Though it often appears indirectly, grief is a constant presence in the lives of Luke and Anna. By always keeping the pain of their loss present but never quite in focus, Vertigo explores a quiet, subtle side of grief that lingers in the background of the characters’ thoughts. This view of grief is expressed through the character known simply as "the boy." The boy is a child that exists only in Luke's and Anna's imagination, following Anna's miscarriage prior to the novel's events. This ghost-like child represents the heavy burden of grief that the couple still carries but hesitates to acknowledge directly. As the boy appears at various points in their lives, he shows them a glimpse of what could have been: the seemingly perfect life that they almost had but that was tragically snatched away from them.
In this way, Vertigo highlights grief's ability to subtly linger. Just as grief can drive a person into more intense and dramatic episodes of sadness, it can also slowly, quietly erode someone's emotions until there's almost nothing left. The underlying tension in Luke and Anna's relationship is largely a result of this kind of grief. Because they're unwilling to directly face the pain of their loss, it seeps into their everyday world in the form of their visions of the boy, who is hovering between worlds just like they are. Ultimately, however, the novel settles on a hopeful message of coming to terms with grief and—in doing so—putting it to rest. After the harrowing bushfire pushes Luke and Anna to their emotional limits, they're forced to accept that their unborn child is gone forever. Only after they come to terms with their loss can they finally find peace, let the boy go, and move on with their lives.
Grief and Loss ThemeTracker
Grief and Loss Quotes in Vertigo
Often the boy appears to play alongside them, whirling around in the dust or darting mischievously among the weed piles and throwing clumps of weeds into the air. Sometimes he sings snatches of nursery songs in a thin, childish lilt that is charmingly off-key. At such times his parents do not look one another in the eye; the weighty joy of it would be too much.
He dreams of a tidal wave that sweeps in from the ocean and submerges the settlement in a depth of clear green water. But this isn’t a nightmare; it’s a benign dream, a dream in which he swims beneath the sunlit surface like a water baby. And the boy is there, swimming alongside. His face is radiant and there are small translucent fish darting around his head; his golden curls stream behind him in unravelling coils of light while his small but supple limbs beat against the current.
Bette is not a shy woman but she has a natural reserve so Anna is surprised when she says, ‘Do you think, Anna, that you’ll ever start a family?’
‘We’ve put that on hold,’ says Anna, firmly. ‘First we have to decide where home is.’ This isn’t the whole truth, far from it, and she hopes the boy isn’t listening.
My God, he can’t even name it, thinks Luke in a spasm of bitter scorn. Typical. His father never could deal with the messy human dimension of feeling. But then as he watches the spray foam up from the blowhole, for the first time it occurs to him that the ‘other business’ might have been painful for Ken, a man with no grandchildren.
As time goes on the all-pervading squalor of his tour seems to induce in Sir Frederick an increasingly acid disillusionment. This dry, stony country, these wretched towns and villages, these gloomy basilicas and their fake relics; can this be the Promised Land?
Alan is standing at the edge of the grassy path, beside the body of a dead swan. It appears to have flown into the wires overhead and been electrocuted, and not all that long ago since there is no sign of it having been set upon by crows. It’s a deflating sight: the twisted black carcass, the slash of white feather down its middle, the broken neck splayed at a right angle, the crimson beak lying bright against the sandy stubble of the track.
Damn Luke, damn his stupid ideas. All he has succeeded in doing is creating a situation where she doesn’t feel at home anywhere. Now she belongs in neither place, like some migratory bird that has lost its bearings. But the most disturbing thing is this: here in the city there has been no sign of the boy.
At any moment they could disappear from this place and nothing would change, nothing of consequence, so vast is this land and so small are they. And the thought of this brings on a rush of vertigo, a dizzying sense of disorientation, as if she is about to fall, but that when she falls she will be weightless. She has lost her roots, her anchorage to the earth; she might float away into the blue of the sky and never be heard from again.
It’s a long time since she heard his stick clatter across the veranda, and now there is a fire burning on the rim of their world. Where are you? she asks. Is it something we’ve done, some oversight in our thoughts? Have we become too self-absorbed and careless? Have you decided, after all, to leave us?
And the flames are burning nearer, the upper balcony close to collapse, yet she continues to rummage through the bric- à-brac. Ah, but where is the boy? She had almost forgotten him. Where could he possibly be? Is he hiding again, playing his childish games? Luke is standing in the doorway, clutching suitcases in each hand. Hurry up, he says, we have to get out of here, we have to get out of here now. But what about the boy, she groans, we can’t go without him, we can’t leave him behind—
‘Oh no,’ he sighs, “that’s the bird. That’s the one I told you about, the bird in the banksia tree.’
‘Are you sure?’ Anna stares at the stiff form on the mat. He must be mistaken. It can’t be that bird. This is just a common wattlebird, one of the predators of the garden, no loss to anyone.
‘Yes, that’s it! That’s the bird. Wouldn’t I know it?’
She looks at him in exasperation, amazed to see that he is distraught.
In those bleak hours after they had cleaned the sticky blood from Anna’s body and wheeled her into a pale blue hospital room, the hospital counsellor asked them if they wanted to give their child a name, and they nodded, blankly, and said yes, it would be a good idea. But in the numbness of their grief, no name presented itself and thereafter they had come to think of him as ‘the boy.’ It seemed so much more intimate than any given name.
He shakes his head. ‘Not the fire,’ he murmurs. ‘Not the fire.’
He nods, unable to speak, and stands on the spot, as if to take another step is entirely beyond him. She puts her arms around him, steadying herself because he is heavy, and she absorbs the shudder and heave of his body, clasping his back and drawing him into her. And they stand there, in the doorway of their home, and they hold one another for a very long time.
And yes, it is him, it’s the boy, and she sees now that the sloop is for him, is waiting to carry him to his next destination. Ah, she says, so you are leaving us. So you are on your way at last. But it’s okay, it’s alright; yes, she thinks, I am ready for this, and she raises her arm in a soft salute. Thank you, she says. Thank you for staying with us all this time.
Miraculously, not all of the she-oaks in the garden burned. There is still a cluster of them in the south-east corner and she listens to the sound of the wind whistling through their canopy, that eerie siren song, and she remembers how it felt to sit in the canoe with the boy nestled against her chest while Luke paddled them across the lagoon; the long slow glide of the boat across the black water.