Dux College – Study Guide: Rainbow’s End by Jane Harrison

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Dux College – Study Guide: Rainbow’s End by Jane Harrison

Ihsan Mohamed

Historical Context

Rainbow’s End is set in an unspecified time during the 1950s in Shepparton, Victoria. The play makes mention of Queen Elizabeth II visiting Australia – which is historically accurate, since the monarch did indeed visit in 1954.

Emerging from the Great Depression and World War II, the 1950s was an economically prosperous decade for Australia. It was in this decade that the “suburban dream” or “great Australian dream” was coined – i.e. owning your own suburban home. The fifties saw the introduction of television and many new home appliances. Economic abundance meant longevity for the incumbent political party, hence Robert Menzies became Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister. The Queen’s visit in 1954 strengthened public allegiance to the monarchy. These facts are important to your study of Rainbow’s End, because it illustrates the stark contrast between the experiences of Aboriginal Australians and their white counterparts. While the country was enjoying financial and political flourishment, the living standards of Indigenous Australians was stagnant. They were disempowered socially, politically and economically.

While the war years had promoted integration through increased employment and military enlistment of Aboriginal people, post-war prosperity widened the socioeconomic gap. The urban sprawl increased available housing, but Aboriginal people remained in poor living conditions. This is encapsulated by the settlement of “humpies” (very basic, makeshift tin shacks) that the characters in the play reside in. Aboriginal people were not granted the vote until 1962 and would not be recognised as citizens until 1967, highlighting the political disenfranchisement they were subject to in the fifties.

While it is not crucial for you to remember all the dates and historical events, it is important that you appreciate the marginalisation that Aboriginal people faced when the play was set. Understanding the stark inequalities between indigenous people and their white counterparts, during a time when Australia was thriving, will enable you to appreciate the adverse experiences of the indigenous characters in a more wholistic way.

Brief Plot Summary

The Dear family, consisting of Nan, her daughter Gladys, and Gladys’ daughter Dolly live in a humpy on the “flats.” The flats are an Aboriginal settlement of humpies near the town tip of Shepparton, a rural town in Victoria. Papa Dear, the grandfather, is an activist and pastor, who is away from home for long periods doing his work for the indigenous people. A railway line separates the aboriginal settlement from the white residential areas and the rest of the town. In the first few scenes, we are introduced to Errol, a young, white encyclopedia salesman who mistakenly came to the Flats to sell encyclopedias. He and Dolly share an immediate mutual attraction after passing each other in the street. Gladys subscribes to the entire encyclopedia collection, meaning Errol will return regularly to deliver each book in the set.

After a few more visits, Errol summons up the courage to ask Dolly to the Mooroopna-Shepparton Ball. After some resistance from Nan, who is suspicious of this “Whitefella”, Dolly is allowed to go to the dance. Dolly is humiliated at the dance, after one of the white girls reveals that Dolly’s dress used to be her curtains before she dumped them at the town tip. One of Dolly’s cousins make unwanted advances towards her, when Errol comes to her physical defence. Later that night, Errol confesses his feelings towards Dolly. He asks her to come away with him to Melbourne, get married and leave her family. Horrified at the thought of leaving her family, Dolly storms off disallowing Errol to walk her home. It is then that she is sexually assaulted by her cousin.

Meanwhile at the Flats, a flood has ensued, and the Dears evacuate the humpy. Dolly returns home distraught from the assault she has just experienced. Gladys and Nan assume it was Errol, until she admits it was her cousin. The family are moved into some basic concrete housing at Rumbalarra, which is better than the humpies but not adequate.

This sparks the Aboriginal people to petition the government for better housing conditions. The movement gathers momentum towards the end of the play, and months later culminates in the petition scene. By now, Dolly has become pregnant and given birth to her child. Papa Dear is not present to deliver the address at the petition meeting. Gladys takes his place and delivers an impassioned, powerful speech demanding better housing, employment and social empowerment for indigenous people. The play concludes as Dolly agrees to marry Errol, and Papa Dear finally arrives.

Character Analysis

Nan Dear

Nan Dear is the matriarch of the Dear family. Her character is one of immense resilience, having lived through very difficult tribulations. She is a bearer of intergenerational trauma as she lived in the era of the stolen generations. She is painfully aware of many families around her whose children were taken. She has developed a kind of stoicism to deal with this trauma and is thus reluctant to speak about this subject. She was also sexually abused by a white man in her youth. In your essay, Nan’s character is useful to refer to when making points about the oppression and marginalisation faced by Aboriginal people. Her character is also useful to demonstrate the great resilience and perseverance of indigenous Australians to remain committed to their families and communities despite the discrimination levelled against them.


As discussed in detail below, Gladys’ character is symbolic of the struggle for indigenous empowerment on individual and societal levels. On a grassroots level, Gladys is determined to ensure her daughter Dolly receives a rich education and goes on to become successful and self-sufficient. Hence her obsession with the encyclopedias, radio quiz shows and her eagerness to get Dolly a job at the bank. On the macro level, Gladys is disillusioned with the social and economic circumstances that indigenous people are subjected to. This is expressed in her speech at the end of the play, where she discusses these issues. She notes the inadequate housing, underemployment, educational inequities and social otherization that her people face. If your essay involves points on human experiences as a vehicle to empower aboriginal people, then you should refer extensively to Gladys, as well as Papa Dear.


Dolly’s character represents the bright, hopeful future for the indigenous peoples of Australia. She is intelligent and committed to her studies and self-development. Though she is subjected to many ordeals – discrimination, sexual assault and poverty – she emerges from these circumstances as a mature young woman. Her acceptance into university foreshadows the actualisation of her potential. It is my opinion that Dolly represents the present and future of Australia’s First Nation Peoples. A character who is not unscathed by centuries of invasion and oppression, but also one who is not subdued by the weight of history. The legacy and experiences of trauma that she carries has not subjugated her – it has only increased her commitment to shape her own future positively. If your essay will mention the struggle for indigenous self-determination, it is important to refer to examples from Dolly’s character.


Errol’s character is symbolic of Harrison’s hope for non-Indigenous Australia. His colour-blindness to Dolly’s race, and empathy towards the Dears represents what Harrison wants from wider Australian society. His marriage to Dolly at the play’s conclusion is metaphorically significant. While Nan Dear recalls being raped by a man named Fisher, her granddaughter, Dolly, marries a man with the same surname. (It is confirmed they are unrelated). This signifies that the cycle of discrimination has closed. Those whose ancestors were the perpetrators of heinous crimes against the First Nation Peoples, have now extended the hand of reconciliation. We are not saying discrimination does not exist anymore, but more so that progress is being made. On a political level, we have taken steps towards reconciliation, such as the notable Sorry Day Speech in 2008. Errol is the only key non-aboriginal character, so his persona is relevant if you are discussing the role of non-aboriginal people in reconciliation.

Human Experience Themes

Theme #1: The Indigenous Experience as Critique on Australian Society

Rainbow’s End, from start to finish, reflects the many forms and flavours of racial discrimination in 1950s Australian society. Harrison uses an intimate, first-person perspective to share the collective human experience of Aboriginal people in this era. This deeply evocative portrayal of Indigenous characters enables her to launch a powerful critique on the history of Australian race relations. The human experiences we are referring to here, are the many examples of discrimination and inequity faced by the Dear family. By showing these first-hand human experiences, Harrison challenges assumptions about our history, and invites us to explore the collective experience of Australia’s First Nation Peoples.

Through the characters’ experience of racial segregation, Harrison encourages us to reflect on the state of race relations in Australia’s past. Segregation is established by the location of the Aboriginal settlement, on a floodplain next to the town tip. A railway line separates the Aboriginals from the white residential areas. In Scene 2B, when Errol speaks of the “shops, municipal pools and picture theatres” in Melbourne, Dolly mentions that “we have them here (in Shepparton) too you know… except they’re segregated.” This demonstrates the divide between the city and rural areas – segregation of blacks was still widespread in the latter. The use of ellipses indicates awkward silence, as Dolly is embarrassed to mention segregation, while Errol is unaware. Through this script device, Harrison implies that segregation was a taboo topic, even in the fifties. Hence, she encourages the audience to reflect on this reality which often goes unspoken of. Another almost unmentionable subject is the stolen generations. Dolly confronts Nan, asking “did they take her boys?” in reference to another aboriginal family. Nan’s refusal to speak about these traumatic events has the same effect – it stirs an uncomfortable feeling in the audience and forces them to reflect on the stolen generations. By playing out these confronting issues in real-time, with a live theatre audience, Harrison is able to deeply affect the viewers and ask them to consider these blemishes in our history.

Harrison also uses the experiences of the characters to emphasise economic inequalities that are driven by institutions such as the government, businesses, and general social structure. Nan Dear tells Gladys in Scene Four, that “they’ll never give Dolly that job” as a cash register. She continues, “I don’t even see the town Aboriginals working in stores”, let alone those who live on the Flats (an Aboriginal ghetto on the floodplain near the town tip). This shows that the discrimination has become so ingrained into the psyches of Indigenous people, that they themselves start to internalise the segregation. Hence Nan discourages Gladys from having high hopes for Dolly as a banker or later a nurse. Through exploring the indigenous experience of deeply-rooted racism, Harrison questions our assumptions about Australian history, as well as the current state of race relations. Furthermore, in Scene 10, the tone and line of questioning pursued by the Bank Manager indicates his biases towards hiring Dolly, due to her race. He asks how she would “fit in” and “arrive on time.” These examples, and countless others, give audiences an intimate peek into the experiences of indigenous people in 1950s rural Australia. Through these stirring and confronting experiences, Harrison challenges any rose-coloured assumptions we may have about our country’s past.

Social interactions between the Aboriginal characters and whites are also used by Harrison as human experiences upon which she builds her commentary. The white government inspector who visits the Dears’ humpy in Scene 6 mentions the concept of “Assimilation.” He explains the need of the “aborigine to be absorbed into the community…[they] must learn to live like us.” Dolly later complains that she and Errol can’t even “Walk in the streets” without being verbally harassed, as interracial couples are not accepted by society. Such microcosmic examples of racial derision allow Harrison to paint an intricate, personal image of the indigenous experience. It is through these confronting and uncomfortable experiences that she asks her audiences to reconsider ideas about Australia’s “classless society” and our notions of perfect multiculturalism.

Theme #2: Struggle for Empowerment in Marginalised Communities

Rainbow’s End depicts the struggle of indigenous characters who are determined to achieve economic and financial success. Through their personal experiences, Harrison gives validation to the ordeals of her indigenous audience, while also encouraging them to pursue self-empowerment.

Papa Dear is a prime example of this struggle for indigenous empowerment. His persona is never seen in the play but discussed repeatedly. His perpetual absence is a result of his dedication to the indigenous cause. Thus, his character becomes a transcendent symbol in the play for the indigenous struggle. This struggle culminates in his arrival in the final scene of the play. Papa Dear’s entrance symbolically implies that progress has been achieved, and that there is light at the end of the tunnel for the indigenous cause. Hence Harrison leaves her Aboriginal audiences uplifted and hopeful, whilst also highlighting the importance of relentlessly pursuing communal self-empowerment.

Gladys also demonstrates strong commitment to the self-determination of Aboriginal people, and this is expressed primarily through her hopes and dreams for her daughter, Dolly. In the first few scenes, she becomes enthralled with the encyclopedias because of their potential to educate her daughter. In one dream sequence she fixates longingly on the prospect of “my daughter… a graduate!” The use of the dream sequence serves as an intimate peek into the psychology and internal experiences of each character. For Gladys, this shows us that her prime concern is her daughter’s success in life. While quarrelling with her mother, Gladys says “I just want what any mother wants for her daughter – white, black or brindle.” Her perseverance in the scene with the bank manager further demonstrates her dedication in order to secure Dolly the training position. When Dolly is eventually accepted to university, Gladys has succeeded. Harrison uses this success to engender hope within her Aboriginal audiences, and to encourage them to also pursue self-determination. Her pursuit of equal opportunities for indigenous people culminates in her speech at the end of the play. “we the undersigned demand to be equal of anyone! And we will fight for that right! And we will keep fighting, until we are granted that right. By our neighbours and employers. By the Shire. And by the Crown, Mr Menzies.” The tumultuous applause, and the positive reception of the petition foreshadows progress for the Aboriginal community. Historically, it was the indigenous activism of the fifties that saw Aboriginal people get the vote in 1962, and then become citizens in 1967. Harrison emotively portrays the experiences of aboriginal people who were petitioning for equality, as well as their progress, to suggest that there is potential and hope for advancement within the aboriginal community. Through the human experiences of these strong, vocal characters, Harrison empowers her audiences to advance the causes of indigenous rights and self-determination.

Form and Style

Theatrical Form

Theatrical form enables Harrison to portray the lives of the characters in a very visceral, direct and relatable light. Audiences do not need to rely on their imagination to illustrate the events of the play – it all happens in front of them. Harrowing scenes involving racism, sexual assault and heated exchanges are all played out in front of the live audience. Seeing actors perform the play adds dramatic fervour that cannot be achieved through written form. The play format means Harrison is able to control exactly what the audience sees, hears and thus how they feel. She is therefore able to elicit a more emotional response from her audiences, which is paramount in conveying the upsetting and confronting experiences faced by Aboriginal people.


The play makes frequent use of niche Australian colloquialisms, which has two primary effects. Firstly, it enables a more direct discourse between characters. Secondly, it adds authenticity and relatability to these characters, as we get a more genuine sense of the Aboriginal communities they represent. Hence, use of slang adds layers of richness to the characters, and allows audiences to warm to them more easily.

Direct Dialogue and Stage Directions

Direct dialogue, often between the three main characters, fosters an authentic familial atmosphere. It also allows for snappy, one-word exchanges and quips that makes the characters more real to the audience. Stage directions allow Harrison to deal with very traumatic experiences, such as violence and sexual assault, in a non-graphic way that is still nonetheless confronting and upsetting. She does this by implying that certain events occur off-stage. The audience cannot see what is happening, but they can hear it.

Furthermore, stage and musical elements enable Harrison to construct many “dream sequences” throughout the play. These scenes involve one character alone on the stage, longingly dreaming about very distant realities. These dream sequences give us very intimate insights into the psychology of the characters, thus clearly elucidating their experiences. This means you can use the dream sequences to support almost any point you want to make about the human experiences of each character. It shows the marker you are engaging with the psyche of each character’s human experience, while also grasping one of the key theatrical devices used by Harrison to convey her message.


  1. https://www.myplace.edu.au/decades_timeline/1950/decade_landing_5.html?tabRank=1
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