At the center of Fly Away Peter is a young man who leaves behind a relatively idyllic life in Australia for the ghastly experience of war. As such, the story charts the loss of innocence, as Jim witnesses violent acts that blot out the blissful purity of his childhood. At the same time, though, Malouf’s representation of this process is complicated and nuanced, since Jim’s prewar life isn’t quite as innocent or inexperienced as it might initially seem. In truth, Jim is cognizant of life’s ugliness even before leaving for World War I, knowing all too well that death and loss are part of the human experience.
As a result, Fly Away Peter isn’t simply story about the loss of innocence, but rather an account of Jim’s maturity, which develops as he slowly stops seeing death as “extraordinary” and starts seeing it as inevitable. As a function of his experience as a soldier, he becomes pessimistic, failing to see how anybody can go on appreciating life in the face of horror. When he’s at his most jaded, though, he sees an old man planting a garden, and this brings him hope. In light of this, Fly Away Peter becomes a tale not only about the slow loss of innocence, but also about the maturity it takes to see the good in life even in the midst of evil and sorrow.
At the beginning of Fly Away Peter, Jim has never left Australia and has barely even traveled beyond the rural area in which he was raised. Nonetheless, he is considerably less naïve than some of his contemporaries, who celebrate the news of World War I and eagerly sign up to join the fight. When he sees these people at a bar, he watches them get drunk and speak with “swagger” and “boldness” because they already feel like a “solid company or platoon.” While these young men join the war simply for the thrill of it, Jim is hesitant. This is because he knows something about death, having watched his brother get mangled by the blades of some farming equipment. When he finally signs up, it’s not because he’s eager to join the war effort, but because he knows that if he didn’t, he’d “never understand, when it was over, why his life and everything he had known were so changed.” From the start, then, Malouf frames Jim as a thoughtful and emotionally intelligent young man, the kind of person who harbors no delusions about what it will be like to participate in a massive and bloody war.
Despite his relative maturity, Jim is still shocked by the gruesomeness of war. This causes him to reexamine his past life, challenging his previous worldview. “Jim saw that he had been living, till he came here, in a state of dangerous innocence,” Malouf writes. “It wasn’t that violence had no part in what he had known back there; but he had believed it to be extraordinary.” Jim witnessed his own brother’s horrific death and once, on a smaller scale, he rescued a bird whose leg somebody forced into a sardine tin, so he has always felt that he has an awareness of the kind of senseless travesty and cruelty that can arise in life. However, until this point, he has conceived of such horrors as “extraordinary,” suggesting that he thinks life is otherwise good. Now, however, he sees that “violence” and depravity are woven throughout life, and this makes him think that he has been living with a “dangerous” sense of “innocence,” one that has shielded him from the harsh reality of the world.
With Jim’s loss of innocence comes an overwhelming feeling of pessimism. He wonders how anybody could ever overcome the undeniable fact that violence and tragedy are everywhere in the world. “What can stand,” he wonders, “what can ever stand against it?” In this question, the “it” Jim refers to is life itself and the many difficulties it presents. While he used to think that “a keen eye for the difference […] between two species of wren” might enable him to see the good in life, he no longer believes this. “Nothing counted,” Malouf writes.
Moving through his soldierly duties with this bleak perspective, Jim comes upon an old man digging a garden in an otherwise war-torn landscape. “There was something in the old man’s movements as he stooped and pushed his thumbs into the earth, something in his refusal to accept the limiting nature of conditions, that vividly recalled [Miss Harcourt] and for a moment lifted [Jim’s] spirits.” As Jim observes this elderly man’s optimism, he regains his ability to appreciate life. Despite his abysmal surroundings, he manages to overcome the staggering cynicism that has come along with his complete loss of innocence. This ability to find hope and beauty in dark times, Malouf suggests, is a mark of maturity. Having lost his sense of innocence, Jim now has an understanding of the world that balances the good against the bad, ultimately enabling him to “stand against” hardship.
Innocence and Maturity ThemeTracker
Innocence and Maturity Quotes in Fly Away Peter
But it was there just the same, moving easily about and quite unconscious that it had broken some barrier that might have been laid down a million years ago, in the Pleiocene, when the ice came and the birds found ways out and since then had kept to the same ways. Only this bird hadn’t.
“Where does it come from?”
“Sweden. The Baltic. Iceland. Looks like another refugee.”
He knew the word now. Just a few months after he first heard it, it was common, you saw it in the papers every day.
If he didn’t go, he had decided, he would never understand, when it was over, why his life and everything he had known were so changed, and nobody would be able to tell him. He would spend his whole life wondering what had happened to him and looking into the eyes of others to find out.
[…] he was out of himself and floating, seeing the scene from high up as it might look from Bert’s bi-plane, remote and silent. Perhaps he had, in some part of himself, taken on the nature of a bird; though it was with a human eye that he saw, and his body, still entirely his own, was lumbering along below, clearly perceptible as it leapt over potholes and stumbled past clods, in a breathless dream of black hail striking all about him and bodies springing backward or falling slowly from his side. There were no changes.