The action of The Secret River hinges on the relationship between crime and punishment. As a child and a young man, Thornhill steals to try to escape his dire poverty, and is punished for doing so by being forcibly resettled in the penal colony of New South Wales. In New South Wales, Thornhill finds himself outside the English justice system and, along with his companions on the Hawkesbury River, is forced to decide for himself how justice should function outside of a structured system like the English court system. In this way, the novel considers the relative fairness of different systems of justice—both organized and personal—and their consequences, foreseen and unforeseen.
For the first half of the novel, Thornhill is at the mercy of the English justice system. He's whipped as a boy for stealing sugar, and learns how to steal small amounts of rum or sugar as a young man working on the Thames. Notably, Thornhill does this despite the very public consequences for stealing: death by hanging. Thornhill witnesses several hangings, most notably that of his childhood friend Collarbone. However, despite knowing exactly what the consequences are for theft, Thornhill continues to steal, until one day he is caught and experiences the consequences firsthand. This shows that until the consequences affect him directly, Thornhill functions as though he's outside of the law. This attitude leads Thornhill to steal the Brazil wood, which in turn is what brings about his resettlement in New South Wales.
When Thornhill arrives in New South Wales, he recognizes it for the prison it is. Although it doesn't have walls or official guards to keep the convicts in, it has thousands of miles of water to keep them in an inhospitable land for the term of their natural lives. This is an early suggestion that a prison doesn't have to be a prison in the conventional sense to make people feel like prisoners, something that Thornhill watches Sal realize after they relocate to the Hawkesbury River. There, Sal feels like a prisoner, even though she's there of her own free will. With this, the novel begins to suggest that people’s personal conceptions of justice can differ greatly. While Thornhill sees Thornhill's Point as a reward for his hard work, Sal sees it as an extension of the punishment they all suffer for Thornhill's thievery in London.
On the Hawkesbury River, Thornhill, Smasher, Sagitty, and their other white neighbors find themselves outside the realm of organized justice. Indeed, for men like Thornhill, settling on the river in the first place isn't technically legal without the proper paperwork, though in the case of settling the frontier, "transgressions" like this are given a free pass. This creates the sense that the individuals who live on the Hawkesbury are truly in charge of creating their own system of justice, particularly regarding how they decide to relate to their Aborigine neighbors. Individuals like Sagitty and Smasher are insistent that the Aborigines be subjected to the same systems of justice as white men, though with much harsher consequences. When Smasher catches Aborigine men stealing from him, he doesn't put them in prison, but rather subjects them to gruesome and torturous deaths. Smasher came from very humble origins, just like Thornhill, but in the relatively lawless land of New South Wales he can get away with committing such atrocities. He justifies it as the natural consequence of theft—which is extremely ironic given that nearly every former convict on the Hawkesbury was sent to New South Wales in the first place as punishment for theft. The irony is, of course, lost on Smasher even when Blackwood points it out to him, which only betrays Smasher's racist belief in his inherent superiority.
Blackwood and Mrs. Herring operate on a different system of justice when it comes to how they deal with the Aborigines. Blackwood operates using the system of "take a little, give a little," which first and foremost recognizes the importance of treating others fairly. Similarly, Mrs. Herring insists simply that she has no need to create a system of justice to punish Aborigines for theft: for one, she knows she has little power to actually enforce such a system, though she also seems to share Blackwood's opinion that violent retaliation is cruel and dangerous. This idea is supported when the Aborigines "burn out" Sagitty: his own violence towards them leads to his death, suggesting that violent systems do nothing but create an environment ripe for more violence.
After Thornhill participates in the massacre at Blackwood's place and kills Whisker Harry, he comes to a new understanding of the true consequences of taking justice into his own hands. He spends the next ten years building his empire and his villa, Cobham Hall. To an outsider, it would appear that Thornhill has long since risen above the unfair consequences of his theft in London, but Thornhill's emotional state suggests that he's still suffering the unforeseen consequences of his participation in the massacre. Although Thornhill enjoys his life of luxury, he spends every evening searching the forests and the cliffs for signs of Aborigines. This is Thornhill's true punishment: he spends the remainder of his life steeped in regret and guilt for taking the law into his own hands and serving “justice” to the Aborigines along with his white compatriots during the massacre. His regular gifts of food and supplies to Blackwood and Dick are symbols of his desire to atone for his actions. Despite his gifts and his attempts, however, the novel suggests that Thornhill's feelings of guilt and remorse never end, proving that there is no crime without consequences, even if the punishment doesn’t come from a court.
Justice and Consequences ThemeTracker
Justice and Consequences Quotes in The Secret River
He was struck by the power of words. There was nothing going on in the court but words, and the exact words, little puffs of air out of the mouth of a witness, would be the thing that saw him hanged or not.
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 could not believe he would be able to send a ball of red-hot metal into another body. But being allowed a gun was one of the privileges of a pardon. It was something he had earned, whether he wanted it or not.
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.
It was an old pain returning to find that William Thornhill, felon, was waiting under the skin of William Thornhill, landowner.
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 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?
Thinking the thought, saying the words, would make him the same as Smasher, as if Smasher's mind had got into his when he saw the woman in the hut and felt that instant of temptation. He had done nothing to help her. Now the evil of it was part of him.
They were too cunning to have anything as vulnerable as an army, for they knew what the Governor and Captain McCallum did not: that an army clumping along was as exposed and vulnerable as a beetle trundling over a tabletop.
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.
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.