Parrett, Favel, Past the Shallows (Texts and Human Experiences)

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HSC English Advanced – Texts and Human Experiences – Study Guide

Initial considerations

Past the Shallows is a powerful exploration of the multifaceted nature of life by evoking vivid images of the characters’ relationship to the Tasmanian coast using ironically subdued language. Drawing on largely universal notions such as that of brotherhood, our connection to nature and the enduring implications of death and grief whilst remaining pertinent to its unique setting, Past the Shallows proves itself to be a culturally significant text to be studied under the concept of Texts and Human Experiences in its ability to illustrate the human condition in a startlingly sparse—and, indeed, memorable—way.

Some significant aspects of the novel that one should always consider whilst formulating a Texts and Human Experiences thesis include:

  • Distinct setting established by Parrett from the first chapter

    • The ocean as a recurring motif

  • Parrett’s use of largely simplistic language

  • Using Harry and Miles’ alternating perspectives to gradually unravel how children respond life’s concerns, such as death and abuse

  • The duality of human relationships

    • Their expectations and how they can often be complex and contradictory

  • Parrett’s purpose in writing the novel

    • The role of storytelling as a whole in helping humanity understand themselves

Background to Past the Shallows

 

Author’s context

Past the Shallows is the debut novel from Australian author Favel Parrett. Born in 1974 in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, she lived in Hobart for seven years as a child. During this time, she inevitably spent much of her life near and in the ocean. Parrett reveals she used to dig up discarded treasures along the beach for hours, attend school camps on Bruny Island and surf—she couldn’t go without it for more than a week. Now, she lives in Victoria, but it is clear that the seven years spent in Hobart has drastically impacted her storytelling.

Parrett’s family life is equally significant, considering the familial relationships portrayed in the novel. Her and her younger brother, James, are very close, particularly in the face of her parents’ deteriorating marriage. She states, “The way I feel about my brother is all in my writing. One of the worst things that could have happened to me when I was a child would have been losing my brother. Often siblings from broken families have to rely on each other because that’s all you’ve got. And it’s not like we didn’t fight but just not as much as other siblings. We always thought we’d be OK, no matter what happened in our family, because we had each other.”

From this, we can extrapolate how the text is shaped by very real human experiences behind the words. Parrett imbued parts of her life and the Tasmanian landscape she became familiar with into Past the Shallows. In fact, it could be said that every text is little more than a reflection of different aspects of our humanity and legitimate experiences. Despite the novel not being entirely accurate of Parrett’s life (it is still fiction, after all), it is certainly reminiscent of the fact that art and reality are often married in various, complex ways—it is imperative that you make this link clear in every Texts and Human Experiences essay you write. Let the marker know that you understand that texts do, in fact, aid us in understanding our humanity.

Literary significance

Past the Shallows was published in Australia, the UK, the United States, Germany and Italy. It won the:

  • Dobbie Literary Prize (2012)

  • Australian Book Industry Awards for Newcomer of the Year (2012)

and was shortlisted for the:

  • Miles Franklin Literary Award (2012)

  • Australian Book Industry Awards for Book of the Year (2012)

  • Australian Book Industry Awards for Literary Book of the Year (2012)

  • The Indie Awards for Debut Fiction (2012)

  • ABA’s Bookseller’s Choice Award (2012)

The fact that the novel has been critically acclaimed suggests a broader response to this text being culturally significant in not only the world of art, but in everyday people using it as a medium through which they can better understand the human condition. That is, it is important to consider how Past the Shallows has impacted the ways in which readers view the universal themes presented within the novel, such as that of childhood innocence, memory and death.

Past the Shallows and Texts and Human Experiences

As with any prescribed (and related) text, we must first look to the Texts and Human Experiences rubric to understand what it really is that we are asked to do. In fact, every potential HSC examination question can come only from this rubric—though at times it could be less obvious and masked by synonymous language—so it is imperative that we study the links between Past the Shallows and the major points in the Texts and Human Experiences rubric.

Let’s look at some example questions you could receive in the HSC examination and what aspect of the rubric it most closely reflects (remember, some questions can be a combination of different elements of the rubric!). Then, we will deconstruct the ways you could explore this in Past the Shallows as the basis of your thesis.

Individual and collective human experiences

  • Potential question: Human experiences can be both unique and universal. How does studying your prescribed text and ONE other related text deepen your understanding of this notion?

  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “In this common module students deepen their understanding of how texts represent individual and collective human experiences.”

Much of the appeal of Past the Shallows lies in its ability to explore timeless concerns that humanity has always faced yet still tell an engaging story that is unique to the experiences of the individual characters. This is especially true of the extremely distinct setting in which the story is placed. The Tasmanian landscape is frequently drawn on in great detail by Parrett, and the reader is always aware of the very unique small-town, coastal experiences of the characters. The notion of “individual human experiences” could also be analysed within the universe of the novel—from the childish naivety of Harry and Aunty Jean’s well-intended aloofness to Dad’s horrifying anger, each character has their own motivations, personalities and shortcomings that bring the novel to life.

However, the text allows us to understand that, while every human has their own upbringing in different environments with different people, some aspects of our lives transcend such borders. The universal themes presented in the novel, such as that of family, violence and humanity’s intrinsic connection to the natural world, are ones that are only enhanced by the specific experiences of the characters as it allows for a more realistic depiction of such concerns. That is, as responders, we still seem to relate to many of the emotions evoked or concerns explored in the text despite it not being entirely reflective of our own lives.

Human qualities and emotions

  • Potential question: To what extent are texts culturally significant due to their explorations of the complex emotions and qualities that define humanity?

  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “They examine how texts represent human qualities and emotions associated with, or arising from, these experiences.”

Due to its contained setting, Past the Shallows has an extraordinary ability to delve deeply into the intricacies of the characters’ minds, emotions and characteristics. It is told through the perspectives of two children, meaning the emotions portrayed in the novel are both amplified and simplified—it shows these human qualities and emotions stripped down to their very core. However, due to its rather sparse language, the novel ultimately achieves this by not portraying the emotions in great detail, but rather let it be inferred by the reader based on the atmosphere and tone of the sequence.

This could also be tied back to the novel form of the text, as Past the Shallows relies more on the reader’s ability to use their imaginations to read between the lines than purely depict situations as they are as more direct, multimedia forms, such as plays or films, may do.

Language and form

  • Potential question: Explain the significance of form in expressing and evaluating what it means to be human in your prescribed text and ONE other text of your own choosing.

  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “Students appreciate, explore, interpret, analyse and value the ways language is used to shape these representations in a range of texts in a variety of forms, modes and media.”

While Past the Shallows is not necessarily a ground-breaking novel in terms of its form and structure (not every profound depiction of the human experience has to be a pioneer in this respect), Parrett does still explore how her story can be told in evocative and unique ways. In fact, she says she did not have a clear structure for her book, but instead wrote in episodes—hence, the sense of fracturing that permeates the novel. However, there is some cohesion and sense of unity created by both the localised setting and the opening and beginning echo each other and create a bookend effect, sometimes also known as framing or a circular plot as the story returns to where it started, but with slight differences in the ending that imply that all has not stayed the same.

Other structural features to note when providing an analysis of how the use of form is manipulated to explore “what it means to be human” include and what it could suggest:

  • Linear/non-linear structure

    • Flashbacks

      • Miles’ recollection of the memories of Mum often fracture the narrative in quite startling ways—this could be a reflection of how our past never truly leaves us and can intrude on our present actions when we least expect it. More broadly, it could even suggest the inherent confusion and unpredictability that comes with being human

  • Cyclical structure

    • Framing (see above)

  • Perspective/point-of-view

    • Children’s perspective (see the first paragraph in 3.2)

    • Alternating between Harry and Miles again gives us more insight into the “individual human experiences” and how their different expectations and personalities influence the way certain situations are seen

  • Nature of language used (see the last paragraph in 3.2)

As you can see, talking about form and language is almost always related to the composer’s thematic concerns. Think of the form, structural features and nature of language as deliberate choices made by Parrett in order to most effectively tell the story she needed to tell in this novel—they aid her in exploring human experiences as a medium through which she can communicate with the reader.

Anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies

  • Potential question: Explore how texts illuminate the inconsistencies in our behaviour, and how this shapes our understanding of what it means to be human.

  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “Students explore how texts may give insight into the anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies in human behaviour and motivations.”

There is certainly an abundance of these “anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistences” throughout the entire novel. For example:

  • Dad’s constant anger and abuse, despite the warmth and comfort we often associate with familial relationships

  • Miles being torn between the childhood innocence he misses and the adult reality he is forced into

  • Aunty Jean’s desire to help the boys while simultaneously being harsh and somewhat irritating

  • The ocean—a metaphor for the human experience in general—being both beautiful, calm and healing and extremely violent, unpredictable and volatile

  • The other members of the town being able to recognise the family’s toxicity yet being unable or unwilling to help in any major capacity

  • The past and the present constantly melding and intruding on each other

Each of these inconsistencies are illustrated by Parrett in order to achieve one overarching goal: to show that humans are often confusing and our lives do not always go as planned or as expected. This is why many of the adult characters’ behaviour and motivations, especially that of Dad’s, are partially concealed, and why the novel chooses to focus on the perspectives of the two young children.

If we return to the initial, proposed question of “how texts shape the inconsistencies in our behaviour, and how this shapes our understanding of what it means to be human,” any of the above points mentioned (or one you have thought of yourself) would be appropriate to use in your body paragraph. You must make clear the fundamental thesis that our behaviour is often erratic because life is as tumultuous as the ocean—that is largely what it means to be human, and by representing it in such an evocative way, Past the Shallows helps readers understand that.

Challenging assumptions

  • Potential question: The most important texts are ones that invite the responder to see the world differently. To what extent is this true of your prescribed text and one text of your own choosing?

  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “Students explore how texts [invite] the reader to see the world differently, to challenge assumptions, ignite new ideas or reflect personally.”

Think of what aspects of the novel have forced you to reflect personally on your life and experience. What parts of the story surprised you the most? What made you think about, say, the nature of familial relationships or the Tasmanian coast differently?

These are the inferred questions that the rubric, and the HSC examination question, is ultimately asking you. Some possible answers of how Past the Shallows have “ignited new ideas” may be:

  • Challenging assumptions that more mature themes cannot be understood in a complex manner by children

  • The duality of familial relationships

  • George’s kind and caring nature, despite being initially presented as a reclusive monster

    • A larger commentary on the fact that humans should take to treat others with kindness and not judge a book by its cover

  • How atmosphere and intense emotion can be evoked using rather sparse language

Do not be afraid to deconstruct this part of the syllabus beyond the narrative and in-universe themes. It is also important to consider the novel in the larger fabric of texts—this means discussing how Parrett is being innovative through form and her overall message. Above all, you should understand that challenging readers’ assumptions is a fundamental purpose of all texts, as part of the human experience deals with our ability to be challenged in order to grow (which, in actuality, is what the characters in the novel undergo).

The role of storytelling in reflecting lives and cultures

  • Potential question: How do texts reflect particular lives and cultures, and what does this tell us about the relationship between storytelling and humans? In your response, make close reference to your prescribed text and one other related text.

  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: “They may also consider the role of storytelling throughout time to express and reflect particular lives and cultures.”

Although Past the Shallows certainly explores very universal themes and notions, there is certainly a particular culture in which it reflects. The role of storytelling is thus to use engaging stories and unique characters to make significant commentaries about what it means to be human.

Firstly, and most obviously, it is a story set in a very distinct Tasmanian landscape. In fact, the world in which the characters undergo their journeys play an immense role in their arcs, arguably more so than in many other texts. After all, the central and most diverse motif is that of the ocean, often reflecting Dad’s moods, the climax of the narrative and, more broadly, the tumultuous nature of existence. It is the ocean that Parrett believes best surmises the intricacies of being human, and thus chose to reflect this particular lifestyle. In fact, the ocean has been used as a significant metaphor for human existence in various other texts of differing media and forms, such as Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Debussy’s La Mer and even the Bible.

This is no coincidence, and could even be read as a homage or contribution to the larger cobweb of ideas, archetypes and motifs throughout fiction that we call intertextuality. By understanding this term to be the “recognisable echoes of other texts” in the novel that add layers of meaning to that novel, we begin to see how reflecting this setting and aspect of the natural world helps to make Parrett’s work a distinguished exploration of human truths that have come before in other texts and will come again. The novel thus largely reflects a coastal life and culture, where a fisherman’s livelihood is entirely dependent on the behaviour of the ocean—much like life itself, which often throws the most unexpected challenges at humans.

There is also the fact that the novel expresses the claustrophobic culture that comes with life in small towns. This adds an extra layer of complexity in Parrett’s exploration of secrecy, as the implications become much more amplified in such a community. Consider whether the story would be as effective if it were reflecting the life of somebody living in a bustling city—the straight answer would be no, as the impacts of the adults’ secrets and Mum’s death would certainly be dampened. In short, the small town allows Parrett to illustrate the intense emotions associated with these universal themes in greater detail.

Moreover, the novel’s lack of female characters reflects a more masculine culture. In fact, many of the central themes and aspects of the novel express this, from the exploration of violence and brotherhood. This is done both to adhere to the realism of the environment—fishermen villages are generally more masculine, after all—and to deconstruct the notion of masculinity itself.

Prominent themes

The power of relationships

The notion of relationships forms an integral part of Past the Shallows, largely because it could be argued that our relationships with others is what defines our lives. In the novel, however, Parrett chooses to focus largely on two aspects of this theme.

The complexities of family life

All families have their miseries, secrets and joys, and the familial relationships between the Currens are no different. There is a genuine care and love shared by Miles and Harry, yet Miles feels somewhat burdened by the responsibility of being the older brother. Dad is frighteningly abusive towards his own children. Aunty Jean longs desperately to care for Miles and Harry but lacks the ability to do so. Joe similarly pities his brothers, but cannot help them in the ways in which he seems like he should be able to. The loss of a mother, wife and sister can completely corrupt the family dynamics and have impacts that last long after their death. Even Mum herself was immortalised as somewhat of an angel in Miles’ mind, although it becomes clear that she was not a perfect mother either.

Family life can obviously thus be extremely complex and difficult. There is no “ideal” family, and though Miles and Harry suffer terribly at the hands of Dad’s abuse, there are certainly many subdued moments of tenderness between them that redeem the life they live. This is, perhaps, something we can all relate to on some level or another, and Parrett puts this theme at the forefront of the novel in order to engage with her readers as such.

Our inherent need for nurturing, caring relationships

This is mostly true of Harry, but could easily be said about the other characters, too. All Harry seems to crave is to be loved, which is something he finally finds in George when it becomes clear that Dad has no empathy for him, and Mum is no longer alive. Even Miles, at times, can be distant, both physically and metaphorically. Parrett asserts that this is an intrinsic part of being human—to want love, especially when we are deprived of it.

Memory and emotion as a powerful driving force to our actions

As much as one may wish it so, the past often doesn’t entirely stay in the past. At the most unexpected moments, a memory can resurface and completely change our mood, actions and thoughts. A positive memory can give us strength, but a negative one can turn us into bitter, angry and downright abusive people.

This is what happens to Dad, who is forever haunted by Mum’s decision to leave him, an anger that has never had the opportunity to be confronted. His past greatly affects his present, and Miles and Harry suffer as a result of this.

Meanwhile, Miles is especially connected to the memory of the night of the crash, as it resurfaces time and time again throughout the novel. Here, Parrett is making a profound observation that memories often intrude on our lives and, when it remains unresolved, it can even fracture our being the way the memory sequences structurally fracture the narrative. Miles’ journey of memory also shows us that, by better understanding the past, we often better understand ourselves and our identities.

Coping with grief in multifarious ways

Grief obviously has impacted the Curren family in momentous ways, and such tragedy has even spread to the wider community of the townsfolk. As such, there are many different responses to coping with this grief that Parrett illustrates in order to show how complex it really is to exist in this world. Dad becomes an alcoholic to mask his pain and takes his anger out on his children, Joe seems to avoid confronting his grief and moves away from the family home. Aunty Jean can only see her sister when she looks at Harry, but seems to bottle up all of her emotions. The neighbours never truly forget the tragedy that befell the Currens.

In truth, there is no easy or entirely correct way to cope with grief. It makes human behaviour unpredictable, erratic and sometimes downright scary. Parrett shows only how far-reaching the effects of grief can be, and how it can manifest very differently in different people.

The fragility of childhood innocence versus the realities of adult life

Childhood innocence centres as one of the main thematic concerns that Parrett demonstrates, largely due to the fact that the rituals of growth and maturation are ones that every human undergoes, no matter their ethnicity, gender or age.

In the novel, this is largely seen in Miles’ character arc. He constantly battles with balancing his responsibilities as the oldest son living in the Curren house and maintaining his youth—he is still only thirteen, after all. In fact, he is first introduced as he is reflecting on the “First day of school holidays. First day he must man the boat alone while the men go down,” the juxtaposition emphasising his struggle in understanding his childhood innocence and responsibilities that he is forced into. Miles wishes he could live in the idyllic, rose-tinted fantasy of the world that his younger self may have adopted (hence the ethereal images of the memories of his mother) but is quickly aware of how easily this view can be fractured. This, however, does not stop him from longing for the simple days of childhood. In a moment of vulnerability that we seldom see with Miles otherwise, Parrett says, “He was just a kid. A baby. He was nothing,” as the truncated sentences and blunt tone reveals how he is forced into growing up too quickly and now has difficulty grounding his own identity.

The notion is also true of Harry, who is the epitome of childhood naivety and innocence. Parrett has an obvious intent to encourage the reader to care for Harry as to make his death all the more shocking and inhumane when it occurs. “Harry had a way about him. A way that made you promise to take care of him,” Miles states, the second person pronoun inviting the reader to understand Harry’s virtue that, tragically, acts as his ultimate downfall. It is much easier to adopt the bitter hardness of Dad than it is to continue to appreciate the world with childlike wonder as Harry does. It is clear that Parrett is making the commentary that, as unfair as it is, the most pure and wholesome things in the world are also the most vulnerable.

The centrality of conflict, violence and destruction to human existence

Past the Shallows is a rather nuanced depiction of physical abuse against children. However, it is important to note that Parrett is not simply providing an illustration of this issue, but what it represents in terms of a more universal understanding of the pains of being human. She ultimately makes clear that, as horrific as it may seem, violence and destruction are inherent parts of our existences.

Of course, this is the most obvious in how prevalent Dad’s abuse is, and how widely spread the implications of such terrible actions are on the children. Some would even argue that he is a two-dimensional caricature of what abusers look and act like. However, it is also important to understand that we only see Dad through the eyes of the young children, Harry and Miles, who may not fully comprehend why their father lashes out in such a way. From their perspectives of him, we can only garner that his first and only response to losing his wife is to turn to anger rather than confront it in a healthy way.

Consider the role of the recurring metaphor of the ocean in terms of Parrett’s purpose to reveal just how cruel some aspects of humanity can be. At the novel’s climax, there is an overwhelming sense of just how intrinsic to the human experience these notions of conflict and violence are. In one of the rarer moments of description and detail, Parrett states, “Waves came in sets and in this kind of surf, where the water suddenly hit shallow, you could get rogue waves. Bombs. Sometimes twice the size of the rest.” By comparing the waves to bombs, the composer makes clear her intention to turn the focus to the rabid nature of the external world as a metaphor for the unpredictability of our lives.

People and their connection to nature

The ocean, however, is more than just a reflection of the centrality of violence in human nature. It is part of a larger illustration of people and their connection to nature. As discussed before, the setting in which the novel takes place has major significance on what Parrett is conveying to the readers about these universal experiences—that is, put simply, that there is a complex, complicated and intrinsic relationship between humans and the world around them.

In fact, Parrett makes a point to establish how the world can be a reflection of our inner state, our past and important truths about our lives, ultimately showing that humans are deeply intertwined with nature. One memorable example of this is the passing comment Miles makes about the tree that killed his mother—“It still had a scar, a line where the bark had never grown back. And it was amazing that it had survived at all. They had hit it so hard.” The scar acts as a symbol or metaphor for how the past never truly goes away. There is indeed always some reminder of it, even when we don’t expect it, and that manifests similarly on the marks we leave on the natural world.

This notion of the world reflecting the human experience itself is prevalent even from the beginning chapter. Harry’s adventures on the beach, seeking the shark egg, causes him to realise “that time ran on forever and that one day he would die.” A rather macabre realisation for such a young child is made possible due to the sheer vastness and richness of the history of the land in which he stands on, an overwhelming feeling that we each come to face at some point in our lives. “You would need a million rocks to make a dent” in the ocean—Parrett illustrates the inherent human fear of understanding our purpose when we are so insignificant through the natural world as a medium.

The devastating impact of secrecy in small towns

Though still incredibly important to the novel as a whole, this theme is more subtle than the ones previously mentioned. It is explored through passing moments or quips made by the characters, probably as to reflect the generally subdued culture of small town environments.

A disturbing, yet somewhat understandable, moral paradox lies in this thematic concern—the other residents of the town are undoubtedly aware of the abuse and trauma that has befell the Curren family, yet do virtually nothing to intervene. Parrett is making an important commentary about social pressures and even the phenomenon of the bystander effect and how it is amplified in such a localised, claustrophobic setting.

“Don’t you let him …” Mr Roberts tells Miles, “You’re too young to be out there working, Miles. It’s not right.” Parrett then goes on to end the paragraph with a truncated sentence, “And he let Miles go,” the line break emphasising the significance of this action. Similarly, “[Stuart’s mum] was worrying, having one of her moments where nothing happened and just went still for a bit.” Truthfully, neither Mr Roberts, nor Stuart’s mother, nor any other member of the community, are necessarily immoral characters in recognising the abuse of the children but not acting upon their ethical obligations. However, Parrett is making the bold statement about how humans often fail to do what is right, particularly in situations where everybody knows everybody’s business. This is arguably the most devastating impact of secrecy—our constant refusal to confront the issues that we face collectively and individually.

Conclusion

Although it is a relatively new text, Parrett has become a notable name in contemporary Australian literature because her debut novel, Past the Shallows, is so evocative in its depiction of universal human concerns. It is a text that you should draw your own conclusions on—project your own impressions upon, deliberate its purpose, and attempt to understand what the composer is ultimately attempting to convey to you. After all, a significant part of the Texts and Human Experiences syllabus asks you to respond to art in a meaningful and critical way. Past the Shallows makes for a simple yet profound Common Module selection, and it is crucial that you consider the ways in which Favel Parrett has successfully and insightfully crafted an engaging commentary on the fabric of existence.

Final tips

  • Learn to define the question in your own terms—this is what your thesis is. By defining the key phrases in the introduction, you can manipulate any given question so that it fits your plan/ideas about the text

  • Avoid writing memorised essays. It is incredibly easy to recognise when a student has done so, and markers are ultimately judging you based on how well you are able to think critically and not simply regurgitate an essay

  • Write lots and lots of practise essays. You may (and should) begin setting no timer so that you can clearly express your thoughts without timed pressure, but gradually move on to putting yourself under exam conditions so that the actual assessment will feel familiar to you. This, as well as actually writing essays out on paper and not simply on a computer, is going to make a huge difference that is relatively simple to adopt

  • Themes and rubric statements can and do mix. For example, the rubric notions of “challenging assumptions” and “paradoxes” often intertwine. This is because texts are not produced against and life is not experienced through such distinct lines or categories. They are only here to provide basic structure to your essay so that you and the marker can better understand the point you are trying to make

  • Try to incorporate all of the above information and ideas into how you argue your related text—it does make up half of your essay, after all, and markers will notice when the quality of your analysis of one text is substantially worse than the other

    • It is also good to choose your related text based on how applicable they are to the points above!

    • Refrain from choosing a related text that is the same form as your prescribed text, just to show the marker that you have a versatile understanding of Texts and Human Experiences

  • It is ideal to discuss form in your essay even if the question does not ask for it. Of course, in that case, it would not have to be your primary concern, but even a sentence or two about the structural features or language used in the novel could show the marker that you really understand the relationship between texts and human experiences

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