When Thornhill is born in London in 1777, he's born into dire poverty with seemingly no hope or fighting chance of getting ahead. At the end of the novel, however, Thornhill is a member of Australia's early land-owning class: he lives in a large stone villa, can buy Sal whatever she fancies, and even makes sure his children learn to ride horses in the style of the gentry. Thornhill's upward journey situates the relationship between a person's economic standing and their quality of life front and center, and explores the ways in which a person can rise through society's ranks, as well as the ways they can't.
Throughout the novel, Thornhill is concerned with the hierarchy he perceives among people of different class backgrounds, and frequently questions his own place in that social hierarchy. Thornhill defines success in terms of ownership. As a child he believes Sal's father, Mr. Middleton, is the pinnacle of success. Mr. Middleton is a successful waterman who has two boats, takes on apprentices, and can afford to not just feed but spoil his daughter, Sal. In Thornhill's mind, the crown jewel of Mr. Middleton's success is his home—a cozy, charming house on Swan Lane that Thornhill believes Mr. Middleton owns. While in Mr. Middleton's service as an apprentice, Thornhill is warm and well fed for the first time in his life. Mr. Middleton shows him that it's possible for a boy like Thornhill, born into poverty, to become relatively successful if he's an honest and hard worker. When disaster strikes and Thornhill watches the Middletons die and lose everything, being plunged back into poverty isn't the worst part for him. For Thornhill, the most painful part of it all is learning the truth that Mr. Middleton wasn't as prosperous as he seemed—he didn't even own his home on Swan Lane. This realization, coupled with the loss of the boat that Mr. Middleton gave him as a wedding gift, shows that he places a great deal of emphasis on ownership. For him, owning a home or a boat is the ultimate symbol of status, power, and success. When he owns nothing and must resort to theft to survive, Thornhill is at his lowest point.
Thornhill arrives in New South Wales as the lowest of the low in the social hierarchy: he's a convict, sentenced to work as a servant for the term of his natural life. However, New South Wales offers Thornhill unique opportunities to improve his standing in the class system because it is a new English colony and is therefore still developing its own social structure. Thornhill only spends four years and five months as a convict and a man who isn't truly free, after which point he's able to join the Australian middle class and take land for himself. He then begins to assert his dominance over others, as he remembers the English gentry doing with him. He does this first with his own convict servants, Ned and Dan. When he picks them up in Sydney, he takes pleasure in bullying them and making Dan, a childhood friend, call him Mr. Thornhill. Within days, he learns that it's extremely easy to dehumanize people of a lower social standing than himself. These lessons carry over into the ways that Thornhill interacts with the Aborigines that live near Thornhill's Point. The Aborigines provide Thornhill a way to examine the English class system by allowing him a glimpse into a social structure very different from his own. After watching them for a few weeks, Thornhill comes to understand that the Aborigines don't have a class system like the English do. Instead, he notes that they all live like gentry. Their society doesn't require an oppressed lower class to function. However, these realizations aren't enough to keep Thornhill from bullying and dehumanizing the Aborigines just as he dehumanizes Ned and Dan: although he recognizes that their culture might even do some things better than his own, he thinks of them mostly as uncivilized and child-like people who will be eaten up and destroyed by the spread of English settlers on their native lands. Thornhill’s mindset that the Aborigines are truly inferior allows him to rationalize his participation in the massacre that kills most of the natives living on Blackwood's property. The draw of moving up in the world is intoxicating enough for Thornhill to make even horrific violence against "lesser" people seem justified.
The novel offers Thomas Blackwood and Thornhill's son Dick as characters who see an alternative to the narrative Thornhill chooses. Thomas Blackwood lives where the natives told him to live—on the banks of the river, not in the forest—and even learns their language. He coexists peacefully with them and even has an Aborigine lover and a child with her. Thornhill's one meeting with this woman shows that Blackwood treats her truly as an equal and, in doing so, puts himself at risk of violence and ridicule from other settlers if they find out the truth of his situation. By living the way he does, Blackwood rejects the transposed English class system that puts Aborigines at the very bottom in favor of considering them to be people like anyone else. When Dick runs away to live with Blackwood, he similarly rejects the violent English class system, and more specifically the deadly violence that the system calls for. By refusing to engage with his father after that, he also rejects those individuals who carried out the violence in order to preserve the class system and their place in it.
This all suggests that although Thornhill recognizes both the beauty of the Aboriginal social structure and the violence of his own, he feels unable to escape the violence of the English class system by choosing to live more like Blackwood. Although Thornhill recognizes that Blackwood's relationship with the Aborigines is peaceful and respectful, choosing to have that kind of a relationship with the natives means outright rejecting the English definition of success. Of even more importance for Thornhill, doing so would mean compromising his desire to own land—which would amount to a rejection of the English class system as well as his own beliefs about what success means to him. Importantly, however, the novel ends with Thornhill fundamentally regretting his participation in the massacre, even though it allowed him to remain on Thornhill's Point and amass a large fortune. This shows that the system that promised Thornhill freedom and success ultimately does not lead him to happiness because it depends on the systematic and violent oppression of other people, and thus by participating in that system Thornhill deprives himself of his own sense of humanity.
Social Order, Hierarchy, and Class ThemeTracker
Social Order, Hierarchy, and Class Quotes in The Secret River
He had a sudden dizzying understanding of the way men were ranged on top of each other, all the way from the Thornhills at the bottom up to the King, or God, at the top, each man higher than one, lower than another.
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.
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."
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.
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.
He would not have thought that William Thornhill could ever have any relationship with a house like this except of the trespasser. But if a man had enough by way of money, he could make the world whatever way he wanted.
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.