The Boy Behind the Curtain

by

Tim Winton

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The Boy Behind the Curtain: Remembering Elizabeth Jolley Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
At the age of 18, Winton enrolls in a writing class at university. His teacher, Elizabeth Jolley, is different from what he expects from a university writing professor; she dresses in flowing clothing and sandals, begins classes by playing German art songs, and her polished Scottish accent alienates Tim, who’s staunchly working class. His first impression of her only adds to his disappointment in the creative writing degree, which is nothing like the American programs like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which is staffed by famous writers. Instead, his degree is quite ordinary and taught by average writers with small reputations.
Winton’s feeling of alienation towards Jolley is partly, as he says, class-based—he’s presumably unaccustomed to the sentimentality and luxury she seems to signify with her love of international art—and partly because it doesn’t measure up to his fantasy of what a writing program could be like. The scene depicts him as an idealistic, hopeful teenager—someone who expects his creativity to be spurred on by genius, rather than gently encouraged by a mild-mannered, emerging novelist.
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When Winton is at university, the writing course is still a work in progress, as is Elizabeth Jolley. Elizabeth is still struggling to break out as an artist, attempting to transcend barriers of gender and geography. In the years to follow, she publishes several novels with Penguin and becomes a local hero, producing prolifically and serving as an indispensable faculty member of the university. Tim’s favorites of her novels are the ones that are less self-conscious and are more wholeheartedly personal—a risk for Elizabeth, who had to try so hard in the first place to earn publishers’ and the broader literary world’s respect.
Jolley’s transcendence as a writer somewhat disproves Winton’s initial perception of her, and suggests that she must know something of the ins and outs of the publishing world. It’s possible, then, that her sentimental, carefree nature is only a façade. Winton’s preference for Jolley’s unself-conscious writing implies that he values honesty and bravery in writing over excessive literary tricks and devices.
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As Elizabeth becomes more successful, her headshots begin to change from a brighter, smiling expression to a level stare down the camera lens. But back in the 1970s when Winton is her student, he sees more ambition than confidence in her—a drive to be respected by the literary world. She teaches Winton that the writing process is impossible to pin down, but the game of publishing is much more of a science. Elizabeth knows how to people please without losing personal agency; she’s shrewd enough to get the odds to work in her favor but unassuming enough not to be a target.
Elizabeth’s success, and the things she teaches Winton about gaming the literary industry, reveal that she’s willing to learn the mundane ins and outs of the publishing world if it’ll help her succeed as a writer. She changes just enough of herself to get people on her side, which is a skill Winton later demonstrates in his campaigning for Ningaloo Reef—appearing just enough to win the public over, though still feeling uncomfortable as a public commodity.
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When people ask Winton what it was like to be taught by Elizabeth Jolley, he’s reluctant to answer for fear of disrupting people’s ideas of her. The truth is, he learnt more about the craft of writing by reading and from teachers who weren’t writers than he did from her. Though some writers are better teachers than they are writers, Elizabeth wasn’t one. Yet Winton learned a lot from Elizabeth’s presence and actions, even if he didn’t learn from what she taught. Her love for literature and music were strong to the point of being stubborn, and her commitment to reading her students’ work attentively, no matter how dull the students were, is something Winton sees as heroic. 
Winton’s clearly a respectful past student and colleague of Jolley, as he demonstrates by his lack of public criticism for her. But his explanation explores the fact that the best writers aren’t always the best teachers—and sometimes it’s better to learn from someone’s work than from the person themselves. What Winton values most about Jolley is her obvious love for art and her kindness to each student, traits that Winton replicates throughout his own life in his experiences with art and his connections to both loved ones and strangers.
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While Elizabeth’s student, Winton senses that Elizabeth defers to her husband’s taste and shares her favorite pieces of her students’ writing with him. When Elizabeth and her husband both approve of Tim’s writing, he feels completely affirmed. Under Elizabeth’s tutelage, Winton writes his first stories, which he later includes in his first collection. He begins his first novel at her prompting, though it takes the form of a radio play at first.
One of the most valuable things about having Jolley as a teacher is the affirmation she and her husband provide Winton as a young writer. It’s this verbal encouragement, more than any craft lecture or editing suggestion, that seems to make the most impact on him.
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Because Elizabeth has years of experience submitting work for publication, she’s pragmatic and disillusioned but also knows what editors like. She takes publishing strategy very seriously and encourages her students to do the same. Her pragmatism sets her apart from other writers. She’s involved in reading communities, visiting book clubs to answer questions about her work. Winton realizes the peril of not paying her appropriate respect when she catches him submitting sub-par work to class—she sees it as an insult and says so in such fine language that Winton doesn’t realize the heft of his mistake until he’s halfway home.
Unlike many writers who prefer not to play the cynical game of publishing, perhaps out of self-respect, Jolley does the opposite—but perhaps it’s because she respects herself and her work so much that she’s willing to maneuver through the strange rules and expectations of the industry. When Winton neglects to realize the level of respect Elizabeth is due, he’s reprimanded accordingly.
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When Elizabeth launches her second collection in 1979, Winton attends with his girlfriend. By this time, he’s written a novel, and he wonders if the event is a sign of what awaits him—and it doesn’t look too hopeful. Elizabeth writes a tongue-in-cheek inscription in his copy of her book, which he interprets as a joke about what could lie ahead in his own career: writing insincere notes in strangers’ copies of his book.
Winton’s experience at the book launch is far from glamorous, which suggests he doesn’t continue to pursue publishing for the glitz and excitement, but because writing is a genuine and necessary passion for him.
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