The Secret River

by

Kate Grenville

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The Secret River: Part 5: Drawing a Line Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
When Thornhill returns from Sydney a week later, things begin to change. The natives arrive en masse and don't seem to leave. Sal keeps the children close and Thornhill puts off taking the Hope down the river to trade. One afternoon, he slips away to the natives' camp. He's shocked to see at least 40 of them milling around campfires. When he returns to the hut, he airily tells Sal that the natives are just having a get-together.
It's worth noting that Thornhill's decision to not trade is reflective of his privilege: he no longer has to leave Sal in danger to get the money he needs and can choose to stay home if he needs to. Thornhill's fear is that the influx of natives will mean violence. This shows that Thornhill hopes to avoid bloodshed if possible.
Themes
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Sal tells Thornhill to stay at the house that afternoon rather than going back to the corn patch. Bub asks if the savages are coming for them, but Sal tells him he's silly and cleans his face. Thornhill goes into the hut and checks the gun. Sal catches him, but he insists there was only a nest of spiders in the barrel. When Sal sings to the children that night, Thornhill can hear fear in her voice. She and Thornhill sit by the fire and listen to the children, Ned, and Dan sleep, when they begin hearing clapping and chanting coming from the natives' camp. Thornhill tries to convince Sal that they're singing like Scabby Bill did, even though this singing is very different.
Sal and Thornhill's fear is a direct result of the fact that they cannot (and don't really care to) actually communicate with the Aborigines to figure out what this is all about. In the absence of communication, fear thrives, as evidenced by Thornhill checking his gun. Even though he knows it's useless against the spears of so many natives, it's the one thing he can hold onto that might bring him some sense of comfort and safety.
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Ned and Dan come to the fire and insist that the natives are coming to kill them. The children begin to cry with fear, even though Thornhill insists that the natives won't hurt them. Willie tells his father to show them the gun, but Dick gets up and says that the natives truly are just having a get-together. Thornhill shushes the boys, and Dan says that he has a knife if the natives come close. Thornhill is scared, but he decides to go have a look at the camp.
Even though Thornhill is scared, he still advocates nonviolence. Again, Willie shows that he's been listening to Smasher's violent tirades, while Dick's contribution suggests that he might know more than he's willing to admit, given that he's still spending time with the Aboriginal children.
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Thornhill picks his way through the rocks and brush until he's above the natives' camp. Nobody cares that he's there if they notice. Men are dancing around a fire, and everyone is painted with stripes of white paint. Women and children clap sticks to create the rhythm. Thornhill realizes that they're doing a war dance, though he's calm at this thought. Thornhill watches one dance end and another begin, this one featuring Whisker Harry dancing and singing alone. As he watches, Thornhill realizes that Whisker Harry is a person entirely different from the name he'd given him.
Thornhill finally realizes how the names he and Sal give the Aborigines erase the Aborigines' true identities. He recognizes that the English names are a security blanket and nothing else. When he jumps to the conclusion that the Aborigines are doing a war dance, it betrays just how afraid Thornhill is of the natives being violent towards him. Again, this shows how insidious the circulating stories of the natives’ "outrages and depredations" are.
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Thornhill understands that the natives are watching Whisker Harry dance a story they all know, and he thinks that Harry is a book of sorts. Thornhill remembers slapping Harry's chest, and realizes that doing so was a mistake. He realizes that, within the natives’ own culture, Harry is equivalent to the Governor, and nobody would slap the Governor.
When Thornhill expands his definition of what constitutes a book or a story, he allows that Aboriginal culture is not actually inferior—it's just different. Further, when Thornhill realizes he can't "read" Harry, he pokes holes in his own assessment of the dance as a war dance. He can't know that for sure, because he doesn't know the language or culture.
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When Thornhill returns to the hut, Sal has the children dressed. Thornhill tells Sal, Dan, and Ned that there are only a dozen natives, though nobody seems to believe him. Sal has their belongings set out on the table and insists that if they give things to the natives, they'll leave them alone. Dan and Ned squeal that the natives will burn them, and Thornhill finally snaps. He takes the gun down and loads it, though he wonders if he's the only one who knows how pointless it is: the natives could turn them into pincushions in the time it would take him to reload. Thornhill shoots into the sky out the window and pretends to be satisfied. The clapping and dancing don't stop.
Though Thornhill doesn't hurt anyone at this point, the lead-up to shooting off the gun shows how powerful fear is. It also shows how fear can be channeled into violence by voicing these fearful thoughts that think of the Aborigines as only dangerous. Although Thornhill follows along, he knows that what he's doing is useless. He recognizes both the power of the Aborigines and the uselessness of his one gun to match them.
Themes
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Every night for a week, the natives dance and sing. They never approach the Thornhill hut, but even after they disappear Sal and Thornhill are fearful. Sal stops engaging with the women, and Thornhill buys three more guns and teaches Ned, Dan, and Willie how to shoot. Ned is a natural with the gun, while Dan prefers to use a club. Willie is thrown back when he fires. Thornhill hopes that even if the guns themselves are fairly useless, the natives' fear of the image of a man with a gun will keep them away.
Thornhill is allowing these fearful narratives to guide his actions, even when he knows that the actions mean little and won't help. Again, he's relying on the symbol of the gun to soothe Sal and scare the Aborigines, but this thought process shows that he's engaging with the guns as a symbol only.
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Thornhill decides to clear the space around the hut. He cuts down a stalk from a grass-tree to make a spear and makes a joke of being a savage. He tries to throw the spear but it only skids on the ground. Dick picks up the spear and throws it easily 50 yards. Thornhill realizes that this isn't the first time Dick has thrown a spear, but decides it's more important to clear the land than it is to punish him. He fences the clearing, which he finds satisfying, but realizes he can only push the forest back, not get rid of it entirely.
The forest is a metaphor for the Aborigines, which shows that Thornhill questions his ability to actually do anything to affect change, since he struggles to master the landscape. The fact that Dick is presumably still playing with the Aborigines shows that Thornhill's growing paranoia and violent demonstrations aren't having much of an effect, as the Aborigines are still willing to accept his son in their games.
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In March, Thornhill decides to buy dogs from Smasher. When Thornhill approaches Smasher, Smasher tries to draw out the transaction and gloat, but finally agrees to Thornhill's price. As they head to the kennel so Thornhill can choose his dogs, Smasher says that he has something to show Thornhill. Smasher motions for Thornhill to enter the dark hut and inside, Thornhill makes out a black woman on a mattress, chained to the wall.
The dogs are a symbol for Smasher and men like him. They're trained to attack Aborigines and don't have the capacity to think that what they're doing is wrong, just as Smasher doesn't see any of his violent actions as wrong. Further, as animals and separate beings, they're further outside of human control than guns are.
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Smasher whips the woman and forces her outside. Her skin is ashy and has red sores under the chains. Smasher licks his lips and says that both he and Sagitty have had sex with this woman, and Thornhill imagines having sex with her too. Smasher asks Thornhill if he's interested, but Thornhill can't speak. He shakes his head and turns away as Smasher asks if Thornhill is too good for free sex. He says that even Thomas Blackwood sleeps with a black woman, and Thornhill feels breathless. He yells to Smasher that he doesn't want the dogs and gets in his boat to leave. He decides not to tell Sal what he saw, and feels ashamed and evil that he'd been momentarily tempted to accept Smasher's offer.
Thornhill understands that Smasher truly sees the Aborigines as subhuman, and useful only to fulfill his own desire for power and control. Smasher's anger shows Thornhill that not adhering to Smasher's view of the world by adopting a more Blackwood-style relationship with the natives is dangerous if he wants to remain a part of white, colonial society. Smasher’s mention of  Blackwood is a warning that Smasher has the power to destroy both Thornhill and Blackwood's reputations.
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Over the next several weeks, Thornhill trades up and down the river, though he stops trading with Smasher. When Sal talks about going back to London he agrees with her, but he privately thinks that the Hawkesbury River is pleasant and beautiful. He ties up the Hope one night and makes his way to the lit hut, where he finds Sal entertaining Smasher, Mrs. Herring, Sagitty, Loveday, Blackwood, and another neighbor. When Thornhill enters, Sagitty and Smasher tell him about Spider: while Spider was gone one day, his wife had been tricked into trading with a native woman while other natives stole their entire corn crop.
Sal is cultivating her community on the river to give herself a sense of home, even if the conversation this invites rouses her fear more than it comforts her. This shows how desperate Sal is for attention and community: it's no secret she dislikes Smasher, but she's willing to put up with his violent stories in order to not be alone. The way that Smasher frames the story about Spider casts the natives as malicious, which allows him to justify making sure there are consequences for the theft.
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Smasher is livid. Mrs. Herring says that the natives can be quite charming and recounts pulling the same kind of trick on shop owners as a child, but Sagitty isn't amused. He says that the natives stole four bags of wheat from him. Smasher finishes telling the story of what happened to Spider: when he returned, the natives were still stealing. He'd tried to shoot them, but at spear-point, the natives stole all their food and all their other belongings while Spider's oldest son cried. As the natives left, one mocked Spider's family by shaking his buttocks at them. After that, Spider decided to move to a township and let others deal with the natives on the river.
Mrs. Herring is, notably, described throughout the novel as being self-sufficient: she grows what she needs on her land rather than trading or selling a crop. By living this way, she's removed herself from the economic structure that Sagitty, Spider, and the other men present are still a part of—the same structure that's threatened when the Aborigines steal valuable crops.
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Loveday angrily shouts that the natives are destitute, and Smasher continues the tirade. Smasher mimes shooting a gun and shouts that the natives understand that. Mrs. Herring silences Smasher, and Thornhill wonders if all the men present had been invited to have sex with Smasher's chained woman. Mrs. Herring warns Smasher and Sagitty that they're going to pay for what they're doing. Smasher recounts shooting two natives the week before, and Blackwood snaps. He yells that one native is worth ten of Smasher and storms out. Thornhill thinks of Blackwood going home and wonders if the woman and his child will sit with him by the fire.
Blackwood's reaction suggests that he's only participating in these gatherings to give the appearance that he hasn't entirely rejected western culture, since he loudly and boldly rejects Smasher's interpretation of it. Thornhill realizes that when Blackwood straddles cultures, he gets to have the best of both worlds: land granted by the governor, a woman who loves him, and an alternative to the colonial violence that Smasher perpetuates.
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The attack on Spider's family becomes one of many attacks: nearly every farmer has an encounter with the natives. Thornhill stays home to keep an eye on his own corn since there's nothing to trade on the river. Though the king and the Governor don't particularly care about the emancipated men on the Hawkesbury, they issue a warrant to take action against the natives. Because Thornhill's land is a convenient starting point, Captain McCallum stages his army there, though he's openly rude to Thornhill. As Thornhill and Sal watch McCallum spread out his map, he thinks that McCallum won't be able to do anything.
The reasoning behind the Governor's decision to send troops shows that England prioritizes the spread of English culture and men over the lives of the specific men doing the dirty work. In the eyes of the Governor, the natives’ attacks on white settlers represent attacks on England as a whole. McCallum embodies this mindset by acting superior and looking down on Thornhill, one of the men he's supposed to protect.
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McCallum's plan involves creating a human chain with his men and trapping the natives along a place called Darkey Creek, which is a narrow spot on the river where the natives are rumored to be taking refuge. As McCallum explains the plan, he lifts canvas bags high and says that he's been ordered by the Governor to bring back six heads. As Thornhill looks at the map, he thinks it's technically correct but leaves out all the gullies, rocks, and mosquitos. He thinks that McCallum thinks he's fighting an actual army, when the natives are too clever to have something as obvious as an army. They can throw spears from hiding places and then disappear.
Thornhill shows that he's come around to believing that the Aborigines are smart and knowledgeable, but in a different way than he is. This understanding makes McCallum look dumb, a reflection of the way Thornhill has thought of the Aborigines for much of the novel. However, now that Thornhill has reached this point, he does little to protect the Aborigines, and his silence amounts to complicity in McCallum’s campaign.
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Thornhill speaks up and says that the going is rough on McCallum's plotted path, but McCallum only thanks him briskly and explains that his soldiers are well trained. When McCallum and the army returns a week later, he looks bedraggled. His soldiers tell Thornhill that they'd made the human chain and fought the landscape but when they arrived at Darkey Creek, the natives trapped them, not the other way around. The army lost several men and took no heads.
When Thornhill finally does speak, the underlying message is that McCallum won't be successful, not that they shouldn't try in the first place. Because McCallum makes sure to behave like he's far above Thornhill on the social hierarchy, Thornhill feels powerless to try to change the what's happening.
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The Governor issues a proclamation in the Sydney Gazette, which Loveday reads to a group of settlers at Thornhill's one night. Smasher, Sagitty, and Blackwood are there, and Dan and Ned look on. Loveday reads that if the natives trespass on farms, the owners of those farms are allowed to "drive them away by force of arms." Mrs. Herring and Sal grab the paper and pore over it in case Loveday made a mistake in his reading. He didn't make a mistake.
The Governor is giving the Hawkesbury residents permission to take justice into their own hands, which implicitly entails allowing them to decide what justice even means. This suggests that that question will be a pressing one, as the person who decides what story to tell about the natives will be the one shaping the definition of justice.
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Sagitty suggests poisoning the natives, and Smasher pulls something from his pocket and says he doesn't need the Governor's permission to use force. Sal reaches for what he pulled out and then recoils when she realizes it's a pair of black human ears. She yells for Smasher to get them out so the children don't see. Thornhill tries to look stony as Smasher explains that he's going to boil the head and sell it. The room is silent until Loveday suggests pickling the head. Smasher pulls out the ears again, and Thornhill almost feels bad for Smasher. It's obvious how much Smasher wants to be admired.
When Smasher doesn't even offer a reason as to why he killed the Aboriginal man, he's telling people that he doesn't need a reason to kill them—their blackness is enough to justify it. Further, selling the head is a symbolic distillation of how the colonial powers profited by exploiting the natives' skills and bodies and denying the colonized peoples any reward.
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Blackwood rushes at Smasher and shoves Smasher's head into the table. He punches Smasher several times before the others, including Thornhill, restrain him. Blackwood leaves and Smasher assures the group that Blackwood and the natives will be sorry for this.
Blackwood's rejection of the developing English system is to blame for Smasher's threats: choosing to exist outside the system implies questioning the legitimacy of the system, something that Smasher doesn't want to think about since the system benefits him.
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After the group leaves, Sal suggests that the Thornhills go home to London. Thornhill insists they don't have enough money and haven't been here long enough. He asks her to remember the poverty they experienced in London, and she suggests they move to one of the townships at the mouth of the Hawkesbury and reopen their rum bar. Thornhill is startled to realize she's been thinking about this for a while. He assures Sal that the natives won't hurt them, and Sal says she doesn't want Smasher around anymore. Thornhill realizes Sal is giving in, but he knows that trouble is coming if they stay. He thinks he can't give up Thornhill's Point.
Sal sees that simply escaping this violent clash of cultures is an easy way to not have to deal with the implications of being involved in this conflict. This shows that she hasn't yet realized that if they do return to London, they'll never be able to escape poverty. Essentially, the choice becomes either involvement in colonial violence or crushing, inescapable poverty. This reinforces the idea that colonial violence is the primary reason for Thornhill's success.
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