The Lieutenant

The Lieutenant

Insight Text Guide author Anica Boulanger-Mashberg discusses Kate Grenville’s The Lieutenant.

A central idea in The Lieutenant is the role of language in how humans see, understand and interact with the world, particularly in relationships between individuals and broader relationships between cultures. This underlying theme reflects one of the dominant investigations of VCE English study: how language creates meaning. The text features recurrent imagery relating to the functions, systems and power of language, as Daniel Rooke (based on historical figure William Dawes) explores and documents the local Dharug language spoken by Cadigal residents of the New South Wales area at the time of the First Fleet’s arrival. Rooke is fascinated by learning and mapping this completely unfamiliar language, and his relationship with one of its young speakers, Tagaran, underlies the emotional core of his story. The presence of this meta-focus on language adds a nice layer to text studies at this level.

The Lieutenant continues Grenville’s re-creation of Australian history (a preoccupation evident as early as her cautiously experimental 1988 novel Joan Makes History), offering a similar fictional exploration, yet provoking a much less controversial reception than The Secret River. The linear, realist narrative style merges comfortably with the sparse, efficient voice to create a concrete experience of the past that is very accessible for students. While the important stories of colonial settlement – particularly in terms of relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples – are constitutive elements of the novel, their historical distance from us is neither dry nor alienating. This is largely because the story is so closely aligned with its protagonist: against a cultural interaction of national significance, it is one man’s very human experience that we connect with. One of the other central themes – that of difference and belonging – is embodied in Daniel Rooke’s surprisingly contemporary experience of loneliness, otherness and isolation. Rooke’s struggles to feel at peace with the world around him make him a very relatable and empathetic character, a factor which draws readers emotionally into the text and which renders Rooke’s moral challenges and decisions genuinely affecting rather than merely academic. This is an aspect of the text that should really attract students: the difficult decisions Rooke faces, and their possible justifications and consequences, make rich material for discussion and analysis.

One of these decisions provides the climax of the novel, when Rooke is faced with the choice between his professional obligations and his own moral values – values we have watched develop through his journey and, particularly, his life in the colonies: ‘a place so strange’ that it ‘took a layer of skin off a man and left him peeled’ (p.96). His distressing conflict – both external and internal – is an exemplary illustration of the literary relationships between character, events (plot) and values, and is a strong way to help students learn to discuss how texts both construct and convey ideas and meaning.

Another aspect of this novel that is particularly engaging is the significant central relationship between Rooke and Tagaran. Not only does it embody several of the novel’s themes (difference and connection; the powers of language; ideas of conflict and loyalty), but it also offers an unusual portrait of a human relationship not defined by romantic love, biological relation, or even traditional hierarchical power. Rooke and Tagaran share an unconventional friendship bridging divides of age, gender, culture and experience, focussing our attention on what really connects two people. Of course, this returns to that idea underpinning the narrative: language and how it can bond us, even when we do not share a native tongue. For Rooke, when Tagaran is ‘teaching him a word’, she is ‘showing him a world’ (p.255). This is a perfect spark for discussions about how texts create worlds. What techniques does Grenville use to differentiate Rooke and Tagaran? How do Rooke and his colleague Silk view and use language differently, and what impact does this have on the reader? How does language help build and develop central themes (duty and obligation; purpose and ambition; etc.)?

While some initial critical reception of this novel despaired of its conventional formal structure and its compulsive revisiting of the frontier conflict at its narrative heart, the streamlined attitude and particular focus on a single period of settler/Indigenous difficulty is, in fact, empowering for students at pre-tertiary level. The novel is very short compared to many on study lists: this is both a bonus for less confident students, and an excellent encouragement and challenge prompting close, detailed readings by more advanced students.

Essay Questions

  • Did Rooke make the right decision regarding the governor’s punitive mission? Why / why not?
  • How does Grenville use imagery, symbolism and analogies to explore the central themes in the novel?
  • Daniel Rooke and Talbot Silk are very different in their approaches to the world. What values or qualities do they share?
  • Which do you consider the greater challenge: Rooke’s internal conflict (his own beliefs and priorities), or his conflicts with others (including those in authority as well as his own peers)?
  • Grenville doesn’t present the subjective experiences of the Indigenous characters. How does she use language, despite this, to construct their characters and convey to us their values, views and behaviours?
  • How do the historical events portrayed in The Lieutenant inform your understanding of contemporary Australia?

Need help getting to grips with The Lieutenant? Click here to purchase our Insight Text Guide for The Lieutenant, written by Anica Boulanger-Mashberg. With a chapter-by-chapter analysis, discussion of characters and relationships, in-depth analysis of themes, ideas and values, practice essay topics and much more, the Insight Text Guide for The Lieutenant provides clear, comprehensive and accessible analysis on the whole text.

Insight Text Guides are produced by Insight Publications, your independent, Australian educational publisher.


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