Lohrey, Amanda, Vertigo Study Guide – Texts and Human Experiences

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Chapter by Chapter Analysis

Chapter 1

The novella is divided into 3 chapters. Chapter 1 deals with the couple’s grievances in the city, their motivations for moving, and their initial period of settling into Garra Nalla.

Rising interest rates, Anna’s asthma and their cramped apartment are all cited as reasons for the couple to move away from Sydney’s CBD. Moreover, there is an even more powerful impetus, which appears psychological in nature that is not mentioned but implied. “He knew it was time to go. He could not see her deflated and diminished in this way. It was as though her robust beauty, an athletic glow that had first attracted him, was being preyed upon by an invisible vampire.” This “invisible vampire”, we later discover, refers to visions of ‘the boy’ – the couple’s stillborn child.

They then begin the process of selecting the coastal town which will become their new home. They settle on Garra Nalla, a town with “no shops, no hotel, no community hall or boat ramp or barbecue area. This was the reason they had chosen this place. They felt that in some essential way it was uncultivated, a landscape out of time, and as such it could not define them. Here they could live, and simply be.”

We are soon introduced to “the boy”, whose identity is not explained, but who comes and goes in unpredictable fashion. Our most important insight about the boy in chapter 1 comes when Anna says she “Expects him to be here every morning. But she must be careful of this; if she begins to take anything for granted, then she might break the spell.” This recurrent reference to the boy, without explanation of his identity builds curiosity in the reader. For now, in chapter 1, the true identity of the boy is left to the reader’s own theories and imaginings.

Chapter 1 introduces Luke and Anna’s routines and hobbies in significant detail. For Luke, birdwatching and reading the chronicles of Sir Edward Treves (a collection of old books he found in their shed) enables him to connect more deeply with the natural environment and history of Garra Nalla. This is contrasted to Anna, who’s late night blogging and trawling of CNN and BBC suggests she is eager to remain in contact with civilisation. “Luke leaves it to Anna to catch up with friends, to post news of their sea change and to write jokey accounts of rural mishaps…it makes her feel connected with the outside world.” The dichotomy between Luke and Anna in this respect can be utilised in your essay to demonstrate diversity in the way that each individual experiences change. Although both have moved to Garra Nalla, and both share many common sentiments, their overall personal experience is distinctly unique from each other’s.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2 deals with the various day-to-day aspects of life in Garra Nalla. We are introduced to most of the couple’s neighbours and the challenges of rural life, we learn of their misgivings and short-lived return to Sydney and learn more about the boy.

The first challenge of rural living that they face is the severe drought that has afflicted their town for years. “Accustomed to the sub-tropical downpours of the city and the smell of mould in their old apartment they cannot believe how dry the air is, how this dryness becomes part of you, of your skin and hair and how after a while you crave moisture in the air.” To add to this, the “hectoring wind” can “bluster for weeks at a time.” In her persistence to run and swim despite the wind, Anna’s skin turns to “parchment, dried out and stretched across her cheekbones in a mask.” A traumatic encounter with a snake, and the continued drought exacerbate Anna’s increasing frustration with life in Garra Nalla, until she admits “I keep wondering if we’ve made a mistake.” Chapter 2 is abundant in examples of how new environments challenge us and force us to progress in personal growth. This is a key human experience emphasised in the novel.

Anna’s irritation with rural life culminates in her and Luke returning to the city for a brief break, only to realise after 5 days that they miss Garra Nalla. “But then somewhere in the middle of the week she begins to feel claustrophobic…she misses her house…she misses the she-oaks with their wispy canopies…” This return to the city is a turning point for Anna’s identity. It is at this point that she truly begins to feel attachment to Garra Nalla and begins to ground part of her self-image in the bush. This can be used as another example of how new environments cause us to question and reshape our identities.

They meet the Watts – Alan, his wife Bette, and their two children, who are “Energetic, practical people, who seem able to do almost anything.” Meeting the vibrant Watts, who had built a solar-powered house and cleaned up the abandoned tennis court, makes Luke feel old. “he perceives that he is no longer spirited, juiced-up; he no longer has that youthful sheen, that cocky invincibility.” This could be used in an essay to portray the human experience of self-discovery when we are exposed to new environments and new kinds of people.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 is much shorter and chiefly focuses on the events surrounding the fire, its prelude and aftermath. The first half of the chapter focuses on the couple’s increasing trepidation as the fire encroaches gradually upon Garra Nalla. Their attitude, like most of the townspeople, is complacency in the fact that the fire couldn’t possibly reach the coast. When it becomes clear that the fire has overtaken the town, the couple is rescued in timely fashion by a passing fire-truck.

After the fire passes, all the townspeople are shocked to learn that almost every house was still standing. In what could be described as the pivotal moment of the entire novel, the couple discover Luke’s navy-ribbed sweater had been burnt out, but had not caught fire, and that because of this it had saved the house from ruin. The sweater, which Luke had worn as he scattered the ashes of the boy in the ocean, had till then only represented memories of anguish, sorrow and death. However, by saving the house, the sweater had become a symbol of preservation of life. Until the fire, Luke had never really expressed visible grief towards the memory of the boy. However, when the sweater is burned, it triggers him to reminisce about the day of the miscarriage, finally revealing who “the boy” is and why he still plagues the couple. The fire also prompts Anna to see a dream of the boy “waving at her…dissolving into the light”, symbolising the last of his appearances to her. Just as fires initiate renewal of the bush, the fire in the novel comes to symbolise a reformation in the attitudes and beliefs of the protagonist duo.

Analysis of Main Characters

The storytelling form in Vertigo is unique in that it is 3rd person, but always speaks from the over-the-shoulder perspective of either Luke or Anna at any one time. The resulting narrative produces two unique story arcs, one from Luke’s perspective and one from Anna’s, which intersect and then diverge seamlessly. Hence each character is explored as individually and also in relation to the other.


Luke immediately adjusts to life in the country, despite Anna’s “misgivings, he remained resolute” in their decision to move. He eagerly takes up bird-watching as a hobby and becomes engrossed in the books he finds buried in their shed. With his increasing interest in his hobbies, and reduced receptiveness to his wife’s frustrations, Luke gradually becomes distant from Anna. “His detachment was infuriating” to Anna and he slowly becomes “tired of his wife’s churlishness.” Furthermore, Luke does not appear to be troubled by the visions of the boy in the same way Anna is. He sees “benign dreams” of himself swimming with the boy and does not display the same anxiety Anna does when the boy is not around. His grief does not become unleashed his navy-ribbed sweater is destroyed in the fire, and it brings back memories from the delivery-room. This outburst of emotion allows him to relate to Anna, who has harboured similar feelings all the while. After he returns from a day alone in the bush, she notes “she has never seen Luke cry, not even once… so they stand there in the doorway, and they hold onto one another for a very long time.” This embrace denotes reconnection between the couple, after a period of distance and estrangement. Again, this renewal in their relationship is brought about by the dramatic experience of the fire, which is an overarching symbol of reformation in the novel (as we have discussed earlier).


The majority of the novella is written from Anna’s perspective, which seems to be a deliberate bias on behalf of Lohrey. Anna does not adjust to their new home as smoothly as Luke does, and has reservations about the decision many months after the move. She is irked by the perpetual drought, unrelenting wind, snakes, neighbours, lack of connection to the outside world and by her own husband’s lack of receptiveness to her dissatisfaction. Furthermore, she is full of anxiety towards the apparitions of the boy and blames herself when he does not appear. Her identity crisis peaks at the end of chapter two when she asks herself: “so what is this pointless dance they are engaged in…locked in the illusion that they are going somewhere? …the thought of this brings on a rush of vertigo…she has lost her roots, her anchorage to the earth…perhaps it’s to do with the boy, for she feels he has abandoned them.” This page-long stream of consciousness clearly demonstrates Anna’s disorientation in her new environment and lack of clarity of self-image. It is only after the fire, after reconnecting with Luke and boding a proper farewell to the boy that she is able to resolve her internal turmoil.

Themes of Human Experience

Human Experience #1: Grief, Loss and the Diverse Ways Human Beings Cope with Them

It can be argued that the entirety of the novella is driven by the loss of Anna and Luke’s stillborn child. Their decision to move to the country, despite having multiple motivations, is sealed by the visions of their son that haunt them, especially Anna. “He knew it was time to go. He could not see her deflated and diminished in this way. It was as though her robust beauty, an athletic glow that had first attracted him, was being preyed upon by an invisible vampire.” Visions of the boy continue to return throughout the novel, until the concluding events of the story enable the couple to let go and move on.What is being explored here is the collective human experience of grief, and the diverse ways in which human beings deal with loss.

Sample Topic Sentence:


Despite portraying grief as a powerful, disorientating, collective human experience,


emphasises appreciation for the diverse ways in which individuals experience, deal with, and overcome grief.

As a couple, it is implied that both Luke and Anna pursue this major change in setting to escape the melancholy memory of “the boy” that continues to plague them. The fact that this relatively successful young couple, with promising futures in the city, would uproot their entire lives to move to the country – speaks volumes to the power that grief exerts on the human psyche.

Additionally, the ways in which they each experience and deal with loss is differentiated and unique. Anna notes her husband’s remarkable ability to “blot out emotion and distraction, drawing the world in around him on his own terms whereas she seems to bleed out into it…sometimes she feels like a fly caught in some invisible web.” While Luke’s visions of “the boy” are benign, reminiscent dreams of him “swimming beneath the sunlit surface like a water baby”, Anna’s visions are almost apparition-like, revealing anxiety and even guilt towards the memory of her stillborn. She is “disturbed” and “in a panic” when he has not appeared to her for 3 weeks, and she introspectively questions “if she is losing her power to summon him.” Luke’s “detachment infuriates her”, as he has seemingly overcome the anguish of the loss, whereas she continues to be plagued by hallucinations of their son. Through these varied, but equally valid manifestations of grief, the reader comes to appreciate the diversity of what it means for a human being to experience and overcome loss.

Furthermore, we are given a brief insight into how Luke’s neighbour, Gil, copes with the fact that his grandson is a soldier deployed in Afghanistan. Gil “doesn’t seem to want to talk about it”, and it is suggested that he believes “if he doesn’t dwell on it, nothing will happen to the boy.” In light of this additional example, Lohrey has presented the reader with this plethora of unique coping mechanisms, in order to instil her audience with appreciation for the diverse ways in which characters cope with grief and loss.

Human Experience #2: How Challenging Environments Transform our Views of Ourselves and Others

Throughout the novel, Luke and Anna are confronted by various features of their environment and circumstance which challenge them, and which ultimately transform their view of themselves and others. Whether these challenges are physical, psychological or interpersonal, they drive characters to constructively develop their identities and worldviews.

The human experience we are drawing on here is the process of transformation as a result of being challenged by X stimulus

, arriving at a realisation, and then reforming one’s ideas, attitudes and beliefs.

Moving to the countryside presents the largest change that Luke and Anna must adjust to. But by overcoming the challenges that rural life presents them with, they eventually feel as though they belong in Garra Nalla and begin to restructure their self-image around life in the bush. This process of adapting and reforming ourselves in response to challenges is a fundamentally shared aspect of the human experience, and without it, we would not be able to grow, develop or learn. At the beginning of the novel, the characters are painted as true-to-form city dwellers. “Luke Worley grew up on the edge of the city, in a neat suburban garden with a green lawn and a date palm.” We will observe, that through the challenges rural life presents them with, and in overcoming these challenges, Luke and Anna reshape their self-image to the point that the bush becomes an indispensable component of their identities. This process of adaptation in response to a new, challenging experience is the universal human experience that we are drawing upon. The first challenge they face in this regard is the drought. “For the first time they understand what it means to live on the rim of the driest continent.” Furthermore, the wind “continues to harass them” until Luke realises that his wife “needs a break” from Garra Nalla, and they retire to the city for a few days, tired of rurality. However, after just a few days in the city Anna realises that “she misses her house, its many rooms, the wide veranda, the great glittering lagoon.” It is at this point that the characters begin to develop strong attachment to Garra Nalla. Luke becomes irritable in the city, anxious to return to Garra Nalla. Their growing attachment is also demonstrated by their defensive feelings towards Ken, Luke’s father, when he belittles the town. “The abrasion of his father’s censure at their decision (to move), spurs Luke on at brisk clip.” When his father asks, “if they’ve gotten sick of it yet”, Luke responds that the town “grows on you.” Finally, Luke’s admission that Garra Nalla is “our promised land, we are here to stay” illustrates that the bush has now become a central aspect of their identity. Hence through the various challenges that moving posed them, and their response and adaptation to these challenges, Luke and Anna transform their view of themselves to be deeply rooted in their rural residence.

The second significant challenge that faces the couple is the fire in chapter III of the novella. This extremely confronting near-death experience prompts Luke and Anna to realise their own mortality, driving them to move forward from and relinquish the lasting pain of their miscarriage. When the fire destroys Luke’s navy-ribbed sweater, which he had worn while scattering the boy’s ashes in the ocean, he becomes distraught and disappears for a day-long meander in the bush. Although he “could not bear the thought that the sweater might come to harm” and he is grief-stricken at its ruin, he ultimately realises that “in its thick, smouldering resistance, the sweater had saved the house.” The sweater here symbolises “the boy” and the macabre memories that surround him. However, after the fire consumed it, thus protecting the house, the sweater becomes reborn as a symbol of renewal and preservation of life. Anna and Luke’s memories of the boy are thus transformed from a token of death, to a symbol of life, which helps them to bury this anguish. Anna’s realisation of her own mortality exemplifies this idea of moving on from the boy. “She is thinking she might go off the pill soon, that she is ready to try again. Life is so unpredictable, one cannot postpone decisions down the track, because what if one day… there is no track?” The fire has reminded her of the ephemeral nature of human life, thus ending her apparitions of the boy and persuading her to move forward with family planning. Due to the extremely confronting nature of their near-death experience, Luke and Anna are reminded of their own mortality, which prompts them to change their outlook and attitudes towards future decisions. The human experience in focus here is how any major, pivotal life event has the potential to challenge our current beliefs, and ultimately mature our outlooks and worldviews.

Style and Form

  1. Narrative Voice

Vertigo is narrated in in the present tense, by an omniscient 3rd person narrator. The present tense gives the reader a sense of proximity to the protagonist duo, while the 3rd person narrator enables Lohrey to seamlessly shift the between the personal perspectives of Luke and Anna. These two features achieve an almost dichotomous voice, uniquely enriching the narrative through perspectives from both characters.

  1. Illustrations

Throughout the novella are 10 scattered photographs by Lorraine Biggs, which capture the essence of the landscape. Images of the bush, birds and fire are placed at judiciously selected points in the story, often encapsulating the spirit of the preceding passage or chapter. The monochrome colouration of the images complements the rustic setting and vibe of the text.

  1. Motifs

The novella is riddled with recurring symbolisms and motifs. “The Boy” is the most prominent of these, representing the couple’s yearning to see their stillborn grow into a child, and the painful memories associated with his premature death. The text also makes extensive use of bird-imagery. Historically, birds have been associated with symbols of many things: freedom, peace, omens both good and bad, fate, death etc. Hence you can utilise the symbolism of birds in many ways to support almost any particular point in your essay.

For example, the couple’s sighting of the migratory pardalote shortly after moving into Garra Nalla is reflective of their own migration. It suggests that like the couple, the environment in the bush is in a constant state of motion and reform, which is exemplified at the novel’s end by the bushfire – the ultimate symbol of transformation and renewal. Just as the bush is reborn from the ashes, Luke and Anna experience a renaissance of attitudes and beliefs.

Your Vertigo Paragraphs

Ultimately, your study of Vertigo
, or any other text in Human Experiences will boil down to a couple of paragraphs in your Paper 1 essay in the HSC, trials, half-yearly etc. It is upon you to carefully distil the short story into what you believe are the 2 most universal, relatable, transcendent aspects of the human experience that the text puts forward. You then need to develop these ideas into paragraphs that will intersect but also contrast with your related text. Try to ask yourself the question: “what are the two or three most important human experiences that stand out in this book?” Ensure that your discussion includes frequent reference to characters, form and literary techniques.

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