The People Before by Maurice Shadbolt
In The People Before by Maurice Shadbolt we have the theme of pride, modernity, control, frustration, tradition, gender roles, connection and selfishness. Narrated in the first person by an unnamed male narrator the story is a memory piece and after reading the story the reader realises that Shadbolt may be exploring the theme of pride. Though the narrator’s father finds working the farm to be difficult he still nonetheless takes great pride in it. He has taken the farm from a state of nothingness to a profitable and viable proposal. Something that the reader understands the narrator’s father has done through hard work. The family dynamic is also interesting as the narrator likes working with his father while Jim is the opposite and prefers to be more academic. In his father’s eyes Jim is not made out to be a farmer and in many ways gives up on Jim. The mother’s role in the story is also interesting as for the main she remains silent. Never answering her husband back even though he may be in the wrong. This could be important as Shadbolt may be exploring the dynamic that exists for many women when it comes to their relationship with their husbands. There is an uneasy shift in power to the male. With the most important thing for the narrator’s father being the fact that he is the one who is seen to control his own environment
The narrator’s father most likely belongs to a tradition of men who do not believe that their wives are their equal. It’s not that that they might not love their wives but at no stage are they ever treated as being equals. If anything there appears to be a gender imbalance between the narrator’s father and his mother. Something again which would have been common place at the time the story was set. The narrator’s mother spends the majority of her time in the house while it is left to the men to milk the cows and work the land. Despite any gender imbalance that might exist the narrator’s mother is still happy to live and work on the farm. She believes her place is beside her husband regardless of the fact that he may not necessarily treat her as she should be treated. It is also interesting that Jim never sees any sense of imbalance between his parents. He is just happy to spend time with his mother. Something that is easier than working the land with his father.
The narrator’s father also appears to be interested in the history of the land. Where once he was suspicious of Tom. He is a more willing student when Tom starts to talk. Though it is not explicitly stated by Shadbolt the reader senses that the narrator’s father is proud of the history of his land. If anything it lightens the load that the narrator’s father feels due to the effects of the Depression. Also no longer is the narrator’s father interested in selling the land after Tom and the other Maoris visit. It is as though there visit has been the impetus for the narrator’s father to work even harder. It is also noticeable that the narrator’s father doesn’t fully understand Maori tradition when the old man is left on Craggy Hill. The reader aware that the old man wanted to die and be buried on the land of his youth. Should the narrator’s father have been aware of Tom and the other Maoris intentions there is little chance that the narrator’s father would have been in agreement. This may be important as it suggests that the narrator’s father is not accustomed to Maori tradition.
The end of the story is also interesting as both the narrator and Jim have lived successful lives. However the narrator is unhappy at Jim’s response about what he may have thought about during the war (WWII). Rather than thinking of his family he thought about the Maori burial and the green stones that he had found. These are the only two memories that Jim has of the farm. As to why the narrator may be unhappy about Jim’s recollection is because Jim made no mention of the narrator’s father and mother. Who sacrificed their lives so as that Jim could go off to university. If anything the narrator may feel as though Jim is being ungrateful. Though life was hard on the farm the narrator most likely thought that maybe Jim might have a happy memory of the family that kept him going during the war. Though some critics will suggest that Jim has the right to pick his own memories and his memory shows that he bonded or made a connection with the land like the Maoris. There is still nonetheless a sense that Jim is being selfish at least in the narrator’s eyes. He has forgotten about all the times the narrator helped him. How his mother helped him and how in his own subtle way his father helped him. It was after all the narrator’s father who took an interest in Jim’s stone collection. Highlighting to him the importance of the green stones.