David Malouf’s “Fly Away Peter” is a short, but powerful war story that uses strong symbolism and contrasting settings to portray the author’s opinion of war and the destructive effect it has on the world. The novel’s themes are unveiled as the main character, Jim Saddler, grows and evolves himself.
Jim is an innocent, yet self-sufficient young man who lives in a picturesque town on the coast of Queensland and is fascinated by bird life. Actually, the whole town is peaceful and happy and shows a profound connection with nature. People here enjoy the simple pleasures in life, their days being filled with bird watching, peaceful walks, fishing and friendly conversations. Saddler and his friends feel safe, happy and worry-free in this serene sanctuary, enjoying the beauty of nature and its wonders, until their blissful existence is disrupted by WWI.
The reader follows Jim as fate throws him into a completely different world, one full of horror and violence, and the terror of the war-stricken country is further emphasised by the powerful contrast between the serene hometown and this vicious new world.
The author portrays the absurdity and horror of the First World War through powerful, disturbing descriptions of Jim’s experiences in the dirty trenches. Life suddenly becomes hellish, soldiers die every day, either in action or because of disease. Jim slowly loses his innocence and happiness as he finds himself surrounded by blood and his friends die one by one.
Malouf uses birds as a powerful symbol all throughout the novel. The birds migrate as the seasons change, just as soldiers travel from around the world to fight in the gruesome war. However, while the birds will come back home at some point, many of the brave fighters will never see their hometown again. This moving message makes the sorrow and loss war brings with it feel almost palpable.
Furthermore, birds are also the only thing that reminds Jim of his peaceful life back home and the only thing that still brings him some comfort. While war leaves its mark on everything surrounding the protagonist, the birds continue their carefree lives unaffected, just like nature intended. This is a powerful symbol of how life goes on and nature survives unaltered, despite the death, chaos and horrors brought by man.
Earth is another significant symbol the reader can detect in various sections of the novel. Before Jim dies, when he begins to hallucinate, he sees farmers digging the earth, image which suggests that the protagonist finally feels like he is escaping the horrific war and going back home – and in a way, he actually is. This powerful moment shows the reader how intense is Jim’s wish to flee the war and have his old, peaceful life back, and that most brave soldiers felt the same way.
The earth theme conveys a powerful message also when Jim notices an old man shovelling and he automatically assumes that the man is digging a grave. He realizes afterwards thatthe old farmer is actually planting seeds, which brings a touch of hope into the story, making the reader understand that rebirth is possible and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. The image of the sea towards the end of the novel portrays the same message, being a symbol of revival.
The ingenious way in which the author makes use of powerful symbolism and strong contrasting settings not only manages to portray the horrors of war in a gut-wrenching manner, making the readers feel the terror, suffering and longing like they were there themselves; it is also a vehicle for Malouf to deliver his ideas on how man’s existence is transient and insignificant compared to the everlasting, unbreakable nature.