The Secret River – Kate Grenville

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Kate Grenville describes the characters in The Secret River as ‘not heroes and not devils, but just human beings, stumbling from one small decision to the next and in so doing, without really planning it, creating the shape of their lives. ’ The character of Will Thornhill in the novel makes several decisions some of which come from a place of circumstance and others that do not. Kate Grenville’s statement about the characters describes them to an extent as there is nothing extraordinary about them, they do not stand up for what is right as heroes do, they do not commit evil deeds as devils do.

Will makes several decisions that spring from his family’s history and circumstance and some that are out of his own desire for something more for his life and family. Will comes from a lower class family who feel the need to steal to survive ‘all the Thornhills stole turnips from time to time, pg 9 They where all thieves, any time they got the chance. The dainty person could shrill all he liked about sin, but there could be no sin in thieving if it meant a full belly. ’ Pg16 Will’s dad was the primary caregiver and was the most skilled at stealing to provide for the family.

By comparison Sal comes from a middle class family; her father has money to buy her things that Will’s family could not afford. In Will’s eyes Sal was never short on food, especially indulgences such as oranges, sweetbread and soft white bread. Pg 17 Will comes from a long line of William Thornhills ‘Your name is common as dirt’ pg 11was a curse that his sister Mary had professed over him at a young age, his response to this was ‘William Thornhills will fill up the world’ pg 11 From this happening at a early age he made the decision to make himself stand out from the crowd, It’s through this that every other decision in his life is affected.

Will has various jobs while he is growing up in London, after his parents passed away he feels it is his responsibility to take care of those remaining in the household. In every job he makes the decision to steal not based on circumstances but out of a desire for excess. ‘No-one would miss a little as there is so many’ pg21 this is the first instance that Will is caught stealing, He tries to lie his way out of the situation and is whipped by Crocker on the docks as a public display.

Will learns ‘not to get caught’ pg21 instead of not stealing at all, this is a trait that will follow him, to make decisions not from circumstance but by his own free will. There is an added element of peer pressure in this as well as his work colleagues forced the barrel to break open and encouraged him. He didn’t steal the sugar out of necessity or survival but out of surplus and desire for something more in his life. ‘Most watermen where thieves, although some went about it in a more businesslike way’ page 23 this quote is fairly accurate when applied to Wills decision to steal at the river.

Collarbone came into Will’s life as a replacement father figure after his died and showed him the many ways to steal from this job. Collarbone stole some brandy and was caught and as a consequence hanged. Through this experience Will clearly saw the consequences of stealing but was blinded by the surplus amount of goods at the docks where he worked. Marrying Sal was the easiest decision Will could make, he had to work for seven years on the river to earn it and become a free man of the river the day this was granted, was the day they wed.

This decision was one of desire, it was a natural progression from his initial attraction from when they were younger and was the easiest decision for Will to make. Mr. Middleton gave Will and Sal his second best wherry as a wedding gift and it was at this point that Will realized that all his decisions up until now had lead him here and he believed that ‘this was the reward for a man’s labour. ’ Page 28 The death of Sal’s parents had a profound effect on Wills judgement, before this he had just established a feeling of security and an easier future for himself and his family.

This was brought about by Mr. Middleton not having any sons to leave the family business to, Will’s plan was to become a strong son-in-law and through this inherit the business. The day this happened Will felt all the closed opportunities of his life open up and he gained a sense of direction. Mr. Middleton had savings and assets but during the frozen month, all of his savings and investments where dried up, Will & Sal had seemed to have lost everything they had worked years to get ‘what point could there be to hoping, when everything could be broken so easily? p49 It is during this period that Will feels like he has been ‘reduced to an animal’ p49 His character is described as feeling extremely empty and having a massive space where hope had been. This shifted Will back into his circumstantial decision making, the need to steal for survival mentality resurfaced and the family derived cycle began again. The biggest decision that Will makes in the story is to steal the Brazil wood from Mr. Lucas on the River.

Will had been stealing all his life to survive, he knew the risks of stealing through his friend Collarbone and at this point he doesn’t need to. He makes this decision based on a desire to have more in his life and refers back to when Mr. Middleton was alive and he had hope for their future. An added element was pressure for provision as Sal had just informed him that she was expecting ‘another mouth to feed’p 55 this influenced his decision to steal as he had to increase his responsibilities as a provider and wanted to get back to getting ahead in life.

It is through this decision that his life changes and it is due to a small amount of peer pressure and a desire to succeed, not based on circumstance. Factoring in all of these elements Will Thornhill makes several decisions through the novel some based on circumstances when he is a young child and his family steal for survival, and some out of a desire for more in his life fuelled by the words of his sister.

This can be interpreted as greed to some extent, and to provide the kind of life Sal is used to having. To a large extent Will is not a victim of circumstance but falls true to Kate Grenville’s comments about the characters “just human beings, stumbling from one small decision to the next and in so doing, without really planning it, creating the shape of their lives. ” The Secret River, Kate Grenville 2005, The Publishing Company

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The Secret River - Kate Grenville. (2017, Sep 15). Retrieved December 1, 2023 , from

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