Title

Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well: fathoming postcolonial depths in the female gothic

Document Type

Article

Publication details

Renes, CM 2009, 'Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well: fathoming postcolonial depths in the female gothic', Australian Studies, vol. 1.

Abstract available on open access

Abstract

As a sample of the Australian female Gothic, critical discussion of Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well (1986) has centrally focused on issues of gender, but not considered its racial inscription. This lack is especially relevant when criticism, despite praising the author’s experimentation with narrative technique and genre, tends to voice dissatisfaction with the novel’s conclusion in medias res, which never solves the tension between a presumed return to the patriarchal norm and the voicing of liberating alternatives. After reviewing issues of genre, gender and class, this paper proposes a postcolonial perspective so as to come to terms with this dilemma, and argues that the text signals the impossibility of suppressing the Native from the contemporary Australian land and textscape, whose Gothic articulation in the uncanny shape of the male well-dweller haunts the novel’s engagement with female empowerment. The female protagonist may only start overcoming a crippling gender discourse in the White postcolonial pastoralist setting by inscribing herself into ‘Australianness’. Reconciling her body with the land is significantly staged in terms of an Aboriginal cosmogony, as it is a ‘walkabout’ that allows Hester to start controlling her body and story. Thus, The Well may be understood to be inconclusive because it struggles to map gender across race at a time of Aboriginal-exclusive multiculturalism. Written in the mid 1980s, it announces a point of inflection in thinking about native-nonnative relationships which would soon lead to attempts at ‘Reconciliation’ by mainstream Australia.