Picnic at Hanging Rock


Joan Lindsay

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Nature, Repression, and Colonialism Theme Analysis

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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Picnic at Hanging Rock, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Nature, Repression, and Colonialism Theme Icon

The titular setting of Picnic at Hanging Rock is also its central symbol, and the locus of one of its most important themes. Hanging Rock is a volcanic formation in Victoria, Australia which was, for tens of thousands of years, a sacred meeting-place for several Aboriginal tribes. It is enormous, remote, and—in spite of the picnic grounds and privies which have sprung up at its base to make tourists more comfortable—a place of wild, untamed terrain. When three schoolgirls and their governess go missing during an excursion to the rock, the local community—which has long viewed the rock as a serene place to gather, eat, read, and laze—must reckon with the rock itself, (and the larger Australian countryside around it) as an imposing, dangerous, and perhaps even vengeful presence. As the novel progresses, Lindsay shows how the forces of British colonialism have sought to repress, contain, and even obliterate nature. By linking colonialism’s cruelty toward Aboriginal Australian people and natural wonders to the forces of repression which colonial society enacts upon young, white females (like those who go missing at the rock), Lindsay argues that there is a powerful connection among the forces of nature, colonialism, and repression. 

Throughout Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay shows how three central forces—nature, repression, and colonialism—feed on and grow from one another, creating a vicious cycle of misery, violence, and fear. Nature in the world of Picnic at Hanging Rock is a peculiar thing. Though the characters in the novel live in the midst of the untamed (and perhaps untamable) bush, they are all largely removed both physically and emotionally from any meaningful interaction with the natural world around them. The Appleyard College schoolgirls are, on Saint Valentine’s Day of 1900, brought on a picnic to Hanging Rock but are discouraged from exploring or climbing the rock itself. They’re repeatedly warned of how dangerous it is, yet they are told little of its history or sacred significance. The girls are permitted only on the picnic grounds—and even there, they’re watched closely by their governesses. The girls’ stilted, controlled relationship to the natural world represents underlying colonialist anxieties about the power of nature. Aware of the sacred, symbolic significance of landmarks like Hanging Rock, British settlers seek to tame and sanitize these places. The attempt to wrangle and control nature thus ties in with the force of repression—not just of the natural world, but of human nature, history, and sexuality.

Lindsay implies that repression is a byproduct of colonialism. The impulse to sanitize, tame, and control nature as a means of asserting a society’s dominance over a certain region or native group, she suggests, also influences how that society treats its own. The schoolgirls at the center of the novel are controlled day and night by their strict headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard, and their many teachers and governesses. The girls must wear gloves, hats, and corsets even in miserable heat; they are strapped to posture-correcting boards as punishment for slumping; their meals, friendships, and conversations are monitored nonstop. All of this is done in the name of the girls’ presentability, to be sure, but their strict minding is also perpetuated in the name of maintaining their safety. The ways in which the Appleyard girls are repressed, controlled, and cordoned off from the world around them is, of course, nowhere near comparable to the brutality, violence, and abject cruelty perpetrated against the Aboriginal Australians the society in which these girls live has displaced. Lindsay, however, uses the girls to suggest that colonialism is a brutal and hungry force which requires not just the oppression of those it supplants, but the repression of those it claims to benefit, in order to function.

Colonialism is the engine behind the forces of repression and control which, throughout the novel, oppress and minimize both the natural world and the individuals who have populated it in the past and the present alike. While the Aboriginal Australian individuals who have been removed from their ancestral land to make room for the colonial society that has sprung up around Hanging Rock and Mount Macedon are never seen in the novel, Lindsay implies that the very techniques of obliteration and oppression meant to make their lands habitable and safe for the white settler population have, in fact, doomed the most vulnerable members of that new population. Whether the mystical properties found up on Hanging Rock—a sacred Aboriginal Australian site that has now become little more than a tourist attraction—is itself somehow responsible for the pattern of death, destruction, and loss which unfolds throughout the novel is unclear. What is clear, however, is that Lindsay, in making the rock the novel’s central setting and symbol, is suggesting that the forces of colonialism are not absolute in power. Whether by some mystic force of retribution enacted by nature itself, by the rebellion of a colonialist society’s repressed and frustrated members, or simply by the inherent failures of a system predicated on such desperation for total control, Lindsay argues that just as the tragedy of Hanging Rock comes to loom over those who live around it like a shadow, so too will the unignorable atrocities of colonialism soon come to obscure everything in their path.

By drawing attention to the ways in which the forces of nature, repression, and colonialism intersect and interact, Lindsay ultimately suggests that any society built on the erasure and subjugation of the peoples, histories, and places that preceded it will fail, falling victim to its own rhetorical and ideological traps. The eerie exodus of schoolgirls up onto the peaks of Hanging Rock—and their subsequent disappearance—serves as a complex metaphor for the irresistible pull of nature, the impossibility of repressing curiosity and sexuality, and the unstable foundation created by colonialist methods of world-building.

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Nature, Repression, and Colonialism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Nature, Repression, and Colonialism appears in each chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Nature, Repression, and Colonialism Quotes in Picnic at Hanging Rock

Below you will find the important quotes in Picnic at Hanging Rock related to the theme of Nature, Repression, and Colonialism.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Whether the Headmistress of Appleyard College […] had any previous experience in the educational field, was never divulged. It was unnecessary. With her high-piled greying pompadour and ample bosom, as rigidly controlled and disciplined as her private ambitions, the cameo portrait of her late husband flat on her respectable chest, the stately stranger looked precisely what the parents expected of an English Headmistress. And as looking the part is well known to be more than half the battle…

Related Characters: Mrs. Appleyard
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

“I have instructed Mademoiselle that as the day is likely to be warm, you may remove your gloves after the drag has passed through Woodend. You will partake of luncheon at the Picnic Grounds near the Rock. Once again let me remind you that the Rock itself is extremely dangerous and you are therefore forbidden to engage in any tomboy foolishness in the matter of exploration, even on the lower slopes. […] I think that is all. Have a pleasant day and try to behave yourselves in a manner to bring credit to the College.”

Related Characters: Mrs. Appleyard (speaker), Mademoiselle Dianne de Poitiers
Related Symbols: Hanging Rock
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

Insulated from natural contacts with earth, air and sunlight, by corsets pressing on the solar plexus, by voluminous petticoats, cotton stockings and kid boots, the drowsy well-fed girls lounging in the shade were no more a part of their environment than figures in a photograph album, arbitrarily posed against a backcloth of cork rocks and cardboard trees.

Related Symbols: Hanging Rock
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

If Albert was right and they were only schoolgirls about the same age as his sisters in England, how was it they were allowed to set out alone, at the end of a summer afternoon? He reminded himself that he was in Australia now: Australia, where anything might happen. In England everything had been done before: quite often by one’s own ancestors, over and over again. He sat down on a fallen log, heard Albert calling him through the trees, and knew that this was the country where he, Michael Fitzhubert, was going to live.

Related Symbols: Hanging Rock
Page Number: 23-24
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

“I feel perfectly awful! When are we going home?” Miranda was looking at her so strangely, almost as if she wasn’t seeing her. When Edith repeated the question more loudly, she simply turned her back and began walking away up the rise, the other two following a little way behind. Well, hardly walking —sliding over the stones on their bare feet as if they were on a drawing-room carpet… […] “Come back, all of you! Don’t go up there – come back!” She felt herself choking and tore at her frilled lace collar. […] To her horror all three girls were fast moving out of sight behind the monolith.

Related Characters: Edith Horton (speaker), Irma Leopold, Miranda, Marion Quade
Related Symbols: Hanging Rock
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

The Headmistress, after a night passed in staring at the wall of her bedroom interminably whitening to the new day, was on deck at her usual hour with not a hair of the pompadour out of place. Her first concern this morning was to ensure that nothing of yesterday’s happenings should be so much as whispered beyond the College walls.

Related Characters: Mrs. Appleyard (speaker)
Related Symbols: Hanging Rock
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

For three consecutive mornings the Australian public had been devouring, along with its bacon and eggs, the luscious details of the College Mystery as it was now known to the Press. Although no further information had been unearthed and nothing resembling a clue, […] the public must be fed. To this end, some additional spice had been added to Wednesday’s columns’ photographs of the Hon. Michael’s ances­tral home, Haddingham Hall […] and of course Irma Leopold’s beauty and reputed millions on coming of age.

Related Symbols: Hanging Rock
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

“All my life I’ve been doing things because other people said they were the right things to do. This time I’m going to do something because I say so —even if you and everyone else thinks I’m mad.”

Related Characters: Michael (Mike) Fitzhubert (speaker), Albert Crundall
Related Symbols: Hanging Rock
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

The road wound its charming leisurely way between sleeping gardens still heavy with dew and shadowed by the upper moun­tain slopes. Swathes of virgin forest ran right down to an immaculate tennis lawn, an orchard, a row of raspberry canes. […] Mike was enchanted by this strangely favoured country where palms, delphiniums and raspberry canes grew side by side.

Related Characters: Michael (Mike) Fitzhubert
Page Number: 72-73
Explanation and Analysis:

He laid his head on a stone and fell instantly into the thin ragged sleep of exhaustion, waking with a sudden stab of pain over one eye. A trickle of blood was oozing on to the pillow. The pillow was as hard and sharp as a stone under his burning head. […] At first he thought it was the sound of birds in the oak tree outside his window. […] It seemed to be coming from all round him —a low word­less murmur, almost like the murmur of distant voices, with now and then a sort of trilling that might have been little spurts of laughter.

Related Characters: Michael (Mike) Fitzhubert
Related Symbols: Hanging Rock
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

Greatly to Mrs. Cutler’s surprise the lamb had been brought in just as she had been lying on the Rock, without a corset. A modest woman, for whom the word corset was never uttered by a lady in the presence of a gent, she had made no comment to the doctor […] Thus the valuable clue of the missing corset was never followed up nor communicated to the police. Nor to the inmates of Appleyard College where Irma Leopold, well known for her fastidious taste […] had been seen by several of her classmates, on the morning of [the picnic] wearing a pair of long, lightly boned, French satin stays.

Related Characters: Irma Leopold, Mrs. Cutler
Page Number: 95-96
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

Sara had just reached the door when she was called back. “I omitted to mention that if I have not heard from your guardian by Easter I shall be obliged to make other arrangements for your education.”

For the first time a change of expression flickered behind the great eyes. “What arrangements?”

“That will have to be decided. There are Institutions.”

“Oh, no. No. Not that. Not again.”

“One must learn to face up to facts, Sara. After all, you are thirteen years old. You may go.”

Related Characters: Mrs. Appleyard (speaker), Sara Waybourne (speaker), Mr. Jasper Cosgrove
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

The girl so far had remembered nothing of her experiences on the Rock; nor, in Doctor McKenzie’s opinion or that of the two eminent special­ists from Sydney and Melbourne, would she ever remember. A portion of the delicate mechanism of the brain appeared to be irrevocably damaged. “Like a clock, you know,” the doctor explained. “A clock that stops under a certain set of unusual conditions and refuses ever to go again beyond a particular point.”

Related Characters: Doctor McKenzie (speaker), Irma Leopold
Related Symbols: Hanging Rock
Page Number: 113-114
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

They see the walls of the gymnasium fading into an exquisite transparency, the ceiling opening up like a flower into the brilliant sky above the Hanging Rock. The shadow of the Rock is flowing, luminous as water, across the shimmering plain and they are at the picnic, sitting on the warm dry grass under the gum trees. […] The shadow of the Rock has grown darker and longer. They sit rooted to the ground and cannot move. The dreadful shape is a living monster lumbering towards them across the plain, scattering rocks and boulders. So near now, they can see the cracks and hollows where the lost girls lie rotting in a filthy cave.

Related Symbols: Hanging Rock
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 15 Quotes

The clock on the stairs had just struck for half past twelve when the door of Mrs. Appleyard’s room opened noiselessly, inch by inch, and an old woman carrying a nightlight came out on to the landing. An old woman with head bowed under a forest of curling pins, with pendulous breasts and sagging stomach beneath a flannel dressing-gown. No human being - not even Arthur - had ever seen her thus, without the battledress of steel and whalebone in which for eighteen hours a day the Headmistress was accustomed to face the world.

Related Characters: Mrs. Appleyard, Sara Waybourne
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 16 Quotes

About ten minutes later she was out in the drive waiting for the trap at the front door. She was wearing a long navy blue coat and a brown hat with a feather sticking up that I’ve seen her wearing when she goes to Melbourne. She was carrying a black leather handbag and black gloves because I wondered why a person would think of gloves at such a time.

Related Characters: Mr. Edward Whitehead (speaker), Mrs. Appleyard
Page Number: 197
Explanation and Analysis:

Nothing else was said until we came to the bend in the road where you can first see the Hanging Rock coming up out of the trees in the distance. I pointed it out to her and said something about the Rock having made a lot of trouble for a lot of people since the day of the Picnic. She leaned right across me and shook her fist at it and I hope I never have to see an expression like that on another face.

Related Characters: Mr. Ben Hussey (speaker), Mrs. Appleyard
Related Symbols: Hanging Rock
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis:

To the left, on higher ground, a pile of stones . . . on one of them a large black spider, spread-eagled, asleep in the sun. She had always been afraid of spiders, looked round for something with which to strike it down and saw Sara Waybourne, in a nightdress, with one eye fixed and staring from a mask of rotting flesh.

An eagle hovering high above the golden peaks heard her scream as she ran towards the precipice and jumped. The spider scuttled to safety as the clumsy body went bouncing and rolling from rock to rock towards the valley below. Until at last the head in the brown hat was impaled upon a jutting crag.

Related Characters: Mrs. Appleyard, Sara Waybourne
Related Symbols: Hanging Rock
Page Number: 200-201
Explanation and Analysis: