It has been suggested that Tirra Lirra by the River can be regarded as a novel which aims eventually at a better understanding"2. In my opinion understanding is achieved at two levels in the novel. The first type of understanding is personal and introspective, and is discovered by the central character. The other is societal, achieved through allegory and symbolism, and aimed at the reader.
Jessica Anderson aims to develop this dual understanding through the exploration of two main themes: the quest for self-knowledge, and the consequences of gendered societal repression. In this essay I will explore these themes, and how much Nora and the audience respectively finally understand in relation to them.
The Quest for Self-Knowledge
Nora Porteous, the main character of Tirra Lirra by the River, embarks on a voyage of self discovery as an elderly lady - mostly while in bed recovering from pneumonia. As physical exertion, which the reader later discovers has been her usual response to periods of 'waiting', is denied her, she begins to explore her inner world of imagination and memory. Her most important discovery is that she has lived under the curse of an imbalance between imagination and reality all her life. This imbalance is signified by Nora's many correlations to Tennyson's "Lady of Shallot", and by the chasm between her physical appearance and actions and her inner character.
One of the most obvious traits shared by the Lady and Nora, is their desire for the perfect social world of Camelot. Nora's 'Camelot' is a "region of [her] mind, where infinite expansion was possible" and is more real than "the discomfort of knees imprinted by the cane of a chair" (...
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... from p. 61. Willbanks, p. 62. Pam Gilbert, Coming Out From Under: Contemporary Australian Women Writers (London: Pandora, 1988) p. 140. Elaine Barry, "The Expatriate Vision of Jessica Anderson," Meridian 1 (3) (1984), 3-11. This from p. 8. Alfred Tennyson, "The Lady of Shallot," In Elaine Barry, Fabricating the Self: The Fictions of Jessica Anderson (Queensland: UQP, 1992), Appendix 2. Elaine Barry, Fabricating the Self: The Fictions of Jessica Anderson (Queensland: UQP, 1992), p. 89. Barry, Meridian, p. 9. Barry, Fabricating, p. 83. Roslynn Haynes, "Art as Reflection in Jessica Anderson's Tirra Lirra by the River," Australian Literary Studies 3 (12) (1986), 316-323. This from p. 318. Willbanks, p. 60. Barry, Fabricating, p. 73. Barry, Meridian, p. 7. Barry, Fabricating, p. 74. Willbanks, p. 60. Barry, Fabricating, p. 71. Willbanks, p. 62.
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