Failure of Language: Inarticulable Premises in Once Were Warriors

Sage Wilson '98, English 27 (1997)

The spatial layout of Pine Block suggests a spiralling, eternal, inescapable squalor which restricts its residents' future prospects; the cultural facts of a dying language and decaying tradition close off any real links to a proud history. The failure and inadequacy of language thematized in the novel tie together these two aspects of the Maori situation. None of the main characters can consistently and fluidly speak or even just think. For instance, Beth wonders about and stutters over the words "luck" (15), "cross" (42), and so on. Jake constantly searches for, and fails to find, adequate language to express his thoughts and sometimes even seen incapable of constructing literate thoughts at all. For instance, at one point he laughs with "that unspoken understanding of men with no means of articulation" (50). Later he finds himself "unable to escape his word limits, his boundaries, to nail [a] perception down" (55), and at one point he even stumbles in an attempt to name polka dots, for a time only able to muster the description "white what-they-call-it" (67). Though in a different way, Grace, too, experiences the failures of language. Recall, for instance, how her anger about the lie of the word "potential" (113) figures so large in her despair and suicide. In sum, all these examples point towards the way in which the absence of hope eviscerates language. Or, more suggestively, the way in which language can only hold together when it works to build premises for change. Locked into a downward spiral which seems to extend infinitely into past and future, locked into a geographic, political, and cultural space without promise, when contained by such obstacles language gets nowhere, because it has nowhere to go. The stupid, grunting, bellowing Brown Fist members provide evidence for my point here. Strikingly uncommunicative, the Fists represent the direct opposite of premises for change: instead of building new structures of new hope, the gang simply exploits the current misery as best they can.

Overview New
Zealand Once Were