After Sal and Thornhill arrive in New South Wales, they talk often about going home to London. For them, even though they spend many years living in New South Wales, London is the place that's truly home for them. As the novel progresses, Thornhill finds that his conception of home changes, while Sal struggles to adjust to life in New South Wales and see it as home. This leads Thornhill to question what home actually means and what makes a place home, particularly as he goes on to observe how the Aborigines interact with the land that they call home.
It's important to note that for Thornhill, his conception of home is tied directly to ownership: as a young man, he feels like the house on Swan Lane is a true home until he realizes it's rented, and later, in New South Wales, he doesn't begin to feel fully at home until he claims Thornhill's Point. This shows that Thornhill believes home is defined by whether one owns the place they call home. For him, owning Thornhill's Point is as easy as planting a patch of corn and naming it after himself to claim the land as his own. Owning the place he calls home makes Thornhill feel like a king. Ownership then becomes a way for Thornhill to escape his past as a felon and live like a truly free man.
For Sal, however, the notion of home is far more complicated than simply living on land that her husband owns. Although the exact timeline is somewhat unclear, the final chapter of the novel suggests that Sal didn't begin considering New South Wales her home until she'd been there for nearly ten years. Up until that point, she refers to London as home and insists that the entire Thornhill family will return there someday. Sal fixates on the possibility of returning to London because it's the only place she truly knows. Unlike Thornhill, Sal had a relatively happy childhood with parents who loved her and could spoil her. At that time, London held everything she ever needed or wanted: food, love, and family. This shows that Sal doesn't define home as much by ownership, but thinks of it as the place where she and her family live and thrive. This is supported by the narrator's assertion that when Sal finally does begin to think of New South Wales as home, she does so for her children. All of her children grow up in Australia and for them, Australia is the only home they've ever known.
Although Sal finally accepts that New South Wales is home, she does everything in her power to create the sense that she's living in England: at Cobham Hall, she plants an English garden and Thornhill purchases poplars to line the road up to the villa. However, the fact that none of the plants imported from England thrive or even survive is testament to the fact that Australia is not England—and that England is no longer the Thornhills' home. Although it's an English colony, New South Wales cannot support a lifestyle that's an exact replica of life in England. The death of the plants also represents Sal's sense of rootlessness. Like the plants, she also struggles to put down roots and thrive in her new home, and indeed, never truly does.
While Thornhill sees home as something that a person owns, he understands that the natives feel a deeper and perhaps more emotional sense attachment to the land that makes New South Wales home for them. Upon his arrival in the colony, Thornhill believes that the natives don't own the land, noting that the natives don't have houses, fences, or flocks that would indicate to any Englishman that they have a claim to the land. Thornhill doesn't seem to truly grasp the nature of the Aborigines' claim to the land until Long Jack speaks to him at the end of the novel. Jack's insistence that the land belongs to him, and his obvious affection for the very ground he sits on, makes Thornhill realize that it is Jack's emotional connection to the land, not the hut that Jack lives in, that makes the place home for him. Long Jack shows Thornhill that although Thornhill may have come to consider New South Wales home, he will never experience the sense of rootedness that Long Jack experiences. Thornhill's thoughts on his life at the end of the novel reinforce this idea. Although Cobham Hall was supposed to be the home of Thornhill's dreams, it's not quite right in many ways. Further, even though Thornhill is a member of Australia's gentry class by the end of the novel, he still feels like an outsider and as though he doesn't belong, both in the sense that he doesn't feel like a gentleman and in the sense that he feels a lingering sense of anxiety about living on land that was once inhabited by the Aborigines. This suggests that home isn't something that can be purchased, owned, or even built—rather, home is a sense of true belonging.
Home and the Immigrant Experience ThemeTracker
Home and the Immigrant Experience Quotes in The Secret River
There were no signs that the blacks felt the place belonged to them. They had no fences that said "this is mine." No house that said, "this is our home." There were no fields or flocks that said, "we have put the labor of our hands into this place."
King George owned this whole place of New South Wales, the extent of which nobody yet knew, but what was the point of King George owning it, if it was still wild, trodden only by black men? The more civilized folk set themselves up on their pieces of land, the more those other ones could be squeezed out.
Thornhill saw that although this voyage, from Sydney to Thornhill's Point, had taken only a day, and the other voyage, from London to Sydney, had taken the best part of the year, this was the greater distance. From the perspective of this unpeopled riverbank...Sydney seemed a metropolis, different only in degree from London.
The unspoken between them was that she was a prisoner here, marking off the days in her little round of beaten earth, and it was unspoken because she did not want him to feel a jailer.
How did it apply to a moment like the one down by the blacks' fire, when a white man and a black one had tried to make sense of each other with nothing but words that were no use to them?
He could hear the great machinery of London, the wheel of justice chewing up felons and spitting them out here, boatload after boatload, spreading out from the Government Wharf in Sydney, acre by acre, slowed but not stopped by rivers, mountains, swamps.
He knew, as perhaps they did not, how pointless a thing it was. He could go through the rigmarole of loading it up and squinting along its barrel and firing. But after that, what?
He was no longer the person who thought that a little house in Swan Lane and a wherry of his own was all a man might desire. It seemed that he had become another man altogether. Eating the food of this country...had remade him, particle by particle...This was where he was: not just in body, but in soul as well.
A man's heart was a deep pocket he might turn out and be surprised at what he found there.
"They got no rights to any of this place. No more than a sparrow." He heard the echo of Smasher's phrases in his own words. They sat there smiling and plausible.
Under the house, covered by the weight of Mr. Thornhill's villa, the fish still swam in the rock. It was dark under the floorboards: the fish would never feel the sun again. It would not fade, as the others out in the forest were fading, with no black hands to re-draw them. It would remain as bright as the day the boards had been nailed down, but no longer alive, cut off from the trees and light that it had swum in.
But there was an emptiness as he watched Jack's hand caressing the dirt. This was something he did not have: a place that was part of his flesh and spirit. There was no part of the world he would keep coming back to, the way Jack did, just to feel it under him.