In Fly Away Peter, Malouf uses the passage of time to remind readers that everybody experiences change. This means that every single living being exists in an impermanent world that is constantly transforming. By highlighting the fact that nothing ever stays the same, Malouf brings the notion of mortality to the forefront of the novel, since the constant march of time inevitably leads to death. Because of this, people often want to dwell on the past as a way of ignoring the certainty of their own demise. When Jim is in the trenches of World War I, for example, he fantasizes about his prewar life in Australia, when he was safe and didn’t have to consider his own mortality. This tendency to fixate on the past is also evident in the way Miss Harcourt mourns Jim’s death, unwilling to forget about him despite the fact that there’s nothing she can do to bring him back. Although Malouf suggests that it’s natural to want to ignore or resist change, he also indicates that moving forward through life and accepting transformation is often as exciting as it is unavoidable. The only constancy in life is inconstancy itself, he intimates, and this is both sad and wonderful.
Malouf suggests that the past becomes easier to understand when a person suddenly undergoes a change that will throw him or her into a new and uncertain future. For instance, when Jim is about to leave for World War I, he visits his father one last time, and the old man’s unexpected sentimentality catches him off guard: “It had made Jim, for a moment, see things differently, as if a line had been drawn between the past and what was to come, the two parts of his life, and he could look at all that other side clearly now that he was about to leave it,” Malouf writes. As soon as he’s about to “leave” everything he has ever known, Jim feels as if he can better understand how he has lived for the past twenty years. According to this sentiment, then, uncertain futures clarify a person’s past, thus setting him or her up to take refuge in memory.
It is perhaps a good thing that Jim suddenly can “look at” his past “clearly” after deciding to leave for World War I, since when he actually reaches the trenches he turns to his memories for comfort. Fantasizing about his previous life, he listens to a fellow Australian soldier named Bobby Cleese talk about home. Taking cover for “a whole day and night” in a “shell-hole in front of the lines, so close to the enemy” that they can “hear the striking of matches in the trenches up ahead,” Bobby talks to Jim about fishing in Australia. Jim revels in his friend’s description of their native country, finding comfort in the thought of home. “But more reassuring than all this—the places, the stories of a life that was continuous elsewhere—a kind of private reassurance for himself alone, was the presence of the birds, that allowed Jim to make a map in his head of how the parts of his life were connected, there and here, and to find his way back at times to a natural cycle of things that the birds still followed undisturbed,” Malouf writes. Here, Jim finds consistency between his past and current lives, looking at the birds as they “follow” the same migratory patterns he used to observe in Australia. Unfortunately, though, this feeling of consistency does little to change his actual circumstances—no matter how much he thinks about the past, he remains in a dangerous “shell-hole” near enemy lines.
The wish to mentally plunge into the safety of the past is understandably quite strong for somebody in undesirable circumstances. This is the case for Miss Harcourt, who finds herself stricken by grief after Jim’s death and thinking constantly about what it was like when he was alive. A photographer, she “holds” his “image” “in her mind,” but she knows that she can’t fully capture his “unique presence,” since humans amount to more than what a mental (or photographic) image can capture. As she sits on the beach and thinks about this, Miss Harcourt sees—for the first time in her life—somebody surfing. Astounded and exhilarated by this unfamiliar act, she decides that she will “hold” this image “in her mind” alongside her memories of Jim. Thinking this, she starts to walk away, climbing the beach’s dunes. “It was new,” Malouf writes, “So many things were new. Everything changed. The past would not hold and could not be held.” To Miss Harcourt, the act of surfing (which is unfamiliar to her) represents an “eager turning, for a moment, to the future.”
Although she understands that “so many things [are] new,” witnessing this advancement into the future is also painful. “Jim,” she thinks, feeling that an embrace of the future requires a letting go of the past. Despite her desire to dwell in the past, though, she finds herself unable to ignore the beauty and excitement of this new world represented by the surfer, so she turns back and looks once more. In this way, Malouf shows readers that it’s possible to simultaneously mourn the past and welcome the passage of time, which brings with it the possibility of new kinds of happiness.
Time, Change, and Impermanence ThemeTracker
Time, Change, and Impermanence Quotes in Fly Away Peter
It was a new presence here and it made Jim Saddler uneasy. He watched it out of the corner of his eye and resented its bulk, the lack of purpose in its appearance and disappearance at the tree line, the lack of pattern in its lumbering passes, and the noise it made, which was also a disturbance and new.
Ashley was too incoherent to have explained and Jim would have been embarrassed to hear it, but he understood. All this water, all these boughs and leaves and little clumps of tussocky grass that were such good nesting-places and feeding grounds belonged inviolably to the birds. The rights that could be granted to a man by the Crown, either for ninety-nine years or in perpetuity, were of another order and didn’t quite mean what they said.
But for Ashley this was the first landscape he had known and he did not impose that other, greener one upon it; it was itself. Coming back, he found he liked its mixture of powdery blues and greens, its ragged edges, its sprawl, the sense it gave of being unfinished and of offering no prospect of being finished. These things spoke of space, and of a time in which nature might be left to go its own way and still yield up what it had to yield; there was that sort of abundance. For all his cultivation, he liked what was unmade here and could, without harm, be left that way.
It was a landscape, Ashley thought, that could accommodate a good deal. That was his view of it. It wasn’t so clearly defined as England or Germany; new things could enter and find a place there. It might be old, even very old, but it was more open than Europe to what was still to come.
Using his best copybook hand, including all the swirls and hooks and tails on the capital letters that you left off when you were simply jotting things down, he entered them up, four or five to a page. This sort of writing was serious. It was giving the creature, through its name, a permanent place in the world, as Miss Harcourt did through pictures. The names were magical. They had behind them, each one, in a way that still seemed mysterious to him, as it had when he first learned to say them over in his head, both the real bird he had sighted, with its peculiar markings and its individual cry, and the species with all its characteristics of diet, habits, preference for this or that habitat, kind of nest, number of eggs etc.
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.
It seemed odd to her that it should be so extraordinary, though it was of course, this common little visitor to the shores of her childhood, with its grating cry that in summers back there she would, before it was gone, grow weary of, which here was so exotic, and to him so precious.
Jim regarded it in a spirit of superstitious dread; and in fact these machines too, in the last months, had entered a new dimension. After just a few seasons of gliding over the hills casting unusual shadows and occasionally clipping the tops of trees, new toys of a boyish but innocent adventuring, they had changed their nature and become weapons. Already they were being used to drop bombs and had been organized, in Europe, into a new fighting arm.
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.
But more reassuring than all this—the places, the stories of a life that was continuous elsewhere—a kind of private reassurance for himself alone, was the presence of the birds, that allowed Jim to make a map in his head of how the parts of his life were connected, there and here, and to find his way back at times to a natural cycle of things that the birds still followed undisturbed.
[Bob Cleese] was a bee-keeper back home. That was all Jim knew of him. A thin, quiet fellow from Buderim, and it occurred to him as they lay there that they might understand one another pretty well if there was a time after this when they could talk. Everything here happened so quickly. Men presented themselves abruptly in the light of friends or enemies and before you knew what had happened they were gone.
It was a great wonder, and Jim stared along with the rest. A mammoth, thousands of years old. Thousands of years dead. It went back to the beginning, and was here, this giant beast that had fallen to his knees so long ago, among the recent dead, with the sharp little flints laid out beside it which were also a beginning. Looking at them made time seem meaningless.
It was like living through whole generations. Even the names they had given to positions they had held a month before had been changed by the time they came back, as they had changed some names and inherited others from the men who went before. In rapid succession, generation after generation, they passed over the landscape.
There were so many worlds. They were all continuous with one another and went on simultaneously: that man’s world, intent on his ancient business with the hoe; his own world, committed to bringing these men up to a battle; their worlds, each one, about which he could only guess.
[…] 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.
He saw it all, and himself a distant, slow-moving figure within it: […] the new and the old dead; his own life neither more nor less important than the rest, even in his own vision of the thing, but unique because it was his head that contained it and in his view that all these balanced lives for a moment existed: the men going about their strange business of killing and being killed, but also the rats, the woodlice under logs, a snail that might be climbing up a stalk, quite deaf to the sounds of battle, an odd bird or two […]
Maybe she would go on from birds to waves. They were as various and as difficult to catch at their one moment.
That was it, the thought she had been reaching for. Her mind gathered and held it, on a breath, before the pull of the earth drew it apart and sent it rushing down with such energy into the flux of things.
That is what life meant, a unique presence, and it was essential in every creature. To set anything above it, birth, position, talent even, was to deny to all but a few among the infinite millions what was common and real, and what was also, in the end, most moving. A life wasn’t for anything. It simply was.