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Presentation on The Bone People

Presentation on The Bone People • Culture and Identity in New Zealand • Essay part The Bone People


The Bone People

Presentation Transcript


The Bone People is a text about the rediscovery of Maori spirituality and ultimately its resurrection as a part of a bicultural New Zealand society.  It is therefore necessary for the responder to understand the context behind this text – the Maori identity, colonialism and its social problems in the post-colonial period, trends of literature as a reflection of society, Hulme’s own personal context and her powerful vision for the future of her country.  This text has been critically acclaimed for its originality and its values, but also dismissed as verbose, lacking in plot and portraying immoral attitudes toward violence and abuse.


Maori identity is centred around the whanau, or extended family, and their tribes, hapu or iwi.  Iwi is of special significance.  Its literal meaning is bones, and the title of Hulme’s novel The Bone People is derived from the Maori idea that bones represent ancestors.  The Maori have a vivid sense of the spiritual presence of their ancestors in their physical environment, and thought of themselves in terms of iwi. Gods, ancestors and living people were linked through descent, and all played a part in the creation of the present.  Hulme suggests that we are “nothing more than people”, in that we are only links in a genetic chain.  Tribes are made up of all living, dead and future members, and their causes and interests remained alive in their descendants.

Hulme explores the concept of ancestors as spiritual helpers through their intervention in Kerewin’s illness.  There is a strong emphasis on the bone symbolism which represents Kerewin’s ancestors and her family from whom she has become ruinously detached.  Kerewin must face the “secrets that crept and chilled and chuckled in the marrow of her bones” or the “skeletons in the closet” which represent the family that she has locked away.  When Kerewin is healed, she says, “But I haven’t got bones now.  They’re fired, dissolved, earth to earth again.”  This sentence’s imagery suggests Kerewin has become a part of the earth’s pattern of life and death.

Hulme explores the potential within families for both destruction and healing. The family is portrayed as a source of both pain and joy “A family can be the bane of one’s existence.  A family can also be most of the meaning of one’s existence.”  Hulme affirms the idea of the larger families that we are born into and our spiritual and emotional links with them.  She defies conventional definitions of familyhood in suggesting that bonds exist outside of pure biology through her imaginative strength.  Hulme presents a sexual union between Joe and Kerewin without sex, parental love between Joe and Simon without physical parents, and the stresses and fusions of a family without an actual family.


Hulme also suggests that people are a synthesis, embodying physically and spiritually their ancestors.  She acknowledges the need to respect all facets of a person’s ancestry through the race configurations of her characters in a mixed New Zealand society.  The rhythms of The Bone People are well controlled and the accents and peculiarities of New Zealand speech rendered faithfully, for example, this section on screen.  This statement by Kerewin contains the prejudices “Poms” of an educated New Zealander, the word “thunk” as a typical accent and half-suppressed obscenities “whateffers”.



Part of the ancestry is also the past, and Hulme’s three main characters all conceal painful pasts.  There is a deep sense of pain from past wounds – Joe is incapacitated by Hana and Timote’s death; Simon dreads the drug-induced darkness; and Kerewin isolates herself in her tower to keep away the pain of her family.  Hulme suggests that people who severe themselves from their past and nurturing heritage of their family are self-destructive, and hide behind physical comforts such as alcohol “She drinks like I do, to keep away the ghosts.”  The word “ghosts” conjures the image in the responder’s mind, of a haunting past that cannot be fought off.



Tribes are organised around which canoe a person’s ancestors sailed on to Aotearoa.  The canoe is the Maori symbol of migration, livelihood, war, constellations, transport for the dead into the afterlife and the medium for gods.  It is a symbol of creation in myth, and in The Bone People, Hulme uses the canoe as a symbol to represent Joe’s protection from his painful past.  The canoe contains the secrets of a mauriora, a god that is “this country’s soul”.  It is both a symbol of the past in its origins, and also a symbol of the “alliance” for New Zealand’s spiritual future.



Maori mythology is extremely sexual in nature.  They believe that the world is partly generated by sexual energy, which is an enormously potent force.  The Bone People is surprisingly fuelled by a lack of sexual energy.  Instead, Hulme allows it to be fuelled by creative energy that stems from art and carving and singing, giving the novel a sense of mythology as it is in the realm of the unattainable.  Kerewin’s asexuality, when she calls herself a “neuter”, is a part of her characteristic isolation from other humans, as an “outsider” who is different.



The character Tiaki Mira is the solitary wise person or kaumatua of Maori mythology who brings together mysteries.  He represents the spiritual world that we are all part of, whether willingly or not.  Hulme uses the kaumatua’s presence to make explicit the spiritual world and show that an alienation from this has led to the Maori’s loss of land and power “they were no longer Maori.”  Hulme’s trinity of characters, each isolated and spiritually adrift, reflects New Zealand’s heritage of colonialism.  The kaumatua’s heritage of cannibalism also suggests that we are all essentially cannibals who are forced to consume the gift of love and pain that comes with relationships with other people.  Hulme’s use of the supernatural and the mythic in her writing distinguishes her from European writers.


Hulme also explores the concept that tribal identification is ultimately associated with land.  Land was equalled to status within a tribe and a home where one was not a stranger, as the kaumatua says “I am tied irrevocably to this land.”  Competition for land and its resources transformed the relationships of economic cooperation between Maori and Pakeha into opposition.  The Native Land Act in 1865, which insisted on individual ownership of land rather than traditional communal ownership, destroyed the unity of a tribe by emphasising personal gain rather than tribal interests.  During the colonialism period, the confiscation of Maori traditional land demoralised entire tribes.  Without land, the Maori people feel alienated and powerless.


Hulme’s novel reflects her postcoloniality in her use and subversion of binary categories.  “Maori and Pakeha became ethnic, social and cultural categories in a binary opposition of dynamic tension.” (1).  Hulme sustains her contradictions throughout the novel.  Kerewin is both a skeptic and a seeker of mystical Truths.  Hulme has given her sentences that often begin with an incantation and end in oaths, for example, “The still brilliance of garnet, all wine, water of life and bread of heaven and grave shimmering moon...Whoops! Those pearl things are berloody slippery y’know.”  Simon is Kerewin’s opposite – physically tiny, mute compared to verbose, “rough on possessions”, trusting rather than clever, wanting close physical contact, having an ability to see deeper auras of life, and the “sunchild” as opposed to Kerewin’s association with the moon.  The juxtaposition of these two characters highlights their distinct personalities and allows the responder to picture them from a visual and gut base.  Simon represents Rangi, the masculine Sky of sun and light and life “The light is blinding: he loves the light”, while Kerewin symbolises Papa, the feminine Earth of moon and darkness and death “dissolved, earth to earth again.”

Hulme celebrates and challenges the New Zealand landscape, its society and the forces which shape and threaten it.  She engages with both the past and present Maori cultural identity to project the complexities of New Zealand’s cultural dislocation, the coming together of Maori and Pakeha, and the problematic relationships between outsider figures.  Her novel celebrates multiplicity in the opposing binary forces of Maori and Pakeha values, masculinity and femininity, realism and fantasy, mystery and enchantment, life and death, human and the natural environment, simplicity and complexity, in an attempt to meld and blend them together.  Hulme projects a vision of the recovery of the mauriora, the spirit of the land, which has been lost by the Maori in their actions, and has been ignored and desecrated by the Pakeha.  She weaves strange and hurtful pasts, entwining all the elements of New Zealand’s culture, past and present, in an attempt to forge a new harmonious bicultural identity for the future.

Christianity, imposed on the Maori people through education, destroyed the link between Maori life and their tapu, or sacred arts of their culture.  It sapped the basis of the Maori arts of self-expression, attacking important cultural symbols and defacing ancestral carvings.  The art of carving and tattoing disappeared completely in some areas.  This lack of valued, creative expression by Maori people is explored by Hulme through her character, Joe.  Joe is essentially, in traditional Maori terms, an artist, a sculptor, and a carver.  He would have been valued by the tribe for these creative skills.  However, by being assimilated into white society and having to work at the factory for financial security, Joe lacks a solid identity, feels he is a failure as he has no valued skills and displaces his self-loathing onto Simon “the Maoritanga has got lost in the way I live.”

The distinctive Maori aggressiveness and energy that Hulme’s characters Joe and Kerewin display throughout The Bone People was a carefully nurtured fighting instinct that was drained through seasonal warfare.  “The Lightning Struck Tower” represents the speed with which colonialists destroyed Maori people and left a cultural and creative void, symbolised by Kerewin’s inability to paint.  In contemporary society, Maori energy has no direction, and statistics show that most Maori people are in jail for assault-related crimes.  Hulme suggests a solution to the problem, in that the Maori energy can be put into creative actions “energy was tied up in a tapu thing, was needed for it.”

The Bone People explores the consequence of imposing white values onto traditional Maori values.  Colonialists began the breakdown of a strongly hierarchical and spiritual system in which every person had an important, contributory role.  Maori society, until contact with Pakehas, did not beat their children.  Hulme explains “It was believed that it destroyed their spirit.”(2).  Joe’s use of violence as a disciplinary resort shows that Maori people have loss their traditional values “What about korero, Joe? What about our tribe’s famous talk-it-out with all concerned?” These rhetorical questions are more directed to the responder than to Joe, concerning issues of Maori and Pakeha culture.  Part of Hulme’s purpose is to increase the awareness of New Zealanders to the plight of abused children, and she uses extreme realism and graphic descriptions of violence to achieve this, for example, this section on screen.  Violence is a dominant theme of Hulme’s novel, and Kerewin’s violent tendencies and her eventual participation in violence are accompanied with images of knives and splintered glass.

Hulme explores the interrelatedness of love and violence through the relationship between Joe and Simon.  Simon’s overwhelming hunger for love, especially for Joe’s love “Joe of the hard hands but sweet love”, suggests this is the reason that people can put up with abuse in their lives.  Joe is a peculiarity – he is loved by other people despite their knowledge of what happens to Simon, as Simon’s joy is felt in his presence.  Through him, Hulme reveals our capacity to ignore brutal aspects of people and dismiss them as flaws of human nature.  Hulme shows the responder the disturbing, cruel and ugliest possibilities, while contrasting them with gently lyrical, beautiful and uplifting sections, exploring the beauty and horror of the world unflinchingly in an attempt to portray and celebrate the complexities of life.


Hulme presents a clear depiction of how love, violence and need are twisted together in a cycle of abuse and healing, or the spiral pattern.  The spiral is an important Maori motif that comes from the fern frond, which served as food, building materials and objects of worship.  Hulme’s spiral philosophy exemplifies the capacity for change or rebirth as a pattern for the universe “it was an old symbol of rebirth, and the outward-inward nature of things.”  The spiral journey leads the characters inward to despair or nothingness to become purged of their past and emerge outward certain of their need for each other.  It suggests that the universe is in a constant state of change, as the kaumatua says “Everything changes, even that which supposes itself to be unalterable.”  Kerewin’s tower is rebuilt from a closed, inward spiral stair tower symbolising her self-isolation and a prison, to an open spiral that represents her commitment to responsibilities and new possibilities “So the round shell house holds them all it its spiralling embrace”.  The book’s spiral structure is seductive, drawing the responder into an intricate web of pain, violence, love, despair, hope and redemption.  Spirals, both constructed and natural, are constantly mentioned to reinforce this design, which is “the singing curve of the universe”.  Hulme’s combination of the past in memory flashbacks and the narrative present is another example of the encompassing notion of the spiral.

The presence of Luce in the end is a reminder of the continual presence of the dark side.  In opposition to this is the unexplainable love that has bound Joe, Kerewin and Simon together.  Simon is a major fictional character in his unwavering love for Joe and his strange past.  Hulme has conveyed him remarkably without spoken language, while allowing him to communicate all of his love, rage and intelligence.  Simon’s endurement of the pain and violence suggests that by placing their relationship above his own needs, he is resurrecting the old values of tribal loyalty, where “The interests of the tribe came before any consideration of right and wrong.” (3).  His actions lead to a form of communal self-empowerment “Together, all together, they are the instruments of change.”

The Maori language, history and geography of the local region held no cultural significance to the British, and was not learned, leaving Maori people without a personal history and indigenous roots.  The dominant Pakeha culture was seen to control all the symbols of success and power.  The higher a Maori rose in the European world, the more they became divorced from Maori society.  Hulme shows the responder through her Maori character Joe, how the Maori people have become urbanised and reliant on material comfort, and as a result have sacrificed their ties to their culture and family.  To the Maori, the word is a powerful force, social censure and insults an extremely powerful form of non-physical attack.  Hulme portrays this through a part Maori character Kerewin, who possesses an ability to “wound everybody with words and memories” and deliver blistering verbal attacks.

Hulme’s language ranges from the lyrical to the crude, including English, Maori and Simon’s unique sign language in an attempt to merge cultural influences into a new language capable of expressing her postcolonial experiences.  The use of individual points of view, interior monologue, dreams, stream of consciousness, flash forward and flashback charts the complex psychological terrain of Kerewin, Joe and Simon, giving the responder depth and insight into the inner workings of the characters.

Another important aspect of Maori mythology was its delivery.  The legends did not take the listener back into the past, but brought the past forward into the present by making the events described contemporary.  The messages of legends became applicable to the contemporary society and thus, timeless.  Hulme recreates this idea in her deliberate attempt to manufacture New Zealand myth by blending real and invented Maori legends with European literary style and exploring current issues.  She suggests that myths and reality are intertwined, with no beginning or end, and celebrates the conflicting pains of the past and present with a vision of the future by harmonising all of her country’s influences.

Hulme’s personal context has provided much of the text’s influences.  She is an eighth Maori, but identifies very strongly with them as a part of a minority group, and her novel is full of allusions to Maori culture.  She is also a writer of the post-Provincial period, from 1955-1985, which followed the realisation of racism, urban poverty and cultural disintegration.  Post-provincial writers portrayed the harsh realism of society, but also their vision for a new bicultural identity.  Female Maori writers arose to challenge the literary dominance of the Pakeha male, presenting a steady stream of creative work that expressed aspects of their experiences and reaffirmed their cultural roots by allowing them to discover their Maori heritage.  Hulme’s writing sets out to resist colonialist perspectives by attempting to challenge the values imposed by the dominant culture and explores “dreams of a non-acquisitive, bicultural New Zealand, built on Maori aroha rather than Pakeha hubris.” (4).

Part of Hulme’s context is also the driving force of globalisation that began with the colonialisation process.  Western domination began a process that brought humans worldwide into a single political, economic and cultural system, breaking down national and communal boundaries.  Globalisation saw economic efficiency and resourcefulness as its top priority.  Land and people were commodities to be exploited and made economical, not a natural resource to be admired and accepted.  Hulme’s writing challenges these ideas by celebrating the unique heritage of New Zealand.  She Retreats from the Global with The Bone People’s underlying theme that celebrates the community and creativity as an answer to the devastation of colonialism and globalisation.  Her characters are celebrated as unique individuals, and she places a value on the individual connections to traditional communities and cultures.  The Bone People re-establishes and values the sense of the local, its cultures, dialects and communities which globalisation mindlessly destroys.

The binary contradictions that have formed part of the novel’s success are paralleled in the controversial and often contradictory readings of the text.  Hulme is praised and criticised for her originality and lack of editorial intrusion, her stylistic experimentation is described as both striking and flawed.  Its Maori mysticism is sometimes seen as willed and self-conscious, as C. K. Stead writes “Hulme appears to have observed Maoris and identified with them.” (5).  Other reviewers have found it an advance in the development of New Zealand fiction, with a new synthesis of previously distinct Maori and Pakeha fictional traditions.

Without doubt, the most controversial issue is Hulme’s treatment of violence and child abuse in her novel.  Responders become appalled at Joe’s actions, only to find that Hulme directs her readers to forgive Joe in her positive reconciliatory ending.  This part of her novel is often dismissed as positively immoral and the violence is offensive or “gratuitous” (6).  It is disturbing to consider Joe as anything more than an inhuman “bastard” and most responders would be quite happy to leave the image of Joe, as Hulme originally intended him to be, as a “background ogre” (7).  Hulme takes a courageous leap in breaking with the traditions of good and evil characters in literature.  She explores the reasons behind Joe’s actions, showing the responder both Joe’s good and dark side. Gunnar Madsen described the novel as “violent and beautiful, full of the deepest contradictions that make us human.” (8).  The contradictions of Joe’s character are what makes him human, his seemingly inhuman propensity to abuse his child is shown to be a part of human nature.  The responder is forced, in reading the text, to consider the fact that Joe’s violent nature is a part of themselves.  The Booker-McConnell Prize for Fiction jury in 1985 found this insight highly valuable.  We are forced to see Joe as more than a criminal, as a human being who can be rehabilitated by considering the reasons behind his actions.  In redeeming Joe, Hulme gives responders insights into the intertwining of love and violence, self-identity and self-respect.  Hulme celebrates the capacity for change in people, and through change, “something perilous and new” is possible.



The Bone People reflects the struggles of a small community against globalisation, in an attempt to preserve a unique history, heritage, culture and identity.  Hulme does this through a trinity of fiercely unique characters, the responder following their journeys in the spiral pattern of the universe, down into “nothingness” and emerging as “the beginning free”.  Her subversion of binary categories attempts to address the uncomfortable truths which haunt New Zealand society, concluding with an inspiring hope, “a faith that transcendence is possible.” (9).  Hulme portrays a dream of a new, bicultural New Zealand where “the land is clothed in beauty and the people sing.”


Sources of Quotes


1.      Culture and Identity in New Zealand, edited by David Rovitz and Bill Willmott, published 1989

2.      Keri Hulme, Talk at Writer’s Choice series, held at the University of Sydney, 1st August 1989, transcript edited by Gerry Turcotte

3.      Robert MacDonald, The Fifth Wind: New Zealand and the Legacy of  Turbulent Past, published 1989

4.      Culture and Identity in New Zealand

5.      C. K. Stead, Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 39, Year 1985

6.      Anonymous speaker at the Talk at Writer’s Choice series held at the University of Sydney 1/8/1989

7.      Keri Hulme, Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 39, Year 1985

8.      Gunnar Madsen, reviews

9.      Gunnar Madsen, reviews




§         Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 39, Year 1985

§         Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, Robinson Wattie

§         Maori and European Since 1870: A Study in Adaptation and Adjustment, M. P. K. Sorrenson, New Zealand History Topic Books 1967

§         The Fifth Wind: New Zealand and The Legacy of a Turbulent Past, Robert MacDonald, 1989

§         Culture and Identity in New Zealand, edited by David Novitz and Bill Willmott, 1989

§         The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English, Lorna Sage

§         Bloomsbury Guide to Women’s Literature

§         Contemporary Novelists, Fifth Edition, Richard Corballis

§         The Dictionary of Global Culture

§         Feminist Writers

§         The Bone People, Keri Hulme

§         Te Kaihau/The Windeater, Keri Hulme


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