How does Tim Winton use plot to engage readers in the social concern(s) of ‘On Her Knees’?
The main protagonists in the story are Vic Lang and his mother. The individual vs. society conflict was shown through lots of details in the inner thinkings of Vic: “I’d seen their patronizing notes on floral paper, their attempts to chip her rate down.” Through demonstrating these details from the perspective of Vic, the “victim” of the story and the representation of the lower community in the society, we are encouraged to despise the employers of Vic’s mother, the villains with more advantages over the victims. At the same time, we get to see what these vulnerable ones in the society are treated, what they perceive from society. We also tend to sympathize Vic and Vic’s mother and question why their societies had made that patronization happen.
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The main cause of the individual vs. individual conflict, as introduced in the outset of the story, could be the difference between Vic and his mother’s reaction when being devalued. When Vic’s mum was devalued, being blamed for stealing a pair of earrings that she did not steal, Vic was offended and wanted to revenge by not returning the house for cleaning, while his mother, after crying under the lemon tree out of sadness of being wronged, seemed to be doing nothing about this and decided to go back to clean the house again. Vic could not understand his mum, thus, the conflict was built up. Vic’s anger towards people who hire his mum could be shown with his inner thinking in his characterization: “[Mum] was proud of her good name and the way people bragged about her and passed her around like a hot tip, but I resented how quickly they took her for granted.” An effect of this could be Vic’s mum going back to clean the house on her own, Vic staying at home planning for taking revenge on Mum’s employers.
As the plot developed further, we as readers have more understanding of the situation Vic and his mother were facing. The terrible working environment and a large amount of work of Vic and his mother were described: “The stink was awful” in the “airless laundry”, and there were “every sill and architrave, each lamp and mirror” waiting to be cleaned. Through these, the idea of wealth gap was further explored. In addition, after the earrings were finally found underneath the bed, being left there just because of the employer’s carelessness, the two protagonists were arguing to or not to take the money the employer give them before sacking them. While Vic thought that they should do so to vent their anger, Vic’s mother prefer not to do so as “all [the employer] have to say is that she made [her] guilty enough to give them back”. This creates even more gap between the two characters.
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The two conflicts were closely interconnected. As the rich were patronizing the poor, the poor need to keep their dignity and try to stop the patronization. When Vic’s mother chose not to take the money, Vic was startled, but after Mum explaining her decision, Vic suddenly fully understood what dignity means. Leaving the money proved that Vic’s family would only earn money not through stealing nor the employer’s benevolence, but only money that they deserved and from what their hard work. Before this, Vic has decided to put the pair of earrings into the stinking cat tray out of anger, but now he decided to take it back, as he finally agreed with his mother, appreciating her actions, the gap between him and his mother was fulfilled, the individual vs. individual conflict is resolved. At this point, individual vs. society conflict should also be resolved. However, it is not known if the employer of Vic’s mother was convinced, if she was still blaming Vic’s mother for the loss of the earrings even after they were returned to her. This leads us to feel that the conflict wasn’t fully resolved. With Vic and his mother representing the poor and the employers as the rich in the society, we are encouraged to question why the rich must patronize the poor, why the poor needs to be so vulnerable, not even able to keep their dignity.
By setting multiple conflicts, providing more understanding of the situation to the readers, showing possible resolutions and eventually providing an unsatisfying resolution, the writer not only engages readers, but also raise awareness of the social concern of wealth gap in ‘On Her Knees”.