The Boy Behind the Curtain

by

Tim Winton

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The Boy Behind the Curtain: Sea Change Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Early in the morning, Winton and his father take the dinghy out to go fishing. Tim’s father is over 80 now and can’t pull himself into the little boat, so Winton helps him climb in. As Winton gets in after his father, a dolphin rests its head on the dinghy, trying to win an easy feed. Winton shoos the dolphin away. They take the dinghy out and anchor it to begin fishing.
The fact that Winton helps his father into the boat demonstrates the love and respect he has for him as a fully grown adult is as strong as it was when they drove along a dark road together decades ago.
Themes
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Winton’s father asks him how many fish they’re allowed to catch. When Winton tells his father 30 is the limit, his father is a bit disgruntled; years ago, a limit wasn’t imposed. In an hours’ time, the men will have caught enough fish to feed two households. Tim’s familiar with the coastal landscape, having grown up next to the shore. Though his family wasn’t wealthy, he felt that they lived well, doing every day what families in other parts of the world would only do on their holidays, snorkeling and diving off the jetty. The bounty of the sea, like squid and crayfish, was a constant part of the family’s diet. The ocean served them generously.
Winton’s father is annoyed by the limit imposed on the number of fish they’re allowed to catch, but the fact that they’ll still catch enough fish for two households suggests that it’s not the number that bothers him—it’s the idea of a limit itself. Winton’s father, it seems, remembers a freer and less restricted life. Winton shares in this memory of freedom, basking in and taking from the ocean without ever doubting its continued offerings.
Themes
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Quotes
Last summer, Winton took his granddaughter into the ocean for the first time and was thrilled by the opportunity to pass down his love for the coastal life. But he knows that his granddaughter’s relationship with the ocean is far from certain, because the complex underwater ecosystems are under great threat. Reefs are in peril and fish populations have been decimated. Winton grew up assuming that the bounty of the sea was endless, and it took him a long time to realize that it was more fragile than he could’ve imagined, and that he—a frequent fisher—was part of the problem.
Winton realizes that his idea of freedom as a child was predicated on decimating the natural world that made him feel free. That is, in feeling so free, and taking so abundantly from the ocean, he was part of a generation that mindlessly endangered the thing they loved. His self-indictment here is one of many such moments in the essay collection; it’s clear that one of the purposes of these essays is for Winton to consider, and hold himself accountable for, his actions.
Themes
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Childhood and Home Theme Icon
Tim’s understanding of the threatened oceanic world was mild and distant until a catastrophic oil spill occurred near the Western Australia coast. The huge threat this posed to his own backyard spurred him to become an activist, first serving in the Australian Marine Conservation Society, then helping to lead the Save Ningaloo campaign. After Ningaloo, Tim’s found himself unable to disappear from public campaigning—he’s properly involved for the foreseeable future.
Despite his discomfort at the center of unified groups, and his distaste for public life, Winton’s passion for protecting Australia’s natural environments is something he prioritizes over personal comfort. Also, he seems to have grown up from the boy who sought out danger: these days, he seeks out ways to improve the world around him instead.
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Though there’s some resistance to the building momentum of both governmental and non-governmental organizations to preserve and protect parts of Australia’s coastal wildlife, Winton thinks that in a few decades, those voices will be less common. Most of those who fish for recreation understand the need for protected habitats where fishing is prohibited. Winton knows it’s important that the fishing operations affected by preservation are bought out with dignity; this will be a necessary struggle for the government, as will disrupting the gas, oil, and coal industries that threaten these underwater ecosystems. The natural world Winton’s grandchildren and their children inherit will be based on the decisions of the current government.
Winton’s prediction that attitudes will change towards habitat preservation over the next generations is already supported by this essay’s description of the differences between his father’s and his own attitudes to the fishing quota. Having already demonstrated that he’s unimpressed with apathy, it’s not surprising that Winton feels positively about the big changes the government will need to make in order to preserve Australia’s sea life, and perhaps his status as a grandparent contributes to the strength of his conviction that policy must change.
Themes
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Childhood and Home Theme Icon
When Winton begins to despair at the incremental changes humans make to protect the natural world, he thinks of a nuclear bomb crater where he once swam north of Ningaloo Reef. When he swam there, there was only sand and strange white worms, but now it’s a place of huge natural diversity. He marvels at the force necessary to transform a place from a bomb site to a natural wonder. It brings him hope for the changes that might be on the horizon.
Though Winton can be overwhelmed by the negative aspects of Australian society and the perils facing natural habitats, the beauty of the ocean remains something that buoys and reinvigorates him.
Themes
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