As an astronomer, Rooke has a naturally scientific mind. He finds comfort in identifying patterns and making rational connections. Though this is a natural proclivity, the book links his love of science with violence, since he escapes into science and math when other students bully him at school. Furthermore, as an adult, Rooke joins the marines with the hope of continuing his scientific pursuits, but he soon finds that the British imperial machine is a highly rational system for committing unspeakable violence. In this way, the novel questions the consequences of systematizing violence and viewing acts of violence through a rational, rather than humane, lens.
During Rooke's first year in the marines, he works aboard a ship involved in the American Revolutionary War. Because the ship isn't initially involved in combat, Rooke gets to experience the war from a safe distance, while still technically participating in the greater (and inherently violent) system of British colonialism. This reprieve, however, is short-lived. While the ship is docked in Antigua, Rooke witnesses a public hanging of a lieutenant who began planning to mutiny. Further, the lieutenant's companions are dishonorably ejected from military service to live out the rest of their lives in Antigua as men marked by disloyalty and dishonor. This impresses upon Rooke that though he's not directly involved in battle or violence, he's complicit in a system that relies on violence to maintain its sense of power and authority. Further, Rooke realizes that he has little choice in whether or not to participate in this kind of violence. He recognizes that his choices are either to participate and be deprived of his humanity, or refuse to participate and face either death or expulsion from the military, which would end his life as he knows it.
In order to cope with this realization, Rooke rationalizes violence and focuses on understanding military strategy and the physics of how guns work. He finds that by making unspeakable violence fit within a neat and systematic framework, the violence becomes easier to stomach. Again, though Rooke is able to ignore the implications of his complicity for a while, his first brush with combat makes it abundantly clear that guns aren't just a pleasing exercise of physics. When he sees what they're capable of doing to bodies, it's almost a relief to suffer injuries that remove him from combat for the better part of two years, which conveniently removes him until after the end of the Revolutionary War. Experiencing this, however, doesn't keep Rooke from signing up for the First Fleet to New South Wales. Rooke is able to reconcile his distaste for violence with his participation in this adventure by joining the fleet as the official astronomer, a job that removes him from acting like a soldier for much of his time. Instead, he immerses himself in astronomy and language, while still technically using the inherently violent system of the military to skirt active participation.
This coping mechanism turns out to be untenable in the long run, particularly when Tagaran asks Rooke to show her how guns work. Prior to this request, Rooke is able to mostly ignore that he even has a gun. However, when faced with Tagaran's intense desire to learn the mechanisms of guns, Rooke becomes angry and uses physical force to stop her from grabbing at his gun. Rooke is disturbed both by Tagaran's desire to learn about the gun and by his own use of force to keep her from learning. What troubles him the most is the realization that whether he likes it or not, he is a part of the violence--his use of force against Tagaran shows him that, like a gun, he himself has the potential to damage human lives. This realization becomes disturbing enough that Rooke tries to refuse to participate in the punitive expedition sent to capture six Cadigal men, and when he realizes the true purpose of the expedition is to kill those men, Rooke returns to Sydney alone. He's able to do this because he knows that the fledgling colony in Sydney isn't prepared to handle that kind of disobedience, which means he escapes the fate of the mutinous lieutenant in Antigua. Instead, Rooke is sent back to England at the first possible opportunity. Rooke finds, in the end, that the system he hoped would keep him from violence is inherently violent and in order to escape the violence, he must remove himself from it completely.
Violence and Rationality ThemeTracker
Violence and Rationality Quotes in The Lieutenant
Rooke puzzled about that idea as he puzzled at his primes. He had never seen a black man, so the issue was abstract, but something about the argument did not cohere. Think as he might, though, he could not find a path around Lancelot Percival's logic.
In Euclid's company it was if he had been speaking a foreign language all his life, and had just now heard someone else speaking it too.
To understand any aspect of the cosmos was to look on the face of God: not directly, but by a species of triangulation, because to think mathematically was to feel the action of God in oneself.
He saw others comforted by their ideas of God...what comforted Rooke, on the contrary, was the knowledge that as an individual he did not matter. Whatever he was, he was part of a whole...
That imposed a morality behind the terse handful of commands in the chaplain's book. It was to acknowledge the unity of all things. To injure any was to damage all.
The slaves were utterly strange, their lives unimaginable, but they walked and spoke, just as he did himself. That speech he had heard was made up of no sounds he could give meaning to, but it was language and joined one human to another, just as his own did.
Of course their hair would grow back and they would continue to walk about, and breathe and eat: they were not dead. But they might as well be. They would never again have a place in the world.
The firing, the reloading, the ramming, the priming, the firing again: all that was familiar from having been practiced so often. The theory of it was tidy: men firing and then calmly dropping to one knee to reload. What was happening on Resolution bore no resemblance to that.
A man on this promontory would be part of the settlement, but not in it. Present, but not forgotten. Astronomy would make a convenient screen for a self that he did not choose to share with any of the other souls marooned along with him.
Gamekeeper! The word suggested the society that Lancelot Percival James had boasted of at the Academy: pheasants and deer in a park artfully planted to enhance the prospect, cheerful peasantry tipping their caps to the squires riding by.
But New South Wales was no gentleman's estate...and the gamekeeper was a criminal who had been given a gun.
Rooke could see that there was a dangerous ambiguity to the presence of a thousand of His Majesty's subjects in this place. No such understanding was possible without language to convey it, and persons to whom the news could be delivered. And yet it seemed that the silence might continue indefinitely.
But language was more than a list of words, more than a collection of fragments all jumbled together like a box of nuts and bolts. Language was a machine. To make it work, each part had to be understood in relation to all the other parts.
What had passed between Tagaran and himself had gone far beyond vocabulary or grammatical forms. It was the heart of talking; not just the words and not just the meaning, but the way in which two people had found common ground and begun to discover the true names of things.
Warungin was not thinking punishment, justice, impartial. All he could see was that the Berewalgal had gathered in their best clothes to inflict pain beyond imagining on one of their own. Seen through his eyes, this ceremony was not an unfortunate but necessary part of the grand machine of civilization. It looked like a choice. When those fine abstractions fell away, all that remained was cruelty.
He had made that choice, because he was a lieutenant in His Majesty's Marine Force.
There it was, in the very words. Force was his job. If he was a soldier, he was as much a part of that cruelty as the man who had wielded the whip.
He had written as in despair in order to indicate that her despair was feigned. To him it had obviously been a joke. What native, even a child, would believe that washing would make them white? He had failed to record the joke on the page, in the same way he failed to note that they were breathing, or that their hearts were beating.
They all knew what he had turned his face away from: like it or not, he was Berewalgal. He wore the red coat. He carried the musket when he was told to. He stood by while a man was flogged. He would not confront a white man who had beaten his friends.
But to shoot a piece of metal out of it that could penetrate a shield or a human body and expose the shambles within: that was of another order of experience. Another language. What it said was, I can kill you.
He did not want her to learn that language. Certainly not from him.
But written down like that, with its little full stop, the possibility of doubt was erased. The meaning would never be questioned again. What had felt like science was the worst kind of guesswork, the kind that forgets it is a guess.
It was the simplest thing in the world. If an action was wrong, it did not matter whether it succeeded or not, or how many clever steps you took to make sure it failed. If you were part of such an act, you were part of its wrong. You did not have to take up the hatchet or even to walk along with the expedition.