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To The Islands concerns the ordeal of Stephen Heriot

To The Islands concerns the ordeal of Stephen Heriot - Sam...

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Sam Mooney Engl304W December 2, 2007 To The Islands concerns the ordeal of Stephen Heriot, an elderly, careworn, and disillusioned Anglican missionary who abandons his mission when he mistakenly believes he has accidentally killed one of his Aboriginal charges in a not entirely unprovoked confrontation. Heriot flees into the desert not to escape justice but to embrace its desolate beauty and its elemental purity as the one objective reality and the one certainty left available to him. Heriot's flight and his embrace of the desert may be seen as his attempt, as a European Australian, to immerse himself in the landscape, to make himself one with the land. At this realistic level, the novel enacts the ontological and existential dilemma that confronts most — if not all — European Australians, the dilemma that Professor Hassall defines as the continuing quest for psychic integration, for reconciliation with indigenous Australians, and with the land itself. Stow's novel however, like Patrick White's Voss, is among the first of those Australian novels of the 1950s to mix realistic and symbolic fiction. At the symbolic level, Heriot's journey through the desolation of the landscape becomes a metaphor for his journey through the desolation of his soul, through and into the wilderness of uncertainty that is the product of his sense of failure as a man and of his despair at the declining support of the church authorities for his mission. His journey is thus towards an imaginary centre,
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towards the islands of death and mystery as some critics have claimed, but also towards the islands of self-knowledge. This is most evident at the novel's end when Heriot is near death and he 'whispers' in a brief allusion to the metaphysical world beyond and to the here-and-now physical world that 'my soul…is a strange country'. Clearly, Heriot not only seeks to understand the nature of his soul, but also the nature of his connection to the land on which he stands. It is a measure of Stow's commitment to realism that nothing of the order of spiritual certainty or religious belief is vouchsafed to Heriot at his end. The author is quite clear about this commitment in his preface to the revised edition of To The Islands — he points out that he has always been — 'except in the choice of subject matter' — a 'fanatical' realist. Stow's own experience of working on a mission and the thoroughgoing historical research he details in his preface both underwrite the novel by conferring realism and credibility on it almost in spite of the metaphysical implications of its symbolism.
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