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The making of Ho(l)mes: a symbolic reading of the bone people.

During a 1989 interview with Keri Hulme on the topic of the dreams in the bone people, she told me that the dreams, and particularly Simon's dream, were the essence of the novel. This paper has grown out of that comment. By examining Simon's dream I saw the links between building homes and building character. They revealed how Hulme treats the home as a microcosm of New Zealand society and ultimately as a way of gauging the national psyche.

Hulme's central emblems, the Tower and the spiral, are engineered to provide a symbolic text for her novel which addresses post-colonial crisis in New Zealand and offers alternative ways of lessening its attendant problems. Both major symbols represent the character Ho(l)mes. The novelist's intention emerges cyclically through the differences in the construction of the initial Tower residence and the redesigned spiral shell house. Hulme and Holmes, the architects, build symbolic significance into the distinctive features of these buildings to match the development and changing philosophies of the chief protagonist; hence the novel as Bildungsroman? The novel's symbolic meaning, however, extends beyond the individual lives and homes of the protagonists. Through Simon, Joe and Kerewin as characters representing the gender and racial mix of New Zealand society, and through the concept of the home as the microcosmic hub of that society, Hulme challenges the dominant Eurocentric system in a desire to reinstate the indigenous culture of New Zealand and to integrate marginalised people into mainstream society.

From the beginning there is a sinister quality about the location and the design of Holmes's one-bedroom Tower. An Englishman's home is his castle, but in the novel, Kerewin's formidable castle is her home, 'built on an almost-island'; the sea itself, vast and isolating, becomes her moat. Real estate details simultaneously describe home and owner. Featuring an impenetrable stony exterior, remoteness and privacy, this exclusive residence registers Holmes's personal stand-off. Anyone at tempting to make advances in these precincts would find the drawbridge up, the portcullis down and deadlocked.

Various eccentric features such as the cultivation of fungi in recesses in the Tower walls and a cellar stocked to withstand a seige, indicate the self-sufficient nature of its sole occupant:
 It was the hermitage, her glimmering retreat. No people invited,
 for what could they know of the secrets that crept and chilled and
 chuckled ill the marrow of her bones? No need of people, because
 she was self-fulfilling, delighted with the pre-eminence of her art
 and the future of her knowing hands. (p. 7)


On completion, the Tower stands alone, monolithic in its splendid isolation. In silhouette like an exalted upper-case letter I, it proclaims the Ego, as fitting an emblem for the materialistic and egocentric woman who lives within, as for the self-serving society it represents. Ironically, built as an escape (or rather as an 'ivory-tower' evasion of realities that Kerewin cannot face), the Tower in the end, holds her to ransom, a victim of its malignant and governing power. Almost our first impression of Kerewin is at her anti-social worst when she discovers Simon's small sandal in the vicinity of the Tower. Her recoil at this invasion of privacy betrays a woman sans metal, and conveys the unspoken motto of mainstream New Zealand homeowners: 'Forgive us our trespasses, but do not forgive them that trespass ...'. Hulme's thesis develops metonymically so that ultimately we see the Tower for what it is worth, a national folly, the embodiment of a materialistic society and a costly monument to its owner's physical and philosophical withdrawal from the world. Kerewin's self-appointed alienation is, also by extension, a situation which represents the current system, the fragmentation of a people seeking to live independently in single, solo parent or nuclear family units. Thus, the Tower becomes the emblem of a European value system. As Merata Mita puts it, this 'obsessive individualism of the Pakeha world [constitutes] a microcosm of the colonial quarter-acre, fenced off syndrome' (Mira pp. 4-5).

Simon's dream offers the key to the crucial nature of homes in the novel. He dreams that,
 Kerewin turns to him saying, 'That's okay with you then sunchild?'
 from the top of the building where she's standing. Joe is nodding,
 pleased and proud in the background, and [Simon] can feel the sun
 on his shoulderblades and he can scarcely contain the bounding joy
 he feels. He throws off the chains from his head and his feet and
 he cries, 'I'm home!' and Kerewin yells, 'Hey Clare says Homai!'
 and Joe says proudly, 'I hear! What joy!' (pp. 175-76)


This dream dramatises a wish-fulfilment. In his prophetic way, Simon knows it is imperative for the three of them to live in harmony together, something he mutely tries to orchestrate throughout the novel. Given his Christlike attributes and his disciple's name, Simon Peter Gillayley--just a vowel shift from 'Galilee'--he is destined to be the redeemer, the rock on which to build anew. Linguistic punning on 'home', 'Homai' and 'Holmes' is significant to meaning. Kerewin, from the top of a building, presumably a new home, offers Simon (and Joe) something infinitely precious. In the dream text, 'Clare', a name evoking light (the Light of the World?), with speech miraculously restored, responds in Maori, 'Homai!' or 'give to me!'. The triple linking of the word 'home' prefigures the re-formation of 'the trinity' under the protection of Holmes. Kerewin's elevated position facing into the sun in the dream presages her benevolence at the end and her hard-won capacity to face social responsibilities.

If we psychoanalyse this dream, the positions of the protagonists are particularly relevant, seen in relation to Jung's theory, where the three characters represent three important parts of the one psyche. The psyche consists of two incongruous halves, the ego-consciousness and the unconscious, which together should form a whole. Within the unconscious are the influential archetypes of the collective unconscious, the anima, the animus and the shadow. From one perspective then, Kerewin on top of the building, represents the ego-consciousness, Simon below and opposite her, represents her animus, the latent male part of the woman, and Joe 'in the background' materializes the shadow. Interestingly enough, the shadow frequently appears in dreams as a well-defined figure. According to Jung, the shadow is all those primitive desires and emotions which are incompatible with social standards, yet we are incomplete without it: 'The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego personality' (Jung, Collected Warks, p. 8). Under the influence of the shadow we are incapable of moral judgement (Jung, Archetypes, pp. 287-88).

Hulme's thesis revolves around a similar theory in that, as Jung states, we must find some way of living with our dark side. It is dangerous to suppress the shadow because as part of the unconscious it is life and this life turns against us if suppressed. In the bone people, the community suppresses until too late its knowledge that Joe abuses Simon. Hulme shocks us with Joe's violent climactic assault on his only son, and she shocks us again with the implications of what our society's predisposition to aloofness has wrought. The archetypes which fit the images of Hulme's symbolic bone people resemble the 'numinous' figures in the collective unconscious and, according to Jung, the one standing closest behind the shadow is the anima/animus [Simon], who is endowed with considerable powers of fascination and possession (Jung, Archetypes, p. 270). As such, Simon is the catalyst which reveals the chink in Kerewin's armour.

Kerewin's quest is the literal and psychological journey from one home to another--from Tower to spiral--symbolising a movement from the crippling apartness to something that she calls 'commensalism', an ideal form of communal living. Her anguished cry, 'Uprooted again. Truly Kerewin te kaihau ... but I seek always, for homes', expresses the desperate need for stability and solidarity [my emphasis] (p. 411).

Obviously, the architect of the Tower, like the Victorians, holds the conviction that buildings should announce themselves. Kerewin's plan to build vertically, given the ample site, is telling enough, but the erection of a structure displaying such proud phallic lines, symbolically invests the Tower with the power of the male to rule. The notion of male supremacy is reinforced in the text as the Tower always merits a capital letter. Moreover, Kerewin at this phase of her life assumes a (conventional) male role herself, and with her harpoon stick as her sceptre, she reigns supreme in the Tower--until the arrival of Simon.

Similarly, by design, the Tower can be seen as an hierarchical structure with levels rising one above another to dominate the landscape. And, although there may be a Celtic wit and whimsy in living in a Tower in the twentieth century, two major flaws are evident in the construction of Holmes's Tower: firstly, the insensitivity of the architect in failing to integrate her home successfully into the environment, and secondly, neglecting to accommodate in the design the Maori nature of its owner, a woman of mixed Pakeha and Maori ancestry. In the Tower, Kerewin sets herself up as an exemplar of European-style living, and yet she can tell Joe that,

'whereas by blood, flesh and inheritance, [I am] but an eighth Maori, by heart, spirit and inclination, [I feel] all Maori. Or, I used to. Now it feels like the best part of me has got lost in the way I live'. (p. 62)

Continuing the analogy, the Tower also stands for a rejection of Maoritanga. It symbolises the arrogance of the settler race who, by reinstating in their self-reflecting homes the traditional, patriarchal system of their forebears, have privileged a white, middle-class, male-dominated society. Moreover, an establishment such as the Tower which has minimal contact with the land, when symbolically rendered, demonstrates a monistic disdain for any 'other', and thus it stands in opposition to the beliefs of the indigenous people whose culture is rooted in the spirit of the land.

By the same token, when Kerewin describes her plans for the Tower home, they have a marked correspondence to the medieval towers of Europe built for war. Weaponry. is a feature:
 [A] ring of swords on the nether wall, [of the library] a bedroom,
 mediaeval style, with massive roof beams and a plain hewn bed ...
 and an entrance hung with tapestries and the beginnings of the
 spiral stairway ... [The Tower stands] gaunt and strange and
 embattled. (p. 7)


They are reminders that it is after all a replica fortress, the symbol of conflict. Thus, the Tower asserts a British heritage, illustrating a still defensive nation emerging from a tradition of warring ancestors. In this stratagem, Hulme identifies more than one race of people in New Zealand with a predilection for violence. Certainly, all three of the representative protagonists, Maori, Pakeha-Maori and European, exhibit violent characteristics. Seemingly superior in her articulateness, Kerewin puts on a verbal armour to repel human contact. 'Seafire', a named knife, is her most intimate companion, and her violent fight with Joe at Moerangi signals the onset of pain from her developing tumour, symbolically yoking violence with disease. Accordingly, when Kerewin's body is attacked and occupied by the malignant cancer, Hulme reveals the consequences of an inner war. For, just as the medieval tower anticipates hostilities, so does Kerewin (its personification in the novel) anticipate invasion and violation. In this way, Hulme establishes Kerewin's Tower as a threatening symbol illustrating a sick society. Akin to an upraised fist, the Tower aptly demonstrates the impact of violence and oppression in our society.

Kerewin's 'Lightning struck Tower' dream prefigures the inevitable crisis. The dream communicates its meaning symbolically through the medium of the Tarot cards which predict the future through the turning up of a trump card selected from a set of archetypal pictures. Normally they lie face down in a certain pattern on the table, but, in Kerewin's dream, eliminating any element of chance, one card mysteriously selects itself--the picture 'glowed':
 The scene was there for a split second, but ill that second she was
 drawn into the card. The sky split and thunderbolts rained down,
 and she started falling, wailing in final despair from the
 lightning struck tower. (p. 267)


The Tarot trump known as 'The Tower' usually displays a 'flesh-coloured' tower struck at the top by lightning, effectively severing its 'golden crowned' top, while two terrified people are seen falling to the ground. Significantly, it is often interpreted in the spirit of the Tower of Babel legend as the punishment of pride, or more broadly as the destruction of a false system of values. Thus, the demolition of Kerewin's Tower at Taiaroa, as in the biblical parable, marks the end of an era. The destructive 'blow' throws the people/protagonists apart. Both the Tower of Babel story and Hulme's narrative depict a deliberate destruction of an old regime in order to render regeneration possible. Both see a need for the people to have a time alone for the healing process to take place, and time to consider the moral implications of their behaviour.

Kerewin's behaviour in the Tower culminates in a personal crisis, precipitated by guilt and fear: guilt at her complicity in Simon's beating ('I flayed him with words', she admits to Joe), fear at the loss of her creative talent, and fear of 'the wild spreading cells ... of the thing that has invaded her' (p. 317). Perceiving the cause of domestic violence to be in the way we live, Kerewin physically dismantles the Tower, and burns the stuff of the upper levels in a great 'funeral pyre'. In this ritual act, she converts to ashes the oppressive and dangerous aspects of the Tower, symbolically disempowering all that it stands for. But not before she has set the clay tricephalos sculpture in the centre to be fired. Thus like the Phoenix on her 'fire nest', a new creation emerges out of the ashes of the old life.

Bearing in mind the classical form of the novel, it is natural that the question of the negative Tower image of isolation and violence be provided with an answering, positive symbol in the form of the spiral. As a universal symbol, the spiral is connected with creation, evolution and growth and is, predictably, the antithesis of the phallic Tower, in that the spiral's winding form is a female image representing regeneration, a source of new beginnings. To Kerewin, tracing the lines of her double-spiral engraved on the floor of the Tower, 'it made a useful thought-focus, a mandala, anyway' (p. 44). The mandala in dream represents the dreamer's search for completeness and self-unity. As a religious emblem, the spiral symbolises rebirth, resurrection and immortality, signifying also the cyclical continuum of ancestors and future relations. Most importantly, it conveys the process of renewal and change, the change which informs the significance of the title, the bonepeople being the people who make another people. In this respect too, it is a Maori symbol. Derived from nature and traditionally representing the koru, various embellished spirals served as a form of tribal identity when incorporated in moko moko and canoe prow-patterns. Kerewin notes:
 It was reckoned that the old people found inspiration for the
 double spirals they carved so skilfully, in uncurling fernfronds.
 Perhaps. But it was an old symbol of rebirth, and the
 outward-inward nature of things. (p. 45)


The spiral's movement is similar to the centripetal/centrifugal forces in the novel, and as Peter Simpson has noted in an early review of the bone people, the form of the novel resembles a double spiral action (Simpson, p. 8). In this spiralling and reverse motion, the characters gradually come together, are flung apart and reunite. However, in the vortex or the 'nothingness' at the centre of the spiral (and the novel), as Kerewin epigraphically puts it, they 'all fall down'. Simon, Joe and Kerewin must each pass through this purgatorial region before their re-birth into society. Each one experiences a form of resurrection. Like a sick animal that slinks away to die alone, Kerewin shuns civilization and modern medical remedies and hikes out to a hut in the Mackenzie country, but at the point of death, accepts the cup of red-currant juice from a Samaritan creature. Thus, in a humbling observance of a kind of Holy Communion, she is purged of her malignant tumour. Further purification rituals culminate, for Kerewin, in a wholeness of body and spirit conducive to her dreaming a revelatory dream which directs her to a programme of rebuilding. Focused now, she comes back to Life to rebuild the marae at Moerangi, and it is here that she has her epiphany which serves to tie her spiritually to the land: A great warmth flows into her. Up from the earth under her feet into the pit of her belly, coursing up like benevolent fire through her breast to the crown of her head' (p. 430). Surging up from the land, it is the sign of a new beginning, establishing her now as one of 'the bone people' who when united, will be, as Hulme promises in the Prologue, 'the instruments of change'.

From the time of this visionary experience, Kerewin changes direction. Figuratively, she is emerging out of the vortex of the spiral at the point where it changes direction. Whereas her Tower life was static and her essential self repressed, Kerewin, identifying now with the spiral, shows that she can 'move' and be moved, for at the centre of her double spiral Kerewin had found 'surprise the beginning of another spiral that led ... out to the ... somethingness' (p. 44). From nothingness to somethingness, from death to life, from Tower home to spiral home, Kerewin confidently approaches the crucial shift. In the diary that she calls her 'paper soul', she writes: 'I know I can move, can lead, can direct. Therefore I will... No more Holmes against the world' (p. 436). Then, following the Chinese custom, she places her up-to-date diary in the fire in a ritual burning of her past self. It can be argued that at this point Kerewin recognises her true identity and role in the world. Putting into practice her new seven-directional plan for the future will be the making of the new Holmes. Spirally inspired, a compassionate Kerewin emerges to fulfill the dream promise to Simon by arranging for his legal adoption. By giving her name and home to both Joe and Simon, she allows Joe access to his son. Her building dream establishes the model for a new lifestyle:
 She touched the threshold, and the building sprang straight and
 rebuilt, and other buildings flowed out of it in a bewildering
 colonisation. They fit onto the land as sweet :rod natural as
 though they'd grown there. (p. 428)


With the spiral as the principle of the redesigned shell house, its flowing lines provide a sense of movement and accessibility, both within and about the building, features markedly different from the commanding erection of the Tower. It is this dream of Kerewin's that inspires a lateral rather than a vertical design for the shell-shaped house at Taiaroa. Hulme and Holmes now adopt the spiral as a merging motif in their modifications to the decapitated Tower building. In accordance with the dream, the spirally designed structure fits naturally onto the landscape, and we are meant to see that not only is it now environmentally integrated, but that it has the space to 'embrace' the extended family, Maori and Pakeha. At the housewarming gathering in the Epilogue, they are all very much 'at home' under its roof. And since the spiral is an edectic symbol with many doctrines attached to it, it has one for all. This on a broad or national scale, represents Hulme's alternative 'colonisation', her scheme for postcolonial harmony. In her private diary, Kerewin writes:
 I had spent many nights happily drawing and redrawing those plans.
 I decided on a shell-shape, a regular spiral of rooms expanding
 around the decapitated Tower ... privacy, apartness, but all
 connected and all part of the whole. When finished, it will be
 studio and hall and church and guesthouse, whatever I choose, but
 above all else, HOME. Home in a larger sense than I've used the
 term before. (p. 434)


Indeed, when Kerewin demolishes the upper levels of the tower structure and builds on its foundations the 'commensal' style building, she is in effect levelling the present hierarchical structure of New Zealand society and preparing a place of ideal equality where no one person can be dominated by another. The communal lifestyle Hulme is advocating then, like the three parts of Jung's harmoniously integrated personality, can operate as 'a wholesome check' on any potential violence.

Hulme's intention regarding the gender balance in the novel is defined in the semantically-conscious terms she uses to describe the homes in question. Of the Tower, she writes: 'I am encampassed by a wall high and hard and stone with only my brainy nails to tear it down. And I cannot do it' (p. 7) [my emphasis]. The sense of entrapment which expressed itself in Kerewin's personal predicament extends beyond the particular to the universal female. This male/female dichotomy is symbolised in the notion of the Tower's central spiral staircase with its dolphin-headed rails claiming liberty for women, but which is, within the powerful male structure, similarly 'encompassed' or restrained. In the housewarming celebration in the spiral home at the end, however, Hulme s metaphor of encirclement remains constant, but the sense of 'being held' has been altered along with the structural renovations, for now, 'the round shell house holds them all in its spiralling embrace' (p. 442) [my emphasis]. And since the shell house spirals around the foundation of the decapitated tower, the redesigned home now represents a protective or nurturing female embracing the male--a complementary and non-threatening arrangement. Thus, it is clear in Kerewin's partial (not total) demolition of the Tower that the new home has been designed to convey the relinquishing of the dominating control, but not the masculinity of the men in our society. Figuratively, it demolishes the patriarchal system. However, while Hulme's symbolic text is aimed at subverting the authority of the dominant system, culture and gender, it makes no attempt to set in its place an opposing system of dominance such as a matriarchy. Had this been Hulme's intention, she would have chosen as her guiding principle not the multi-dimensional spiral, but some singularly female symbol, a concave womb-like receptacle, or the 'hole' which had been one of the options Kerewin considered at the time she planned the Tower. And, unlike the oppressive Tower, the innovative spiral design transforms the dwelling into a place where the artist's dormant creativity begins to burgeon again. Moreover, as the architects' new design involves the integration of tower and spiral on a single level with its rooms 'all connected and all part of the whole', it creates a sense of mutual interdependence both structurally and metaphorically between the genders and the cultures.

By focusing on the symbolic pattern that evolves through the building of homes and the development of Holmes, the character, Hulme shows her concern for the problems, especially violence, in our society. In a coherent manipulation of Tower and spiral symbols on both personal and national levels, she advocates a united identity, a restoration of the indigenous culture and a reconciliation between Maori and Pakeha. Through her version of 'commensalism' and the generating and regenerating principle of the spiral, she offers the possibility of an alternative system of peaceful co-existence, a system designed to perpetuate equality. For the spiral is not a static symbol (not like the cirde where one cycle completes), the spiral moves through a series of revolutions but always it moves in a direction; it is progressive, continually advancing.

In the bane people, Hulme convinces us that good homes are the key to a harmonious functioning of our society, for it is in the home that we instil our principles and moral values in the future generation, and because we are the people who make another people, it is imperative that we give them the right blueprint.

Works Cited

Huhne, Keri, the bone people (Auckland: Spiral/Hodder & Stoughton, 1986).

Jung, C.G., The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959).

Jung, C.G., The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 9, Pt. 2, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959).

Mita, Merata, 'Indigenous Literature ill a Colonial Society', in The Republican (November 1984).

Simpson, Peter, 'In My Spiral Fashion', in Australian Book Review, Australia Post Publication (August 1984), 7-10.
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Author:Melhop, Val
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Date:Jan 1, 1999
Words:4083
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