Even though Thornhill is mostly illiterate, he's entranced at various points in his life by the power of stories and words. Since he himself can't read, the fact that much of the western world depends on written language to function is almost a fantastical thought for him. As Thornhill moves up in the social hierarchy in New South Wales, language becomes a way for him to signify his ascent: through his word choice, he can signal to others, like Ned and Dan, that his status must be respected. On the other hand, Thornhill also struggles to bridge the language gap between himself and the Darug-speaking Aborigines who live nearby, and secrets and lies begin to create an absence of language between Thornhill and Sal. Taken together, the novel sets out to explore the power of language: how stories can change reality, how language can signify status, and how a lack of understanding through language can have disastrous consequences.
The power and importance of language first hits Thornhill when he's on trial in London. He realizes that the entirety of court proceedings is nothing but words: his words, the words of the witnesses, and finally, the words of the judge. As Thornhill and Sal construct a story that they hope will prove Thornhill's innocence, Thornhill is forced to reckon with the power of storytelling. He knows that telling the right story has the power to save him, while the words of men more powerful than him have the power to sentence him to death. This introduces the idea to Thornhill that stories have the power to change a person's life. He sees this play out again and again throughout the novel, most notably in the lead-up to the massacre at Blackwood's place. Although Smasher didn't witness firsthand the horrific carnage that Thornhill did at Sagitty's place, Smasher takes it upon himself to turn Sagitty's death at the hands of the Aborigines into something infinitely crueler, more gruesome, and far more horrific. By changing the story to fit his own views on what should be done with the Aborigines, Smasher is able to pull others into his violence. As he listens to Smasher alter the story, Thornhill realizes that Smasher's new story will, without question, alter the lives of everyone around him, as well as the lives of the natives. Smasher's story condemns Thornhill to a life of guilt for participating in the massacre, just as his own words in the courtroom in London condemned him to live out the rest of his life in New South Wales.
Thornhill's experiences with literacy and language show that, by speaking a certain way or adopting a certain dialect, a man can move up in the world or, at the very least, act as though he belongs to a higher class. Both Thornhill and Sal adopt language they remember English gentry using to speak to them when Ned and Dan Oldfield arrive on the Hawkesbury. By speaking as though they're of a much higher social class than Ned and Dan, Thornhill and Sal can make it clear to their convict servants that even though all four of them come from similar backgrounds, the Thornhills are now more powerful. And yet, even as Thornhill's dialect begins to change with his success, language maintains its power to make him feel powerless and stupid. When Aborigine men like Whisker Harry try to speak to Thornhill he occasionally catches their meaning, but because he cannot make sense of any of the sounds he hears, he often feels dumb. The fact that Thornhill feels dumb and angry when he can't understand the Aborigines shows that he does recognize the importance of being able to communicate with his neighbors. However, despite this realization, Thornhill never considers trying to learn Darug, and is shocked when he discovers that Blackwood speaks it. Further, when Thornhill does speak to the Aborigines, he adopts an even more upper class and condescending style of speech. This does nothing to help him communicate, but does make him feel powerful and helps him to maintain his belief in his own superiority. This is indicative of Thornhill's belief in the colonial system that discredits and devalues individuals who don't speak English. This in turn leads to other forms of communication that cross language barriers, such as the more benign use of gestures and hand signals—though it also includes guns and violence, which need no vocal explanation to communicate meaning.
In addition to the novel's careful consideration of what happens when words are spoken, it also explores what happens in silence. As the Thornhills move to New South Wales and begin experiencing life very differently from each other, Thornhill notices a silence growing between himself and Sal. Although Thornhill and Sal never stop loving each other, the silence between them—made up of lies, omissions, and unspoken dreams—robs them of the openness they experienced at the beginning of their marriage. The consequences of the silence between Thornhill and Sal, as well as the lack of understanding between Thornhill and his Aborigine neighbors, suggests that both silence and speech can be dangerous when they don't lead to truth and understanding.
Language, Literacy, and Storytelling ThemeTracker
Language, Literacy, and Storytelling Quotes in The Secret River
Winter wore away, and there it was at last, his whole name: William Thornhill, slow and steady. As long as no one was watching, no one would know how long it took, and how many times the tongue had to be drawn back in.
He was still only sixteen, and no one in his family had ever gone so far.
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.
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."
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?
This old fellow is a book, Thornhill thought, and they are reading him. He remembered the Governor's library, the stern portraits, and the rows of gleaming books with their gold lettering. They could reveal their secrets, but only to a person who knew how to read them.
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.