Image from The Age
I finally read the blurb on the back of my Avon Books edition of The Thorn Birds. It says--
Colleen McCollough’s sweeping saga of dreams, struggles, dark passions, and forbidden love in the Australian Outback has enthralled readers the world over.
That description is inadequate at best. This book is also about nature vs. nurture, temptation, love vs. lust, unconditional love vs. conditional, love between adults and among siblings, maternal instincts and the lack thereof, greed, retribution, selfishness vs. selflessness, the nature of community, pride, passionate overreaction, ambition, insecurity, stubbornness, resignation, aging gracefully vs. maliciously, acceptance, the pros and cons of hard work, and even the Vatican’s reasons for not condemning Hitler at the start of WWII. And most of all it is about mistakes.
Hasn’t each of us made a mistake quite willingly even when we knew it was a mistake? How many of us have repeated our own or the mistakes of others, hoping our situation will yield different results? And how many times were our results actually different?
The book also addresses the misguided manner in which we humans try to atone for things that were never our fault, and the manner in which we think petitions will make our dreams come true. Wanting it doesn’t make it happen, and wishing it never happened can’t undo it. And when we are inclined to overreact, how good a job we do of fueling that fire! How well we tell ourselves it’s all our fault, everything is our fault, if only we had done (fill in the blank) everything would have been different.
And then there is the philosophy. From page 495 of my edition--
Each of us has something within us which won’t be denied, even if it makes us scream aloud to die. We are what we are, that’s all. Like the old Celtic legend of the bird with the thorn in its breast, singing its heart out and dying. Because it has to, it’s driven to. We can know what we do wrong even before we do it, but self-knowledge can’t affect or change the outcome, can it? Everyone singing his own little song, convinced it’s the most wonderful song the world has ever heard. Don’t you see? We create our own thorns, and never stop to count the cost. All we can do is suffer the pain, and tell ourselves it was well worth it.
This sounds like a lovely, poignant rationalization. I do not believe that we have to self-destruct. We have to be who we are, yes, but we do not have to succumb to all of the promptings we feel. Hopefully, as we mature we stop believing that our own little song is “the most wonderful song the world has ever heard.” Dude, seriously. I mean, everyone in the world is unique, but so is everyone else. And to ask for pain—to willingly seek it—seems superfluous since life will offer us quite enough unsolicited pain, thank you very much.
Finally, from pages 672-3--
I did it all to myself, I have no one else to blame. And I cannot regret one single moment of it.
The bird with the thorn in its breast, it follows an immutable law; it is driven by it knows not what to impale itself, and die singing. At the very instant the thorn enters there is no awareness in it of the dying to come; it simply sings and sings until there is not the life left to utter another note. But we, when we put the thorns in our breasts, we know. We understand. And still we do it. Still we do it.The singing bird with the thorn in his breast is programmed by instinct. We pride ourselves on being able to think and not act upon instinct alone. Yet this passage indicates that we hurt ourselves because we have to… for some measure of love, ambition, pride, money or whatever it is that we most want. These desires force us to thrust a thorn in our breasts knowing that it cannot possibly end well. Is the joy of the singing so sweet that we will bear all for it?
Perhaps the message is that we each have something that we choose to indulge. We know it is a mistake, but we do it anyway. I can’t determine if this view is fatalistic or realistic. Must we follow this one giant driving force and allow it to dominate our lives? Or do we already do this and simply refuse to acknowledge it? Were Ralph and Meggie destined to plunge the thorns? Are we all?