Love and Ideology In A Town Like Alice

Questionable values lurk underneath apparently wholesome stories.

Once you realize that ideology is everywhere, it’s hard to miss. Entire armies of bloggers — myself included — never tire of commenting on its manifestations, especially in popular culture. Most recently, I found Nevil Shute’s novel A Town Like Alice (1950) to be bursting with ideology.

The central protagonist of A Town Like Alice is Jean Paget, an Englishwoman forced into a death march on Malaya during occupation by the Japanese army in World War II. During that time, she meets Australian prisoner of war Joe Harman, who suffers crucifixion by the Japanese but survives. After the war, they reconnect in Australia and romance blooms. It’s all very heartwarming, especially as told in Shute’s simple prose, but like all art, like all language, it contains hidden agendas.

One agenda in A Town Like Alice is that of capitalism. In post-War Britain, Jean inherits enough money that she needn’t ever work for a living again. Nonetheless, she uses her inheritance in the Australian outback to start a shoe factory and ice cream parlor, among other ventures. Her capital, her ownership of the means of production, make her the definition of a capitalist. Shute never portrays her entrepreneurial activities in any way but positive — she provides employment, stimulates the economy and turns a hole in the road into a boomtown — but will her employees always feel blessed to be mere proles? Are the Aborigines in the area pleased to see settlers continue to flood the land, subjugate nature, and enforce different values?

Which leads to more ideology: the colonialist mindset. Colonization, always a nasty affair, was also nasty in Australia. The Aborigines in A Town Like Alice are referred to derogatorily, they can’t share certain facilities with whites, and they aren’t trusted. In addition to playing European savior to the rustic whites of the Australian outback, Jean Paget plays white savior, first to the Malays and then to Aborigines. Toward the end, as her efforts bear fruit, the novel fairly reeks of those colonialist values of improvement, civilization and religion that Joseph Conrad derided in Heart of Darkness and W.E.B. Du Bois excoriated in “The Souls of White Folk” in Darkwater.

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Photo by Tobias Keller on Unsplash.

The ideological element that’s most obvious is what philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls — in his book In Defense of Lost Causes and elsewhere — the production of the couple. Matchmaking is an objective in nearly every work of fiction in modern times. Everything from music videos to literary novels culminates in lovers joining, and A Town Like Alice is, after all, a romance. Shute’s novel takes this agenda further, though. When Jean employs girls in her businesses, it encourages more ringers to hang around, resulting in a growing number of couples, marriages and babies. In A Town Like Alice, the production of the couple combines with capitalism to actually produce couples through the mechanisms of the free market!

I find that a bit disconcerting.

However, the colonialist mindset in A Town Like Alice is mitigated. The first half of the book shows English women learning to live like Malays under Japanese imperial rule, while the second half deals with settlers of European background in land once only populated by Aborigines. Shute may have designed this reversal of roles to be instructive, but of what? He tells stories, but preaches little. To what extent was he subconsciously reflecting the prejudices of his cultural background, and to what extent was he offering a conscious critique of that cultural background?

The latter is entirely possible. Shute’s novels (I’ve also read On the Beach.) indicate a man who was in many ways supremely moral and forward-thinking. For example, A Town Like Alice has no shortage of men looking down on women, but the women always prove them wrong. Far from frivolous, Jean is sober, perseverant and intelligent — and not after the cheap manner of the sexy, spunky heroines so favored in popular culture today. Shute has clearly designed his novel to contradict the demeaning stereotypes men in his time had of women and often still do today.

But feminism is ideology, too.

A Town Like Alice tells an enjoyable story, but like all stories, there is more beneath the surface — a worldview or worldviews the work encourages, for better or worse.

Originally published on Blogger on May 17, 2016.

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I write about the intersection of arts and ideas, my small contribution to the #ThinGraphiteLine between civilization and its collapse.

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