“You Gave Me Hyacinths” by Janette Turner Hospital is set in a small North Queensland town whose economy revolves around canefields and the sugar industry. In addition to this broad setting, there are individual scenes set in a classroom, the town itself, the canefields, the beach and the narrator’s home. The progression between each of these settings, and the way in which they are depicted, plays a key role in establishing the story’s theme of the difficulties that an outsider faces in establishing a connection with a troubled adolescent.
The story opens with an evocative description of the broad setting, which encompasses both place and season. It is a “hot and steamy” summer in this tropical setting, and images of the sugarcane and cane fires are seeping into the first person narrator’s dreams. For most readers not from such a place, this opening passage conveys the dream-like impression of being an outsider in a new, unfamiliar environment. The “heavy smell of raw sugar” and the “honeyed air” bring a sense of sweetness, but in a strange and cloying way.
The setting of a classroom is also important in positioning the narrator as an outsider, due to the clear separation between a teacher and her students. The classroom is “bulging”, meaning that the teacher is heavily outnumbered and the dialogue between her and Dellis illustrates the vast gap that separates this setting from large cities. In order to reach Dellis across this gap, the teacher must seek some common ground, but it does not seem possible within the divisive setting of a classroom with other students present, particularly the boy Gian. The teacher becomes exasperated at her inability to breach this gap, and the “still and fetid” air of the classroom mixes with sweat and the “sickly odour of molassess”, causing her to feel nauseous. It becomes clear that a connection with Dellis can only be made outside of this classroom setting.
Having established the difficult beginning between the narrator and Dellis, the story moves outside into the small town. Although “outside the room things were immediately better”, it’s not surprising that the difficulty continues as they converse, with Dellis becoming angry and a fair amount of silence between them. This is occuring as they walk through the town, which is symbolic of stagnation, and their views on this are a key point of difference between them. It’s not until they share some sugarcane, emerging suddenly from the “canyon of tall cane” and speak of Gian that they begin to talk properly, and it’s in the free open space of the beach that the narrator overcomes her own fears, has her inhibitions challenged and connects more closely with Dellis.
The setting of a beach with open space and water represents freedom, and this feeling is magnified by the teacher’s act of removing her outer clothes in order to swim. While Dellis, as a completely unihibited local teenager, swims naked, the teacher strips only to her underwear. This is a big step for this repressed outsider, and can be seen as meeting Dellis halfway. Their connection deepens and the conversation between them is more relaxed in this setting. Importantly, the beach is described as “cool and pleasant”, in contrast to the classroom and canefields, which serves to further highlight the progression of their relationship. The peace doesn’t last however, and the setting is interrupted by an impending thunderstorm. The violence of the tropical storm brings the conversation to dangerous sexual ground, and despite the freedom and release that the rain brings from oppressive humidity, the teacher is still unable to have what she views as an improper conversation. Dellis, however, speaking through Gian, tells the teacher that she is beautiful and that she no longer hates her.
The progression of scenery reaches its ultimate conclusion with the final change of setting to the teacher’s home. Dellis feels the need to escape her own troubled home life, bringing an orchid as a gift, and it’s in a “teacherly, motherly” way that the teacher combs Dellis’ hair to comfort her. The barriers between these two characters seem to have been broken down, and it is Dellis who has reached out to the teacher in the end. The setting in this story changes progressively from the broad context of a new and unusual place, to the formal classroom, the uncomfortable town, the cane-fields, the freedom of the beach and finally to the nurturing home environment of the teacher. These changes of setting mirror the changes in the relationship between Dellis and the teacher, and it’s this progression of settings that helps to frame and explore the story’s theme of the difficulty that the teacher faces in connecting with Dellis.