a funeral service for him, even though they don’t know him, because he belonged to their union.
The narrator remarks that the service was not particularly solemn. The story contains a lot of dark humour.
Two men are camping in the outback. One of them, whose name is Jack Mitchell, tells the other about a time when he was staying in a hotel but couldn’t afford to pay his bill.
With the help of another guest (Tom) he tried to sneak out, but they were caught by the landlord. Surprisingly, the landlord was very understanding and let them off.
They then travelled together for ten years, but at the end of the story, Jack explains that Tom has died, and Jack can no longer remember what his last name was.
This story features the same character, Jack Mitchell, who appears in Shooting the Moon. This time he tells a story about why he started smoking as a boy, explaining that older men he admired all smoked.
He explains that his mother disapproved of his smoking, but remarks that his father rather liked it and it brought them closer together.
This is the most comic of the five stories. Three friends named Dave, Jim and Andy go fishing with their dog, Tommy.
They come up with a plan to make a bomb which they can drop into the creek and explode, forcing more fish to swim to the surface.
The dog gets hold of the bomb, accidentally lights the fuse in the campfire, and chases Dave to a nearby pub where a big yellow dog frightens Tommy and he drops the bomb. The yellow dog approaches the bomb and explodes.
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Henry Lawson was alive between 1867 and 1922. In order to make sense of his stories, it’s important to think about how the time he lived in was different from today.
Lawson was born in New South Wales in 1867 and lived all his life in Australia. He grew up to become one of the most famous poets and short story writers of the colonial period and is often compared with fellow bush poet Banjo Patterson.
Lawson was a political writer who supported the causes of Australian nationalism and republicanism. His mother, Louise Lawson, was a well-known feminist.
Lawson struggled with alcoholism during his life and experienced difficulties with his mental health. He lived in Sydney, but spent much of his youth and adult life in the bush.
He became known for criticizing the romantic representation of bush life in Australian art and literature. In his own stories and poetry, the outback is often portrayed as a harsh, challenging place.
Although he was a successful and celebrated writer, Lawson was bad at business and made several deals with his publishers that left him poor throughout his adult years.
The Drover’s Wife is one of Lawson’s most famous stories. The reader never learns the main character’s name – instead she is defined by her relationship to her husband, who is a drover (a man who moves cattle and sheep around the countryside).
In the story, she does several things which challenge the assumptions many early readers would have made about women living in Australia.
As well as raising her children almost entirely on her own because her husband is so often away, she has to do things like fight a “mad bullock” (an angry young bull) which attacks her house and fight a bushfire.
The narrator tells us that she wore a pair of her husband’s trousers when fighting the fire – an unusual thing to do in a period which had strict standards about how men and women should dress.
In general, women in this period had fewer rights than men, although this was already changing by the end of the century. In 1894 Australian women got the right to vote – much earlier than in most of the world.
Despite this, women were generally expected to marry and have children and this usually restricted their ability to lead independent lives. Once married, women had fewer legal rights than their husbands, and some of Lawson’s stories feature examples of men threatening violence against their wives (for instance, at the end of The Loaded Dog).
Aboriginal Australians appear in several of Lawson’s stories, and are often described using racist language, either by the narrator or one of the white Australian characters. Australia has a long history of tensions between the descendants of European settlers and First Nations People.
Since the First Fleet landed at Sydney Cove in 1788, there have been episodes of conflict between the two groups. By the late nineteenth century (when Lawson was writing), Aboriginal Australians and white Australians lived side by side in many areas, but discrimination was widespread.
Aboriginal Australians had fewer legal rights than white people, but bushmen and bushwomen often relied on them for assistance. An example of this is in The Drover’s Wife when the Aboriginal woman called Black Mary is summoned to help the protagonist who is giving birth in a remote house without access to a doctor.
Now that we know a bit about Lawson’s context, it’s time to consider the major themes which his stories explore.
All five of these stories take place in the bush or in remote communities in Australia. Lawson draws the reader’s attention to how challenging and lonely this environment can be. One of the things which inspired him to write was his belief that many Australians who lived in big cities had an unrealistically positive opinion of life in the bush because they had only read stories and poems by people like Banjo Patterson who presented it positively. Lawson wanted to address this by pointing out the hardship that bushmen and bushwomen endured.
Here are some examples from within the text:
1. A description of the emptiness of the bush in The Drover’s Wife
Bush all round – bush with no horizon, for the country is flat. No ranges in the distance. The bush consists of stunted, rotten native apple trees. No undergrowth. Nothing to relieve the eye save the darker green of a few she-oaks which are sighing above the narrow, almost waterless creek. Nineteen miles to the nearest civilization – a shanty on the main road.
Notice how Lawson draws attention to what is missing as well as what is present – “No ranges”, “No undergrowth”, “Nothing”.
Additionally, the descriptive language (“stunted, rotten native apple trees”) creates the impression of a barren and decaying landscape. The narrator doesn’t directly pass judgement, but the implication is that this is a difficult place to life.
2. Parody of romantic writing in The Union Buries its Dead
I have left out the wattle—because it wasn’t there. I have also neglected to mention the heart-broken old mate, with his grizzled head bowed and great pearly drops streaming down his rugged cheeks. He was absent—he was probably “out back.” For similar reasons I have omitted reference to the suspicious moisture in the eyes of a bearded bush ruffian named Bill. Bill failed to turn up, and the only moisture was that which was induced by the heat. I have left out the “sad Australian sunset” because the sun was not going down at the time. The burial took place exactly at midday.
In this famous paragraph, Lawson mocks the romantic stereotypes which his readers would recognise from stories and poems by people like Banjo Patterson. Instead of describing an emotional funeral scene, he focuses his attention on how ordinary and unremarkable death in the bush was.
3. Making friends by sharing enemies in Our Pipes
We cursed society because we weren’t rich men, and then we felt better and conversation drifted lazily round various subjects and ended in that of smoking.
The “we” referred to here are the narrator and his friend Jack Mitchell. Their friendship is based on their shared poverty. By joining together in complaining about their lack of money they “feel better”, and then move on to talk about their shared hobby: smoking.
Each of these examples reminds us in some way that conditions in the bush in the nineteenth century were hard. The characters in these stories are all poor and lead difficult lives. Because of this they sometimes struggle to express their emotions, but that doesn’t mean they don’t experience emotions. Life in the bush tends to make Lawson’s characters resilient, but also suspicious of others. As a result, they are often lonely.
So, how does this theme relate to Module A: Language, Identity and Culture?
Because the lives of these characters are so hard, and because they don’t often have access to many friends and support systems, they tend to depend on themselves for almost everything they need to achieve.
Lawson reflects on this theme in several ways.
1. Jack Mitchell’s friendship with Tom in Shooting the Moon
“And could Tom fight?”
“Yes. Tom could fight.”
“And did you travel long with him after that?”
“And where is he now?”
This conversation ends very abruptly, perhaps suggesting that Jack is uncomfortable with this subject and doesn’t want to talk about it much. Tom was his friend for ten years and his death is clearly an emotional subject, but Jack doesn’t feel confident discussing it with the narrator.
Earlier in the story the reader learns that Jack cannot remember Tom’s last name. This is remarkable considering they were best friends and travelled together for ten years.
The implication is that however close you become to someone in the bush, you need to be prepared to go on alone when they eventually leave you or die.
2. Emotion in The Drover’s Wife
This made her laugh, to the surprise of the dog. She has a keen, very keen, sense of the ridiculous; and some time or other she will amuse bushmen with this story. She has been amused before like that. One day she sat down “to have a good cry”, as she said – and the old cat rubbed against her dress and “cried too”. Then she had to laugh.
This passage reflects the protagonist’s loneliness during all the time her husband is away, when she is wholly responsible for their four children. She wants to appear strong for their benefit, but inside she sometimes struggles.
Lawson points out how easily grief can shift to laughter in this world. She is very aware of the “ridiculous” things which happen in her life, but at the same time she has lots of reasons “to have a good cry”. The reader gets the impression that bush life is lonely and emotionally exhausting.
3. The lack of interest in the dead man in The Union Buries its Dead
On the way to the cemetery we passed three shearers sitting on the shady side of a fence. One was drunk – very drunk. The other two covered their right ears with their hats, out of respect for the departed – whoever he might have been – and one of them kicked the drunk and muttered something to him.
Throughout the funeral scene it is clear that everyone in the town feels they need to be present and attempt to behave with dignity. Despite this, Lawson shows us that nobody is really interested in the dead man.
The fact that one of the shearers is drunk emphasises this lack of interest, and the moment when his friend kicks him undermines the seriousness of the funeral. It is a moment of dark humour.
All the stories contain at least one reference to violence, giving the impression that the bush and the outback are violent places and the culture among people who live there is short-tempered.
1. The encounter with the swagman in The Drover’s Wife
Late in the story the protagonist recalls an incident when she was threatened by a “gallows-faced swagman”. A gallows is a place where people are executed; a swagman is someone who camps out in the bush, moving from place to place.
She gave him something to eat; then he expressed his intention of staying for the night. It was sundown then. She got a batten from the sofa, loosened the dog, and confronted the stranger, holding the batten in one hand, and the dog’s collar with the other. “Now you go!” she said. He looked at her and the dog, said “All rights mum,” in a cringing tone, and left.
This episode is brief, but Lawson creates a strong sense of threat. If the man was allowed to stay the night he might well do harm to the drover’s wife and her children. Despite her vulnerability she shows great courage by standing up to him, threatening him with a batten (a piece of wood).
2. The publican threatening his wife in The Loaded Dog
This passage comes immediately after the yellow dog has exploded:
The publican was holding his wife tight and begging her between her squawks, to “hold up for my sake, Mary, or I’ll lam the life out of ye.”
The word “lam” is slang, meaning “to hit someone”. The publican is threatening to beat his wife because she is crying.
The reason why she is so upset is quite clear to the reader: she has just seen her dog blown to pieces, and she came very close to being killed or injured herself.
This quotation shows how violent and unsympathetic her husband is. The fact that the narrator simply reports this without commenting on it suggests it is quite common in the culture he is describing.
3. Jack’s rope and revolver in Shooting the Moon
I travelled along with a portmanteau those times. I carried the rope in case of accident, or in case of fire, to lower my things out of the window—or hang myself, maybe, if things got too bad. No, now I come to think of it, I carried a revolver for that, and it was the only thing I never pawned.
This quotation tells us something important about Jack Mitchell’s character, although it is not clear how serious he is being. He claims to always have carried a gun with him in case he needed to kill himself.
This seems like a very extreme kind of behaviour, but Lawson includes this detail casually, as if to suggest that violence came naturally to Jack and was a central part of his identity.