The Secret River

by

Kate Grenville

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The Secret River: Part 6: The Secret River Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
A week later, Thornhill sails the Hope past Darkey Creek. He notices that there's no smoke coming from the gully and he sails in. When he steps ashore, he sees a dead campfire and a scattered camp, but it looks abandoned. He looks in one of the dwellings and sees a native man and a woman, but realizes they're dead. Thornhill backs out of the dwelling and sees more dead bodies. He hears something groaning and follows the sound to a small boy Dick's age.
The decision to check on the Aborigines shows that Thornhill definitely cares for their wellbeing, even if he doesn't necessarily want them around. This reinforces Thornhill's in-between status: though he supports the project of colonialism because it will benefit him, he also vehemently rejects the kind of violence that colonialism is based on.
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The boy is curled up, vomiting and lying in a puddle of diarrhea. Thornhill looks up and wants to leave. He tells the boy that he can't do anything, but he goes to get the boy water. When the boy sees Thornhill approaching with water, he reaches towards it. The boy drinks but vomits the water back up again with green slime. Thornhill is terrified. He feels like if he moves, he'll feel the poison burning him as well. Finally, Thornhill walks back to the Hope and pushes it away. He decides not to tell anyone, including Sal, and knows that this was Sagitty's doing.
The green slime suggests that this is the same rat poison that Smasher brought Sal as a housewarming gift. The fact that Thornhill only tries to remedy the situation when he's the only white man present underscores just how much Thornhill buys into the social hierarchy at play in the colony. He can only be kind to the Aborigines when nobody's watching.
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The next morning, Dick runs to Thornhill and says that the natives are filling bags with their corn. Thornhill feels rage fill him and grabs the gun. He walks to the corn patch. The natives silently and deliberately continue picking corn. He grabs a woman by the hair, but another woman clubs him on the head. He fights back, kicking, punching, and elbowing the women. When he makes one woman bleed, he thinks that the blood is the same color as his own blood.
In the midst of his own violent lashing-out, Thornhill must reckon with the fact that the subjects of his violence are human beings. For Thornhill, violence humanizes these people instead of dehumanizing them, the opposite of what it seems to do for Sagitty and Smasher. This sets Thornhill up to experience more of an emotional impact when all is said and done.
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Thornhill lets go of the woman he'd held and points the gun at Long Jack. He yells that the corn belongs to him, and the natives, except for Jack, run into the forest. He stands at the edge and stares at Thornhill. After a minute, Thornhill closes his eyes and shoots at Jack. When he opens his eyes, Jack is gone. Thornhill hears Dan yelling and sees that Dan has ahold of a native boy. Dan and Ned suggest they tie the boy up like Smasher does to lure other natives, but Thornhill thinks that this boy could be the brother of the one at Darkey Creek. He crouches down to the boy's level and tells him to leave, and then tells Dan to let the boy go. Dan continues to hold the boy.
Thornhill wants the gun to do damage without actually having to do anything, which shows that Thornhill truly doesn't want to be an active participant in this conflict. It's easier for Thornhill to feel as though he's being generous with the natives when he's not actively trying to harm them and is instead quietly complicit in others' violence. Dan and Ned, on the other hand, turn their fear into the potential for active and intentional violence.
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Sal yells for Thornhill to let the boy go and steps forward to let him free herself. Dan looks at Thornhill with a dead look and doesn't let the boy go until Thornhill threatens a flogging. After he lets the boy go, Dan spits in the dirt near Thornhill's boots. The boy can barely stand. Dick tells the boy to go and the boy finally stumbles through the corn and into the forest. Bub asks if the natives are gone, and Thornhill assures him that they are. Dick asks if they can give the natives bread, but Thornhill says again that the natives are gone.
This is one of the few times that Thornhill uses his status to stop violence against the Aborigines, which shows that he's capable of using his power for good. This stands in contrast to the times that Thornhill doesn't do this, as it makes it very clear that Thornhill is aware that he has a choice to stand up against violence and simply chooses not to.
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The entire family works to harvest corn that afternoon. Thornhill tries to work next to Sal, but Sal works hard to avoid him. He says twice that the natives would've taken all the corn, and Sal says that she heard the first time and goes on ignoring Thornhill. At dusk, Sal pushes the children into the hut. When Johnny tries to come back out, she cuffs him on the ear and makes him cry. Thornhill knows that Sal's fear has transformed into anger.
Rather than reaching for a gun (like Thornhill), Sal turns to hitting her children to give her fear an outlet. This shows that the relationship between fear and violence isn't unique to the conflict between the Aborigines and English settlers. It affects every aspect of life and makes the one place that should be safe (i.e., home) feel unsafe.
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When Thornhill wakes, he smells smoke. From the hut he looks at the burnt corn patch, thinking that life had just been waiting for him to feel secure before pulling a trick on him. Sal comes out of the hut and stands for a moment before walking silently along the path the native women wore to their camp. Thornhill follows her, calling to let the natives be, but she yells back that the natives aren't there and she's going to go onto their property like they came onto the Thornhills'. 
Sal's language shows that she's still holding onto a western conception of land ownership: she sees the Aborigines' paths through her yard as trespassing, not as the Aborigines walking on land that's also theirs. Thornhill realizes that the social system that places him above Aborigines in the hierarchy isn't something that can protect him in the long run.
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The camp looks like it usually does, but deserted. Thornhill tries to tell Sal to come back, but she inspects the entire camp. She picks up a broom and drops it. Ned and the children follow down to the camp. Sal turns to Thornhill and says that the natives lived here like she and Thornhill lived in London, and accuses Thornhill of not telling her this. Thornhill insists that there's enough land for everyone, but Sal is fixated on the fact that they live at this camp.
Finally, Sal is forced to acknowledge that the Aborigines call this place home: they have the people, the structures, and the objects to make it a home and not just a temporary dwelling. Her insistence that coexisting with the natives isn't possible speaks again to her fear, as she's entirely engrossed in an “us versus them” mentality.
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Thornhill asks where the natives are if they live here, and Sal insists that they're watching them now and will never leave. Thornhill says he has a plan for if they come back, and Sal insists that the natives will certainly return and that the family needs to leave now. Thornhill thinks of how he'd feel leaving. He thinks of the life he and Sal talk about having in London, but realizes he has no interest in working the Thames anymore. He realizes that he's become a new man since coming to Australia, and that his soul lives in this spot of land.
For Thornhill, the realization that this piece of land is "home" to him gives him the strength to fight Sal on this issue. Sal's insistence on getting the family off of Thornhill's Point shows that she's prioritizing the safety of the individuals in her family over the family’s physical location. She has learned that she can make a home anywhere, as long as she feels relatively safe.
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Sal says they can be packed in an hour. Thornhill feels angry and says that the natives have no right to this place, though he thinks the words sound like Smasher's. Sal insists that it'd be better to live in poverty than fear for their lives here. He grabs for Sal and shouts that they're not leaving and the natives won't hurt them. She yells back as Thornhill towers over her. He raises his hand to hit her, and Sal looks shocked. Sal yells that he can hit her, but she'll still leave.
Sal's assessment that poverty is better than fear again betrays her privilege and brings the gap between her and Thornhill to the forefront. Thornhill did live in fear on the Thames because he was forced to steal in order to make ends meet. Because he never told Sal explicitly, she was able to function as though life wasn't precarious.
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Thornhill drops his hand and feels his rage disappear. He wishes he could go back in time but knows there's no escaping this life. He begins to try to talk to Sal, but Dan, breathless, interrupts them and says that the natives are burning Sagitty's place. Sal ignores Thornhill and shouts instructions to the children. She turns and tells Thornhill to help Sagitty and when he comes back, they're leaving with or without him.
Sal insists that home doesn't have to be comprised of both land ownership and specific people, which stands in direct opposition to the way that Thornhill thinks about his land. This place allows him to feel powerful, while the fear inherent in living here does the exact opposite to Sal.
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Thornhill, Dan, and Ned float down towards Saggity's place. They see smoke and a smashed boat, but no signs of life. Slowly, Thornhill leads the way onto land. They find Sagitty behind the water barrel, alive and with a spear in his stomach. Thornhill wishes he could be anywhere else. Dan and Ned ask if Sagitty will die, while Thornhill wishes for Sagitty to die. Thornhill feels unprepared, but tells Dan and Ned to get Sagitty on the boat to take him to the hospital downriver. They manage to get Sagitty onto the Hope, and Thornhill covers Sagitty's face with a handkerchief to keep the flies off and so he doesn't have to look at Sagitty's staring eyes.
Sagitty's fate recalls Mrs. Herring's assertion that he and Smasher will pay for their cruelty. This begins to suggest that their "payment" may come in a form that's unexpected or far outside any organized system of justice, and also shows that the white settlers aren't the only ones who get to decide what justice means in the free-for-all on the Hawkesbury.
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As they travel down the river, Thornhill thinks he'll have to tell Sal. He knows that Sagitty's fate will make it very clear to Sal that they do need to leave. He knows she'll leave without looking back, and that their homestead will melt into the forest quickly. Thornhill thinks he'll mourn Thornhill's Point forever, because he's only a king when he's there.
By conceptualizing having to leave Thornhill's Point as an unfair consequence of being a victim of violence, Thornhill shows that he absolutely functions under his own conception of justice that favors him over anyone else—but he can only do so on Thornhill's Point.
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At the town of Windsor, Thornhill, Ned, and Dan get Sagitty to the hospital and then go to Spider's bar. They hear Sagitty's scream when someone pulls the spear out and they know he's dead. Over the course of the afternoon, men arrive to hear the story. When Smasher arrives, he commandeers the story and embellishes it. Thornhill silently drinks and remembers Newgate Prison, where men rehearsed their stories so many times that they became fact.
Losing such a close friend provides Smasher the emotional investment to make the story especially rousing. It's a way for him to honor Sagitty, as it ensures that he'll be remembered and his death will be thought of as noble. Thornhill recognizes that this is dangerous, as the stories people tell can easily become fact.
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Spider solemnly says that they have to go get the natives before the natives get them. Thornhill imagines being speared as Smasher says that the natives are camping at Blackwood's place. He continues that if they leave now, they can "settle" the natives by morning. The other men are tuned in to Smasher, and Thornhill thinks that Smasher's voice is commanding. Smasher says they have to exterminate the natives and looks at Thornhill for a moment before saying they need the Hope to get there.
Thornhill is reminded of the fact that stories, not necessarily facts, create change. Notice that Smasher doesn't ask specifically for Thornhill to pick up a gun: he asks only for his complicity and his help in supporting others in using guns. This shows that Smasher understands how to manipulate Thornhill to get him to agree.
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Thornhill looks at the men in the room and thinks that they're all becoming wicked. Loveday says that they need to either fight or return to their old lives. Dan approaches Thornhill and says that if they get rid of the natives, Sal will agree to stay. Thornhill already knew this, but hates Dan for saying it. He knows he has to agree to Smasher's plan in order to keep Sal and Thornhill's Point. Smasher insists that nobody will know what they're going to do, and Thornhill says he'll cut the tongue of any man who tells.
It's important to note that Thornhill knows that this is unambiguously wrong and cruel. However, the draw of land and the power he derives from owning land is enough for Thornhill to justify participating in the unspeakable violence to come. He shows that he's aware that their actions might not be as palatable to others when he demands secrecy.
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Smasher crafts a well thought-out plan. The Hope picks up men along the way and about a dozen in all ride with him to the river near his own place to wait for the tide to turn to take them to Blackwood's place. Thornhill looks at them all and thinks that he never thought they were bad men, and realizes that now they're all going to do horrible things. He thinks that Sal will be putting the children to bed now, and he knows that Sal is surely aware of what Thornhill found at Sagitty's. Thornhill wonders how his life has come to this moment where he has so little choice. He recognizes that he does have a choice now, and thinks that he didn't have a choice when he was waiting for the executioner at Newgate.
Again, Thornhill only feels as though he has little to no choice in the matter because he refuses to step outside the social hierarchy that gives him power in New South Wales. Like Blackwood, Thornhill could choose to learn how to understand the Aborigines and live on his land while respecting the Aborigines' claim to it. This drives home Thornhill's belief that social status is something that must be performed. Because Thornhill wasn’t born into power and privilege, he now feels the need to act the part.
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Thornhill realizes that he would've died at Newgate, and what happens in the morning will fundamentally change him and his life. He thinks that this situation with the natives is like a hard knot in rope, and the only thing to do is to cut it out. As the tide turns, Thornhill lets the Hope glide up the river towards Blackwood's place. Thornhill thinks of the black woman at Blackwood's, but tries to think of Sagitty instead. The group stops outside Blackwood's lagoon to sleep for a few hours before dawn.
Thornhill realizes that an inevitable consequence of the coming violence will be losing a part of his humanity, the part of him that recognized that the Aborigines bleed the same blood that he does. In order to follow through with the violence, Thornhill must tell himself stories that dehumanize the Aborigines until he believes them, just as he formulated his story at Newgate.
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At dawn, Smasher whispers to everyone to shoot the men first, then the women. The men wade to shore with their guns, though Thornhill thinks it's likely the natives heard them a long time ago. The group approaches the camp as Thornhill wonders when the spear will hit him. A gun fires and Thornhill thinks he sees a black man, but realizes it's a tree after he shoots at it. Suddenly, all the guns are going off. Smasher fires into the natives' dwellings. The men shoot at the natives as they try to flee.
This kind of ambush is a clear case of foul play, as the Aborigines have no hope of fighting back. This shows that Smasher's final decision as to what justice means entails denying the Aborigines a fair fight or trial, just as all the white men present were denied fair trials for their crimes in England.
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Thornhill watches the massacre around him. He watches Dan club Black Dick over the head, and Ned shoots a woman carrying a child. Thornhill points his gun at people, but doesn't shoot. He hears a shout and sees Blackwood coming out of his hut with his own gun aimed at Smasher. Smasher flicks his whip at Blackwood and Blackwood reels backwards holding his eyes. Thornhill feels a blow on his hand and drops his gun. As he turns, something hits his head and things go dark. Something hits him again and he falls to the ground.
By not shooting, Thornhill seeks to remove himself from the situation and absolve himself of any responsibility without actually physically removing himself. It's an attempt to follow in Blackwood's footsteps and be there without truly participating—though Thornhill still suffers the pain of being there, just like Blackwood does.
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Thornhill gets up with his gun and realizes that there are natives in the forest throwing rocks and spears. He realizes his party is trapped between the lagoon and the forest. Spears hit several men and they scream. Whisker Harry steps out and seems to throw his spear in slow motion. Thornhill feels like he's trying to pull the trigger, but his finger won't move. He watches the spear pierce Smasher's chest. Smasher walks to Thornhill holding the spear and tries to speak. Whisker Harry makes no move to throw another spear.
Smasher receives his justice, just as Sagitty did. The fact that Whisker Harry kills Smasher reinforces Thornhill's earlier assessment that Harry is a powerful and revered individual: here, he's the one that gets to exact justice. Thornhill's body seems to refuse to participate in the violence as he struggles to pull the trigger, a subconscious attempt to escape the situation.
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Thornhill's gun finally goes off. Whisker Harry stands stern for a moment and then folds forward and lies down on his back. Thornhill watches Harry and lays down his gun, feeling as though the forest is watching. He looks at the dead bodies all around. Thornhill hears a baby cry, and Dan clubs it until it's quiet. Blackwood is still alive, but is motionless. Smasher refuses help until he dies, leaning on the spear. Everything is silent.
The watching forest reinforces the idea that the white settlers don't belong here, and that this was a gross overstep. The feeling of being watched also creates a sense that "justice" hasn't been served yet: there were witnesses to this atrocity, and this conflict can be continued and revisited.
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