Themes from Litcharts
Nature, Repression, and Colonialism
The titular setting of Picnic at Hanging Rock is also its central symbol, and the locus of one of its most important themes. Hanging Rock is a volcanic formation in Victoria, Australia which was, for tens of thousands of years, a sacred meeting-place for several Aboriginal tribes. It is enormous, remote, and—in spite of the picnic grounds and privies which have sprung up at its base to make tourists more comfortable—a place of wild, untamed…
Mystery and the Unknown
Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is a novel about a bizarre fictional mystery. The mystery at the heart of the book—the disappearance of three schoolgirls and one of their governesses during a picnic at Hanging Rock in Victoria, Australia—is famously left unresolved, and as the tragic event’s reverberations make their way through the rural community surrounding the rock, the characters in the novel must wrestle with the fact that what has happened has no…
Wealth and Class
The society depicted in Picnic at Hanging Rock is one still in its nascent stages. The settlers and colonizers who populate the township of Mount Macedon in 1900 are poor farmers, wealthy English transplants, girls on the cusp of enormous inheritances, and destitute orphans. The socioeconomic striations within this fledgling society are profound. As the novel’s characters seek to cement or change their places in society, Lindsay suggests that even in a place as full…
Gossip and Scandal
Picnic at Hanging Rock is a fictional book written in the form of a true crime document. For years after its publication, readers sought to uncover any trace of news articles or historical documents about the purportedly real disappearance at Hanging Rock—to no avail. Just as Joan Lindsay created shock, titillation, and rabid interest in her readership, the characters within her novel spread gossip, rumors, and scandal. By creating a book which in itself…
Nature, repression and colonialism
The titular setting of Picnic at Hanging Rock is also its central symbol, and the locus of one of its most important themes. Hanging Rock is a volcanic formation in Victoria, Australia which was, for tens of thousands of years, a sacred meeting-place for several Aboriginal tribes. It is enormous, remote, and—in spite of the picnic grounds and privies which have sprung up at its base to make tourists more comfortable—a place of wild, untamed terrain. When three schoolgirls and their governess go missing during an excursion to the rock, the local community—which has long viewed the rock as a serene place to gather, eat, read, and laze—must reckon with the rock itself, (and the larger Australian countryside around it) as an imposing, dangerous, and perhaps even vengeful presence. As the novel progresses, Lindsay shows how the forces of British colonialism have sought to repress, contain, and even obliterate nature. By linking colonialism’s cruelty toward Aboriginal Australian people and natural wonders to the forces of repression which colonial society enacts upon young, white females (like those who go missing at the rock), Lindsay argues that there is a powerful connection among the forces of nature, colonialism, and repression.
Throughout Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay shows how three central forces—nature, repression, and colonialism—feed on and grow from one another, creating a vicious cycle of misery, violence, and fear. Nature in the world of Picnic at Hanging Rock is a peculiar thing. Though the characters in the novel live in the midst of the untamed (and perhaps untamable) bush, they are all largely removed both physically and emotionally from any meaningful interaction with the natural world around them. The Appleyard College schoolgirls are, on Saint Valentine’s Day of 1900, brought on a picnic to Hanging Rock but are discouraged from exploring or climbing the rock itself. They’re repeatedly warned of how dangerous it is, yet they are told little of its history or sacred significance. The girls are permitted only on the picnic grounds—and even there, they’re watched closely by their governesses. The girls’ stilted, controlled relationship to the natural world represents underlying colonialist anxieties about the power of nature. Aware of the sacred, symbolic significance of landmarks like Hanging Rock, British settlers seek to tame and sanitize these places. The attempt to wrangle and control nature thus ties in with the force of repression—not just of the natural world, but of human nature, history, and sexuality.
Lindsay implies that repression is a byproduct of colonialism. The impulse to sanitize, tame, and control nature as a means of asserting a society’s dominance over a certain region or native group, she suggests, also influences how that society treats its own. The schoolgirls at the center of the novel are controlled day and night by their strict headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard, and their many teachers and governesses. The girls must wear gloves, hats, and corsets even in miserable heat; they are strapped to posture-correcting boards as punishment for slumping; their meals, friendships, and conversations are monitored nonstop. All of this is done in the name of the girls’ presentability, to be sure, but their strict minding is also perpetuated in the name of maintaining their safety. The ways in which the Appleyard girls are repressed, controlled, and cordoned off from the world around them is, of course, nowhere near comparable to the brutality, violence, and abject cruelty perpetrated against the Aboriginal Australians the society in which these girls live has displaced. Lindsay, however, uses the girls to suggest that colonialism is a brutal and hungry force which requires not just the oppression of those it supplants, but the repression of those it claims to benefit, in order to function.
Colonialism is the engine behind the forces of repression and control which, throughout the novel, oppress and minimize both the natural world and the individuals who have populated it in the past and the present alike. While the Aboriginal Australian individuals who have been removed from their ancestral land to make room for the colonial society that has sprung up around Hanging Rock and Mount Macedon are never seen in the novel, Lindsay implies that the very techniques of obliteration and oppression meant to make their lands habitable and safe for the white settler population have, in fact, doomed the most vulnerable members of that new population. Whether the mystical properties found up on Hanging Rock—a sacred Aboriginal Australian site that has now become little more than a tourist attraction—is itself somehow responsible for the pattern of death, destruction, and loss which unfolds throughout the novel is unclear. What is clear, however, is that Lindsay, in making the rock the novel’s central setting and symbol, is suggesting that the forces of colonialism are not absolute in power. Whether by some mystic force of retribution enacted by nature itself, by the rebellion of a colonialist society’s repressed and frustrated members, or simply by the inherent failures of a system predicated on such desperation for total control, Lindsay argues that just as the tragedy of Hanging Rock comes to loom over those who live around it like a shadow, so too will the unignorable atrocities of colonialism soon come to obscure everything in their path.
By drawing attention to the ways in which the forces of nature, repression, and colonialism intersect and interact, Lindsay ultimately suggests that any society built on the erasure and subjugation of the peoples, histories, and places that preceded it will fail, falling victim to its own rhetorical and ideological traps. The eerie exodus of schoolgirls up onto the peaks of Hanging Rock—and their subsequent disappearance—serves as a complex metaphor for the irresistible pull of nature, the impossibility of repressing curiosity and sexuality, and the unstable foundation created by colonialist methods of world-building.