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 Joe Wilson’s Courtship by Henry  Lawson

The Joe Wilson stories are generally regarded as one of Lawson’s best stories.  Written in London perhaps for English audience, they were the closest Lawson came to writing a novel.  They first appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in this order:

 “Brighten’s Sister-in-Law”, “Past Carin’” , “A Double Buggy a Lahey’s Creek”, “Joe Wilson’s Courtship”, and  “A Lonely Track”

They contain much of what was in earlier stories: Mrs Spicer’ s son turning up with fresh meat, Mrs Spicer is a more dramatic version of Drover’s wife, Mary insists on the civilising ritual of Sunday promenade. The stories appear heavily autobiographical though not chronological.

Narrative Technique

There is a balance between objectivity and imaginative evocation (subjectivity).  Whenever the danger of self-revelation might become indulgent or too personal, there is a shift to the detached generalisation (a more impersonal tone is adopted).

Joe is an older, not necessarily wiser married man, reminiscing about the romance of his earlier courting days and contrasting them to the disappointments of his marriage.

He covers his more emotional personal reflections with generalisations.

Joe tries to express his feelings in a detached, cavalier devil may care manner.

the happiest time in a man’s life is when he’s courting a girl and finds out for sure that she loves him and hasn’t a thought for anyone else (p. 537)

Lawson’s style is rambling, discontinuous, trying to convey impression of a rouseabout with wide range of experiences.

The discontinuous narrative – shifting from past to present – distances us from the action.  It is written in the past tense.

Lawson’s discursive introduction establishes the quality of his tone;  alternating tone from intimate to a patronising distance.

the happiest time in a man’s life is when he’s courting a girl and finds out for sure that she loves him and hasn’t a thought for anyone else (p. 537)

His smug avuncular advice to make the most of their courting days is similar to the carpe diem  (eat drink and be merry for tomorrow you die)  theme of Medieval Literature.

Repetition of:

 “Make the most of your courting days, you young chaps..”

The effect of this alternation of tone creates the impression of Joe as a sensitive man who has been hurt by experience.

Though he is shy, young and reticent, Joe manages to tell us in his self-effacing manner how he beat his better-bred and more romantic rivals for the hand of Mary.

“I was the reddest , shy lanky fool of a bushman that ever was taken at a disadvantage on foot”

Echoes of Lawson’s own disillusionment comes with:

“then I went up to the pub and filled myself with beer and damned the world”

Later he even has to fight for her:

“Looking back, I think there was a bit of romance about it:  Mary singing under the vines to amuse a jackaroo dude, and a coward going down to the river in the moonlight to fight for her”.

 

IMPRESSIONIST TECHNIQUE

The full realization of a personality and experiences is done by impressionist technique.

 

First impressions of Mary

Early language and attitude is idealistic and romantic full of clichés

“Mary looked prettier than picture”

Contrasts the first glowing freshness (romance) with the later bitter harshness (reality)

 

The was a wide, old-fashioned brick-floored verandah in front,with an open end; there was ivy climbing up the verandah post on one side and a baby-rose on the other, and a grape-vine near the chimney. We rode up to the end of the verandah, and Jack called to see if there was anyone at home, and Mary came trotting out; so it was in the frame of vines that I first saw her.

More than once since then I had a fancy to wonder whether the rose-bush killed the grape-vine or the Ivy smothered ‘em both in the end. I used to have a vague Idea of riding that way some day to see. You do get strange fancies at odd times. (p. 539)  1

 

His recall of first impressions is contrasted with that of the later times.

It is the impression of decay and the death of affection and the drifting apart of husband and wife.

The purpose of the later impression is to contrast the bitterness and harshness of the love relationship with its first glowing freshness and promise.

Much of the tension is caused by a lack of communication:

 

“I said to myself, ‘I’ll take more notice of Jim and give Mary more of my time, just as soon as things clear ahead a bit.’  And the hard days went on, and the weeks, and the months, and the years – Ah well!”

Mary used to say, when things get worse, ‘why don’t you talk to me Joe? Why don’t you tell me your thoughts instead of shutting yourself up.... It’s hard for me; I get to think you’re tired of me....I might be cross and speak sharp ....How am I to know if you are in trouble if you don’t tell me?

 

Parallels can be made with Lawson’s own marriage to Bertha and their later acrimonious divorce.  It is also reinforced by comparing it to Black and his sour relationship with his wife.

 

Mary is never seen by herself – only through the impressions she makes on Joe.

Though the story appears to unfold sequentially, with a linear progression, it consists of a number of reflections and flashbacks that change the time perspective..  The effect of this shifting narrative detaches us and  reminds us that any romance was in the past and has been eclipsed and stifled.

 

The conclusion “Joe Wilson’s Courtship” helps to make his situation a universal one. The romantic climax of the clumsy proposal with its innocence and naivety is completely replaced by the final scene depicting Joe’s approach to Old Black for Mary’s hand. Black’s bitterness towards his wife is made evident, and the story ends with a masterfully evoked sense of impermanence, of the inevitable dissolution of romantic aspiration. We are left with the final image of an old man conveying the feeling of inevitability to a younger man. And it is conveyed by impression only, by hint, and with unusual power:

“What did you say, Boss?” I said.

“Nothing Joe,” he said. “I was going to say a lot, but it wouldn’t be any use. My father used to say a lot to me before I was married.” (p. 555)

The failure of Black’s marriage, and more than mere failure, a sense of disillusion for which no one can be prepared or fore warned, is carried by these sentences.

And that important Lawsonian device, the reflective pause, is used to convey the unspeakable:

“I waited a good while for him to speak.”

“Well, Boss,” I said, “What about Mary

“Oh! I suppose that’s all right Joe,” he said. ‘I—I beg your pardon.

I got thinking of the days when I was courting Mrs Black.” (p. 555)

The nostalgia of Black for his courting days has, of course, already been undercut by his present position and bitterness towards his wife. This ends the story neatly on the theme of the transitory joy of courtship. But there is a further significance in

Black’s “that’s all right Joe”. It is an echo of the statement that would have been the climax of the story had it been merely romantic:

 “‘Mary,’ I said, ‘would you marry a chap like me?’ And that was all right” (p. 554).

The very different tone of “all right” in Black’s later statement gives the phrase a strongly ironic quality.

It is clear from a close reading of “Joe Wilson’s Courtship” that Lawson was trying to achieve an intensification of experience of a different nature from that of the full dramatic presentation of a novel. His use of discontinuous narrative enables him to escape the confines of a strictly sequential time scheme and plot development, and to include only those events and characters important to his impressionistic style.

The high idealistic romantic notions of young men is dashed by reality and represents a loss of innocence. 

Young women marry men hoping to change them;  young men marry women hoping they won’t change.

 

 

1 Symbolism of Ivy

It is also a symbol of vibrancy as the druids admired its bright green hue. Often, sprigs of ivy would be woven into chain necklaces or head adornments to represent clarity of thought as well as celebrate the vitality of nature surrounding them.

The ivy gets its symbolism of connections and friendships because of its propensity to interweave in growth. Ever furrowing and intertwining, the ivy is an example of the twists and turns our friendships take – but also a testimony to the long-lasting connections and bonds we form with our friends that last over the years.

Another tribute to friendship as well as the test of time is the ivy’s ability to grow in challenging environments. The ivy is incredibly durable and can withstand harsh conditions. This is symbolic of our ability to stick by our friends no matter what.

The ivy is also a symbol of survival and determination for the same reasons. It seems to be virtually indestructible and will often return after it has suffered damage or has been severely cut back. This is an example of the human spirit and the strength we all have to carry on regardless of how harrowing our setbacks may have been.


Adversely, Ivy can symbolise the smothering of a relationship where the victim loses all sense of independance and selfhood.

Also pertaining to its growth (and similar to the vine) the ivy grows in the shape of a spiral. This has long been considered a sacred symbol for:

•        Consciousness

•        Development

•        Expansion

•        Rebirth

Lastly, most ivy has five-pointed leaves which makes it a symbol of protection as it signifies the harmony of the elements unified by common bonding energy.

 


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