“My Father’s Axe” was written in 1985 and is a story that centres on nostalgia and wistfulness, “longing for a time long gone, where the theft of his father’s old axe from the verandah of the same house where he grew up has a very strong personal impact” (Smith 1990). This story revolves around the happenings and memories of the narrator’s life and his memories, especially his relationship with his father, and later, his relationship with his son, Jamie. It explores how time, as it goes by, brings about changes in the roles in the family and their attitudes. The narrator’s thoughts and reminiscences were triggered by the loss of his father’s axe.
Although the loss of the axe occurred in the present, the setting for most of the events takes place in the past, with the narrator referring the readers back to the present occasionally, most of which happens in the house where the narrator grew up in. For the use of the axe, one should understand that it was likely for the scene of this text to be in the Australian outback. The story deals with the themes of time, and how time changes perspectives, situations and attitudes, father-son relationships, generational gaps in the relationships and guilt.
The narrator’s changed perceptions of his father echoes the different stages of our respective lives and how our attitudes of different generations vary. For instance, at the very beginning, the persona looked up to his father, admiring him. The narrator, to an extent, placed his father up on a pedestal – with the narrator describing the process and every movement of his father when he was hard at work and swinging the axe – there is a very vivid description of his father “dismembering the brittle tree with graceful swings of his axe” (Winton 1985:327), using “those long, rhythmic, semi- circular movements like a ballet dancer’s warm-up” (Winton 1985:327). The extent of the narrator’s admiration for his father is evident as he recounted that “he (his father) could swing an axe”, while the persona “could never do it like him” as he “chop in short, jabby strokes which do the job but are somehow less graceful” (Winton 1985:327). However, as the narrator became older, words and adjectives he uses demonstrates that the awe of his father has worn off, like “he was stubborn”(Winton 1985:330) and that the trials and tribulations of life had taken their toll on his father, “he became a frail, old man and his arms lost their ruddiness and went pasty and the flesh lost its grip upon the bones of his forearms” (Winton 1985:330). This is a big contrast from the earlier description of his father as a strong man.
However, as the narrator grew older, he felt deep guilt and regret for his treatment and attitude towards his father – “In the living room I take out the old Scrabble box and sit with it on my knee for a while. Perhaps I’ll play a game with myself…” (Winton 1985:332). Scrabble was a game the narrator and his father often played when he was a child. In those sentences, there seems to be a hint of love and also the extent in which he misses the times both father and son had in the past. Guilt is also evident in his dreams, especially in the dream where “… my (the narrator’s) father’s head rolls onto the heap, eyes towards me, transfixed at the moment of a scission in a squint of disappointment” (Winton 1985:331). This demonstrates that the guilt the narrator feels is so prevalent in him that even in his dreams and unconscious state of mind, he sees his father’s disappointment with him.
This can be explained by the psychoanalytic literary criticism where Freud stressed the importance of the “concept of the unconscious mind, the importance of dreams” (Parker & Morrison 2006:16) as the narrator’s dreams could signify that he experiences regret of taking his father for granted, and guilt of, perhaps sending his parents to a home for the elderly. It is probably also an indication that the narrator felt that he had somewhat not turned out to be the son whom his father would like him to be. However, it is still palpable that the narrator’s faith and love for his father is present throughout the story – “If I needed something built, something done, there was my father and he protected me” (Winton 1985:328) and “I felt a warm dob on my forehead; I do not scream, have never needed to” (Winton 1985:331). This arouses deep emotions in the reader and is another effect the diction and vocabulary creates all through the story. Time is the all-encompassing factor that led to changes of attitudes and different situations, as well as the feeling of guilt and remorse, as the narrator grew older.
The vivid imagery is created by the use of colourful diction and vocabulary. The manner in which Winton describes the bench shack as being “infested with rats” and “the rat, suspended by six feet of cord, swung in an arc across my bed with the long, hairy whip of tail trailing a foot above my nose” (Winton 1985:329), was an effective mechanism that allowed the reader to envisage that particular incident experienced by the narrator. The author’s use of vocabulary to describe the rat as its “body still flexed and struggled” (Winton 1985:329), as well as the very clear description of its “long, hairy whip of tail”, successfully triggered feelings of disgust.
Winton adopted a melancholic style and reminisces in conveying the themes. Some aspects of this story echoes the different stages and attitudes of our respective. As a child, many view their father as their superman and the child tries hard to be like his father. As the child comes into being as an adult and sees his parents age and become frail and weak, neglect and taking the parents for granted often creep in without realisation.