Contextual Review of “Happiness”, by Katharine Susannah Prichard

“Happiness” is a story told from the perspective of an elderly Aboriginal woman, focusing on the relationship of both settlers and native people towards each other and the land in outback Australia. Katharine Susannah Prichard was a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia and her novel Coonardoo is regarded as one of the first realistic and detailed portrayals of Aboriginal people in Australian Literature (Burchill). Prichard’s Marxism included a sense that human well-being depends upon our relationship to the earth (Barker 43), but it is her vitalism which is the most apparent influence in “Happiness”.

Barker writes that “as much as she was a Marxist, Prichard was also a vitalist” (44) and this is evident in the importance that natural forces play in “Happiness”. The story opens with the singing of Nardadu, which is likened using simile to “wind coming far over the plains at night” (51), giving the Aboriginal woman a sense of natural, vitalistic life force. Her opinion regarding the white settlers is that “it was beyond anything natural to men and women” to live “in their new house among the trees” (57). Their house is also described as having “reared itself by magic on the floor of the dead sea” (56), adding to the sense that it does not belong there, and implying that the settlers are less suited to the harsh outback environment than the native Aboriginal inhabitants.

The unnatural presence of the cattle station is further reinforced by the troubles faced by John and Megga, the siblings who run the station. Megga is a manifestation of Prichard’s Marxist feminism: a “strong, capable” woman, who holds the station together, keeps it running smoothly and lives only for her work (63). However, she is an exception, because the story ultimately implies that most white women are unsuited to this life. John succumbs to his sexual desires and sleeps with a young Aboriginal girl, but eventually after some torment, he finds a wife and brings her home. Margie is unable to cope with the difficult and lonely life on the station, leading to a bitter split with Megga. Prichard’s vitalism links these events with the changing of the seasons, which “were going from bad to worse” at this time as drought hits the station.

“Happiness” is an interesting attempt by Prichard to write from the Aboriginal perspective, discuss the taboo of interracial sexual relationships and also to face the difficulties that settlers face in the outback. However, the plot seems rushed for its length and these same themes are explored much more successfully in Coonardoo. Ultimately, the message in this story seems to be that the Aboriginal people are more in touch with the Australian landscape than the white settlers, and that there is a fundamental conflict in masculine sexual desire which cannot be overcome: left alone, white men working the land will satisfy their sexual urges with young Aboriginal girls, but if they instead choose to marry, this will not work out as their wives will be unhappy in the harsh and lonely Australian interior.

Works Cited

Barker, Karen. “’Keep Close to the Earth!’ The Schism between the Worker and Nature in Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Novels.” COLLOQUY text theory critique Issue 12 (2006): 43-58. Web. 14 Dec 2012.

Burchill, Sandra. “Prichard, Katharine Susannah.” Oxford Reference. Oxford U P. n.d. Web. 14 Dec 2012.

Prichard, Katharine Susannah. “Happiness.” The Australian Short Story. Ed. Laurie Hergenhan. St Lucia: U of Queensland P, 2002. 51-65. Print.

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