Happiness is a novel which, alongside its strong cultural themes, sends a simple message which promotes uncomplicated, wholesome living in the face of conventional western materialism.
‘Happiness’ is a story which encourages the reader to consider the notion of happiness from the perspective of the narrator, Nardadu. The story stumbles upon many differing social and historical attitudes; attitudes which have somewhat faded and changed since the time in which the story was set, and written. Some of the most notable contrasts include the representation of woman and their roles within different cultures, and the concept of natural balance and its importance to wellbeing. Most notable however, are how these surface perspectives work in conjunction with the subtle metaphorical parallels which can be drawn between the story, and the concept of communism. The ultimate message behind the story seems to be that capital power and materialism will not result in happiness for those involved; whilst simple living, at one with nature and the mind, may actually be the key to contentment, as is seen with Nardadu by the end of the story.
From a broad perspective, the entire story can be broken down as follows: The farm is a metaphor for a country, the house and its occupants a metaphor for capitalism, and the aboriginal tribe who work on the farm, a metaphor for communist values. John Gray gives his aboriginal workers everything they need and nothing more, and Nardadu appears perfectly contented and happy with her situation (Hergenhan 2002, 54). In the meantime, John gives his sister, his wife, and himself all of the luxuries. However, this does not seem to satisfy them because the house has turned into a breeding ground for power, as is evident in the various dynamics between the three characters.
Upon the opening of the story we meet Nardadu, who is sitting in the offal of a dead beast on the cattle station in which she lives and works (Hergenhan 2002, 51). This confronting image sets the scene for the story, and helps establish the basic existence of Nardadu and her people in the Australian outback. Despite the confronting imagery, Nardadu does not appear miserable or downtrodden. Rather, she sits and sings a song about happiness, which demonstrates contentment within herself, and her culture (Hergenhan 2002, 51). As Nardadu narrates the story, she sets the scene for the classic Australian homestead; the workings of which she watches from the outside whilst she works for the station owner, John. As Nardadu narrates the story, her tone seems resigned and a little pitiful, as if she feels sorry for John and his sister Megga, and their discontentment, despite their material wealth and power. This is evident in several parts of the story. Nardadu seems to find Megga’s control over John odd, as depicted in John’s behaviour with regards to not drinking, and not taking advantage of the gin’s that are sent to him for the purposes of sex (Hergenhan 2002, 53). It is not surprising that Nardadu finds this strange, since, in her own culture, woman can be traded for sex (Hergenhan 2002, 53), and the brother of a deceased husband can claim his brother’s wife (Hergenhan 2002, 54).Woman in Nardadu’s culture, it would seem, do not have control over their male counterparts. Nardadu also seems to find Megga’s preoccupation with her hens and china strange (Hergenhan 2002, 56). Nardadu’s love’s are simple and pure, such as a love for family, tribal stories and song (Hergenhan 2002, 53). Nardadu’s simplicity is organic, whilst Megga’s complexity is very generic, as if she is trying to fit an expected model. This is further evident when Margie comes into the story, and seems equally as preoccupied with her clothes as Megga is with her China (Hergenhan 2002, 59-60). This preoccupation with materialism, in Nardadu’s eyes, had blinded the two women and caused them to miss the true pleasures of life. This is a communist viewpoint of capitalism. By the end of the story, Margie has grown extremely discontented; even though she seemingly has everything she could possibly want (Hergenhan 2002, 61). The power struggle which exists between Megga and Margie bolsters to the point that John has to choose between them, and is ultimately left without his wife or children (Hergenhan 2002, 64-65). All the while, Nardadu watches the events from the outside, contented with her life, and in a familiar repeat, continues to sing about happiness as she anticipates the return of her grandson.
The role of natural balance within the story also seems to be extremely important. Nardadu, looking at John as a powerful presence on the station, finds it unacceptable that he should remove a small calf from its mother, just so that Margie can have milk in her tea (Hergenhan 2002, 60). This could be considered a metaphor for the utilisation of labour for the gains of the wealthy – a capitalist concept which communism does not accept. Another example of this un-natural balance is Nardadu’s distress at the dogs being shot when they attack the hens (Hergenhan 2002, 56), which could be a metaphor for capitalist greed and its ability to over-ride rational logic. Nardadu’s description of the house as being over-run by a fungus, is a metaphor for the devastating effects of consuming power and how it can corrupt and corrode those involved (Hergenhan 2002, 62).
These distinctions would not be so evident if it weren’t for the knowledge that we have regarding the author. Katherine Susannah Pritchard, as a journalist who experienced both world wars, and the cold war, dedicated much of her time to the concept of communism after conducting vast research in the field (Pritchard, 1956). She eventually came to be a member of the Australian Communist Party, and the president of the Writers League; an anti-fascist group which encouraged the notion of socialism (Strauss, 1998, 122). Whilst such a movement in Australia is not as prevalent now, Pritchard’s case is hard to deny when you read a story like ‘Happiness’. Her hard hitting style and cleverly masked agenda can be quite clarifying whey you look closer, even to the point that you see an abundance of reason within the philosophy and irony of the story’s message.
Hergenhan, Laurie (ed), The Australian Short Story, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2002; ‘Happiness’ by Pritchard, Katherine Susannah, pg 51-65.
Pritchard, Katherine Susannah: ‘Why I am a Communist’. Current Book Distributors, Sydney, (approx.) 1956, printed at Newsletter Printery, 21 Ross Street, Forest Lodge; Left History Archive. Obtained online from: http://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/sections/australia/1956/prichard-why.htm
Strauss, Jennifer, ‘The Several Faces of Realism’, in Bruce & Jennifer Strauss (1998) The Oxford Literary History of Australia (Melbourne: OUP), pp. 122-129. Taken from Unit LCS32 readings dossier; Griffith University.