The Boy Behind the Curtain

by

Tim Winton

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The Boy Behind the Curtain: In the Shadow of the Hospital Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Winton mulls on the idea of the hospital as a shelter, a refuge in the most desperate times. We’re relieved by the sight of a hospital when we need one, but the rest of the time the word holds fear and dread. He was told as a child that it was a safe place where people went to get fixed, and where babies were born, but at the age of five he realized it was a place nobody wanted to go.
Winton has already detailed his experience as a young child witnessing his father emerge from the hospital a changed man. The reader understands that Winton spend his childhood under the shadow of that hospital, so it’s intriguing to return to the idea of the hospital again here.
Themes
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As a five-year-old, Winton experiences the fear that hospitals represent when his father goes to one and comes out completely broken and unrecognizable. When he comes home, he breathes through a hole in his neck, and his eyes are red. Five-year-old Winton is terrified, but he sees his mother and others chatting to his father cheerily and plays along.
Winton’s descriptions of his recovering father are frightening and almost inhuman, creating a picture of someone who has been completely transformed. It’s easy to understand why he’s come to think of hospitals as places to fear—who knows what could happen to a person in them after what happened to his dad?
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When Tim’s father is mostly recovered, he still has to walk with a stick, and whenever he has to go back to the hospital for more surgery, Winton worries that he’ll never come home, or that he’ll come home an unrecognizable stranger again. His mother, seeming to realize his anxiety about the hospital, takes him to see his father after a surgery. Tim’s walk through the hospital to his father’s room is like a “gauntlet of horrors,” and when he reaches his father, he cries at the prospect of having to leave the same way he came in. 
Though Winton’s trip to see his father in hospital reassures him that he’s alive and recovering, it’s hardly a comforting experience. What he sees there will haunt him for years to come, and the hospital is still an image of horror.
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As an adult, one of the images Winton sees when he thinks of a hospital is of the main character in Johnny Get Your Gun, a quadruple amputee covered in bandages. The horror of it is in the corner of his mind during every hospital visit he makes.
Echoing his obsession with Kubrick’s 2001, Winton’s reference to a film scene here implies that he sees the world not only as it is but with the exaggeration and imagination provided by fictional stories and images.
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Creativity Theme Icon
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Though in childhood his family makes several hospital visits and he’s well-acquainted with the place, Winton is never admitted as a child. When he’s 18, though, he wakes up in a hospital bed with glass in his hair, pain everywhere in his body, and a sensation of overwhelming fear. He is disoriented, lacks memory of the accident, and feels weak and confused. He learns that, while the hospital is an unpleasant place to visit, it’s far worse being a patient.
Winton doesn’t gain a full understanding of the fear and disorientation one can feel in a hospital until he’s a patient there himself. This period of recovery alerts him to the complete range of horrors a hospital can hold.
Themes
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Even though the chaos, fear, and pain of being acutely injured or ill is overwhelming, Winton finds that it’s at least a distraction. But the long road of recovery is the real challenge. The constant noise and bustle of the hospital prevents him from resting, and he constantly wants what he can’t have—pain relief, a pillow, and some peace. In hospital, he realizes, people become worse versions of themselves: callous, greedy, and tired of being confined and infantilized. Looking back, he wonders how people ever write about anything other than wars and hospitals, and he understands why so many people choose to die at home rather than in a hospital ward.
The fact that Winton thinks that hospitals are equal to wars in their capacity for narrative and exploration of character implies that his time there was dramatic and magnified his human experience to an almost fictional level. The hospital seems to function in conflict with itself: though it’s a place of intended respite, Winton can’t find any peace there; all the machines and people seem to cause him more stress than they bring him comfort.
Themes
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Winton ends up marrying a nurse, who brings home signs of the hospital in the way she smells and the stains on her clothes. Sometimes, reluctantly, he meets her in the hospital cafeteria for lunch, but he’s too distracted to be a good conversationalist. When his wife is heavily pregnant with their first child, he thinks about how strange it must be for people in their last days of life to be cared for by someone carrying life in her body. And when she returns to work, he brings their son to the hospital for her to feed him on a break from her shift on the oncology ward.
Winton marrying a nurse is arguably a confirmation that he can’t avoid his deepest fears, even while, as he wrote in “Havoc: A Life in Accidents,” he stopped looking for danger as he grew up. Her occupation forces Winton into close proximity with the hospital. This scenario suggests that his connections with loved ones are valuable for the way they allow him to reckon with himself.
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Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
For five years, Winton and his family live next door to Fremantle Hospital, a large metropolitan hospital. It seems like its own world at times, more like a power plant than a healthcare facility. Winton tries to see the hospital’s proximity as a reassurance—if his children need help, it’s right there. The hospital also provides a great deal of excitement via the emergency entrance, where you can find people in all kinds of moods and situations.
Winton uses practical thinking to wrestle with his fears and hesitations regarding the hospital. It’s another circumstance under which his care for his loved ones—here, specifically his children—helps him to come to terms with his own unconscious traumas.
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Quotes
Fremantle Hospital is embedded in its urban surroundings rather than isolated and set apart, as a suburban hospital might be; its bright lights and security guards often give Winton the feeling that he’s unwelcome in his own neighborhood. The hospital seems to have its own microclimate, an “aura of hope and dread.” Winton sees people enacting their lives publicly, almost like theater. Frightened hospital visitors seem to lack social awareness and lose even basic skills like driving and parking. Their emotions are on show for any passer-by to see.
This is another situation that highlights the irony of the hospital in Winton’s life. While the hospital is technically a place of safety and healing, its aesthetic appearance is hostile, making Winton feel like he’s better off farther away from it. Winton’s description of the hospital as having an aura suggests his distaste for it is so strong, it’s almost spiritual.
Themes
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One night, Winton wakes to hear someone ramming against the doors of the mental health unit with his car, desperate to be admitted. Another time, he’s standing at a pedestrian crossing beside a car in which a woman screams nonstop. Healthy and in no pain, Winton feels uncomfortable next to such an obvious display of distress. He realizes that his patience and empathy for many of the hospital’s injured patients is dissipating, especially when it comes to the Saturday night crowd, who are mostly implicated by the dangers of pleasure. Still, he witnesses kindness from strangers waiting to be picked up and from nurses and medics. Walking past the hospital on his way to work, his tasks seem inane when compared to those of the doctors and nurses emerging after night shifts.  
Winton’s proximity to the hospital acts like a gateway for danger to enter his life, despite his resolution not to go looking for it. His declining empathy shows that repeated exposure to horror and violence is dehumanizing, and for Winton, a more immediate connection to the inner lives of strangers does the opposite of connecting him with them—instead, he feels alienated. It's possible that his childhood experiences of danger and fear have led him to have less sympathy for those who go looking for dangerous thrills, such as the Saturday night crowd.
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Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
After a while, Tim’s family moves a few blocks away from the hospital, tired of its incessant energy. But Winton realizes its effect extends beyond its immediate vicinity. One day he gets a call from an estranged friend who, in one of the wards of the hospital, can see his roof from his window. His friend asks him to visit. When he does, and sees his tiny, bald friend wearing only a diaper, he’s shocked and thinks at first that he has the wrong room. His friend is obviously close to death. They make peace, and after his visit, Winton regularly looks up at the hospital and wonders about the people looking down through the windows. For the first time, he considers the shadow of yearning that hangs down from the patients in the hospital.
Just as when he was admitted to the hospital after his accident as a teenager, entering the hospital as a visitor reveals a side of it Winton has so far neglected. But instead of building on his feelings of stress, fear, and disorientation, this experience of reuniting with his friend causes Winton to realize that the hospital, far from being a power plant or furnace, is full of human connection, care, and desire. Only by witnessing such a vulnerable scene can Winton regain his empathy for the hospital’s purpose and its patients.
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Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Quotes
When Tim’s first grandchild is born, he waits in the hospital for the first bit of news. The place is claustrophobic, and he can’t calm down. Eventually he goes out into a courtyard with his wife, where his son finds him and shows him his new grandchild. Winton accepts the miracle presented by a hospital, along with its dread. Later, his father shows him the lump in his chest from his new pacemaker. Winton knows that if he lived a few decades earlier, his father would’ve been long dead—instead, he’s able come home from hospital the day after the procedure.
Despite having gained a fuller understanding of the hospital as a place of humanity thanks to the experience with his friend, Winton still can’t shake the visceral claustrophobia and fear that being in a hospital inflicts on him. The intellectual knowledge that hospitals are places of care and life will never completely overcome his entrenched distaste for being near, or in, one.
Themes
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Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon