Sorry by Gail Jones: the Title

The title of the text is often significant to the theme that the text conveys, and foreshadows events that may happen during the course of the text. Because they do not know the contents of the text, readers often interpret the title in their own personal context.

When I first read the title, and having a slight inkling about what the plot was about, the first thing I thought of was Kevin Rudd’s ‘Sorry’ speech in 2008. It was only after I finished reading that I noticed the novel was written before the speech was given, and that Gail Jones, although pleased by the act of reconciliation, recognised that the meaning of the word sorry has been forever reconstructed in the minds of Australians because of Rudd’s apology.

A quote from Jones’ A Note On Sorry, on page 215-6

For Aboriginal people, ‘sorry business’ is the term given broadly to matters of death and mourning. It refers to rituals, feelings and community loss. ‘Sorry Day’ now connotes the revival of the reconciliation movement and the restoration of hope.

Ignoring the Apology, Jones’ theme concerning the word ‘sorry’ is quite clear. The last words of the penultimate chapter, on page 211, read, “I should have said sorry to my sister, Mary. Sorry, my sister, oh my sister, sorry.”

At Perdita and Mary’s final meeting on page 204, it says, “That was the point, Perdita would realise much later, at which, in humility, she should have said “sorry.” She should have imagined what kind of imprisonment this was, to be close against the rustle of leaves and the feel of wind and rain, to be taken from her place, her own place where her mother died, to be sealed in the forgetfulness of someone else’s crime. Perdita should have been otherwise. She should have said “sorry”.

The novel serves as an apology to the Aborigines, and gives reasons as to why a formal apology would not be forthcoming.

Chief among these reasons was that the time for apologies has long gone. The government had its chance to apologise, and they did not. Any apology now would seem false. Sorry can be seen as an allegory. Perdita, too, had the chance to say sorry, but she did not. By the time she realised it, Mary had already died and it was too late. Perdita, then, can be seen to represent Australia. Australia’s brutal history in treating the Aboriginal people is often forgotten, even as the true events of Nicholas’ murder is forgotten. By the time Australia had realised its wrongdoing, it was too late to make amends.

Another point was that saying ‘sorry’ does not necessarily atone for the hurt caused by the action, but starts a new initiative for reconciliation to occur. Perdita realises this–even though she cannot atone for her actions, she should have said sorry. The word sorry literally means expressing regret or guilt for an action, but it does nothing to make amends for it.

If the novel had ended at chapter 22, which I thought I would, Jones may have been saying that an official apology to the Aborigines would not be forthcoming, as Perdita could not say sorry. However, there is a 23rd chapter, which creates a sense of hopefulness of ultimate reconciliation rather than the despair of not apologising, a hopefulness fulfilled by Rudd’s Apology.

Perdita would eventually find this sense of closure, even as the second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca did. The connection between the two protagonists is highlighted many times throughout the novel, including in the last chapter, where the opening paragraphs reflect the opening paragraphs of Rebecca.

And Stella’s snow dream, once a symbol of white supremacy, can be interpreted in the light of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes”, also referenced early on. This poem talks of the effect of great pain and suffering, that is, first people become tense, withdrawn and stiff. But after that, if people are able to release this stiffness, only then can the healing process start. The last lines of the poem read,

As freezing persons recollect the snow,–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

Stella’s snow dream, then, becomes a symbol for the restoration that comes after suffering, but only if one realises that restoration is needed and lets go the stupor that comes after the chill.

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