David Malouf’s The Great World uses the lives and family history of the protagonists, Digger Keen and Vic Curran, to investigate aspects of Australian history and society before, during and after World War II. The place of Australia and Australians within the world at large and the Asia-Pacific region is a broad concern of the novel, yet this is examined through the lens of the personal history of Digger, Vic and their families. The reader’s understanding of Digger and Vic as men achieves great depth through a detailed examination of their childhood and relationships with their parents; in addition, the relationship between Vic, his adopted parents and his estranged son Greg illustrate the toll that his early childhood and war experiences end up having upon his future.
The strength of Digger’s relationship with his mother Marge helps him to survive through the malaria he suffers while a prisoner at Hintock River Camp. Marge Keen is a strong character who suffers disappointment in her life at Keen’s Crossing. She realises after moving there that “it wasn’t what she wanted” (16), yet she commits herself to building a life there, unlike Billy who resents the place and “did nothing to help” (17). Billy has little connection to his family, but Marge feels very strongly about the importance of family and works to “inculcate in Digger, and in Jenny too so far as she was capable of it, her own view of things” (19). While Digger becomes very close with his father, he retains a close bond with Marge, surprising her with both his sweetness and remarkable memory of his dead siblings:
It was his ability to call up these little ghosts, and so clearly and in such detail that it broke your heart, that constituted the bond between them and made her believe that his memory might go back further still: to the time when, in her loneliness, she had talked to him in the womb. (24)
During Digger’s battle with Malaria fever, he imagines his mother talking to him, willing him to live and using her strength and authority over him to command him to breathe. With her typical stubborn nature, “she wouldn’t let him off the hook” (137), and after much torment Digger finally awakes “feeling refreshed and fed” (138); he has drawn strength from this relationship in his fever dreaming, and found the will to keep living.
Vic Curran has a tragic childhood and a tormented relationship with his father, beginning with an early conviction that “this vicious crybaby who claimed to be his father had nothing to do with him” (76) and escalating into murderous intent as he fantasises about using his sharpened axe as a weapon. Vic feels that he should have been born into something better and these early events help shape him into the ambitious yet insecure man that he becomes. While the ambition is a form of strength that he draws from this tragedy, this harsh childhood also leads to a ruthlessness and lack of empathy which extend towards his own son and their troubled relationship. Vic comes to the realisation when dying that he has lived the wrong life, and that “none of it had been intended for him … what had been intended was something quite different, and he had wrenched himself, by sheer willpower, out of the way of it” (316), implying that the tragic start to his life and relationship with his father have set him upon the wrong course. Malouf avoids the simplistic view, as clearly neither Digger nor Vic’s life is completely dependent upon their past experience, and they each have their own successes and failures. However, the stable and dependent nature of Digger seems to draw from the relationship with his mother, while Vic’s own instability begins in his childhood and is only fully understood in his death.
Malouf, David. The Great World. London: Vintage Random House, 1990. Print.