Many of the short stories by Henry Lawson deal with isolation or mateship, however not many of them deal with a combination of the two. The characters in Lawson’s stories have a strong sense of community, but they must still stand alone in order to survive. Some are alone because they must be, some because they want to be, some are a definite part of a group and still remain alone. Some are not as alone as they may think. All these ideas are shown in Lawson’s stories in one form or another, and some are easier to define than others.
The type of isolation presented in “The Drover’s Wife” is one that is easily defined. She is left at home by her husband because “the drought of 18– ruined him. He had to sacrifice the remnant of his flock and go droving again” earning money for a family he barely sees. This forces his wife to fend for herself, battling both the elements and her loneliness on her own. This isolation is one that she does not welcome, but one that she accepts because she must. She shows a resilience that is admirable and a strong character. Because she must look after her “four ragged, dried-up-looking children…” she is not lacking of company, but lacking rather in support. She must rely upon her own courage and wits to keep both herself and her children alive. This stops her from being alone in a physical sense but not in an emotional one. She deals with this situation well, and while she does not enjoy her isolation, she manages to retain her sanity.
“The Bush Undertaker” contrasts this in that there is a definite tone of mental instability. The main character is alone out in the bush when he comes across what seems to be the corpse of an old mate, “Brummy”. He talks to Brummy even though it is obvious that he knows Brummy is dead. This shows that while the Bush Undertaker is aware of the absurdity of his situation, his isolation has made him more receptive to any form of companionship, even that of a corpse.
He has no real goal that is mentioned in the story, so we assume that a lack of any company has unhinged his mind slightly. Even though he is talking to Brummy as if he were alive he still accepts the reality of Brummy’s demise, and buries him. He isn’t doing this out of sheer practicality however for he makes the comment that “Theer oughter be somethin’ sed… Theer oughter be some sort o’ sarmin.” And then proceeds to give the uncaring corpse a sermon at his burial. In this way while the bush undertaker is alone, the corpse of Brummy is not, as in death his mate is with him and supports him. While the bush undertaker is alone through necessity there are examples within Lawson’s stories of characters that actually choose to be alone.
In “Water Them Geraniums” Mrs. Spicer is frequently left alone with her children. She has a husband, who is rarely at home, and several children, but is alone in the sense of she has no support. Joe comments that “I supposed, the reason why she hadn’t gone mad through hardship and loneliness was that she hadn’t either the brains or the memory to go farther than she could see through the trunks of the ‘apple trees’.” This may be far more accurate than he may think. She adamantly refuses the help of the Wilsons and tells her children “…not to say we was hungry if yer asked; but if yer give us anythink to eat, we was to take it an’ say thenk yer…”
This passage shows even though Mrs. Spicer is alone by ways support, her pride stops her from admitting her neediness, but it is enough to stop her from accepting help which is offered. She says to Mary that she has “…got past carin’ for anythink now. I felt it a little when Tommy went away…But I’m over that now.” It’s this assumed pose of strong noble unconcern that makes her able to deal with the hardships, although some would argue as to whether she deals with them well. She forces herself to stand alone in supporting her children, and in time this isolation caused by pride seems to be what kills her, for as Joe Wilson concludes “It was some time before we could believe that she was dead. But she was ‘past carin” right enough.”
Another of Lawson’s stories that deals with isolation is “Brighten’s sister-in-law” which is also told from the perspective of Joe Wilson. However, at a time when Joe Wilson expects to be on his own, he finds steadfast help and caring support. While he and his son, Jim, are out bush Jim has a seizure. Joe panics, but has enough presence of mind to go looking for help. He finds help in the form of Brighten’s sister-in-law, a woman whose name we never learn. She aids him, treats Jim and eventually manages to get Jim into a stable condition. Throughout the story he hear mention of what seems to be a great emotional turmoil within this good Samaritan, as she is described as both stoic and as crying while Jim is in the house. Even though it seems to cost her dearly, emotionally, she still treats Jim and this shows how even though some may expect no help, sometimes fate intervenes.
The stories of Henry Lawson deal with all these themes of isolation, and the theme that is strongest is that of survival, for even though all his characters seem to be clearly alone or in company, most often they are alone in a sense that is an essential part of the power of his stories. They are alone in that they can rely upon, truly constantly rely upon, only one person.