Neighbours | Summary and Analysis

Analysis of Neighbours by Tim Winton

Tim Winton’s short story “Neighbours” was first published in his collection titled Scission  in 1985. As a part of Australian literature, the author puts forth a postcolonial discourse on multiculturalism through the interaction between a newlywed unnamed couple and their neighbourhood’s European migrants. The story traces the change in the prejudicial attitude of the couple towards their fellow European neighbours over time which is an outcome of the love and belongingness they receive from them. 

 

Summary | Neighbours

 The story opens with the narrator recounting the past of the couple who arrive in a new neighbourhood having European migrants as its residents. The cultural and linguistic barriers prohibit an initiative on both sides. The immediate neighbours of the newlywed couple are a Macedonian family who pass mocking looks at their lifestyle where the couple wakes up late and the young man works on his thesis on the twentieth-century novel at home while the wife goes out to work. However, some uncalled interventions by a widower from Poland involving the reconstruction of a henhouse in the couple’s garden start a chain of interaction. In the beginning, they feel it to be a violation of their privacy but gradually cherish the warmth of the widower’s gesture. Similarly, other families begin assisting them in farming and other activities to communicate a sense of belongingness. 

As seasons change, the couple grows comfortable in the company of people from different ethnicities who occasionally exchange eccentric stories from their countries despite no common language. The community bond comes to its full display when the wife is pregnant and everyone showers them with gifts and wishes. They even pray and wait outside the couple’s house when she goes into early labour. After the birth of his son, the young man runs out and looks at the eager faces of the neighbours and weeps.

 

 Neighbours | Analysis

Australia’s isolation from postcolonial studies owing to its status as a settler country is an issue that receives attention towards the end of the twentieth century. The country’s crucial position in the imperial process and the discourse surrounding it is a preoccupation of writers like Tim Winton who, in this case, brings to the fore the dichotomy of nativity and migration. In “Neighbours” a newlywed couple shifts to a new neighbourhood where many European families are already living. The couple’s ethnicity is unknown and so it is safe to assume them as native modern Australians due to their prejudicial take on their fellow residents. By opting for a third-person omniscient narrator, the author attempts to speak for all and refuses to give the command of his narrative to any one culture. 

At its onset, the story deals with the initial struggles of the couple as new residents. Their feelings find an allusion to the Biblical saying “like sojourners in a foreign land.” The community atmosphere is different to their previous “expansive outer suburbs where good neighbours were seldom seen and never heard.” This portrays well in the constant splash of noises they hear from the Macedonian household. The couple nearly takes six months to adjust to their bickering and accept it as a part of their living. The Macedonians also disapprove of the late-waking hours of the couple and the gender imbalance in their relationship. The man sits at home working on his thesis and his wife goes to work at a hospital. Here, the narrator draws a contrast between the two distinct lifestyles. The couple, as any modern young man and woman, is habitual to private life and a gender-equal relationship. The conventional mindsets of ancient cultures like the Macedonians fail to incorporate certain aspects of modernity into their life even after migrating to a new country. The deeply rooted cultural ties prevent them to accept the lifestyle that the couple enjoys and they view it as a threat. But the judgements are not one-sided. The couple too has feelings of disgust at certain practices like the Macedonian boy’s urination in open. The conflict of lifestyles and values form the central theme of the story. 

The conflict nonetheless starts to fade as the seasons change. The symbolism underlying the shift in seasons represents the altering attitude of the couple towards their neighbours. As autumn transcends to winters, the couple begins to “smile back at the neighbours.” The cold winters facilitate a warm community feeling amongst all the families. They mingle with each other and learn primitive slaughtering techniques as well. The seasonal transition also foreshadows a change in the lives of the couple as the wife conceives. Like the unexpected harmony with the neighbours, the pregnancy is also unplanned and the couple. 

The entire neighbourhood learns the news and they pamper the wife and shower her with blessings from time to time. This unconditional love and affection overwhelm her. She feels flattered and annoyed simultaneously. The man who is toying with his thesis on the twentieth-century novel has to abruptly leave it when his wife goes into labour. Witnessing his wife in pain and still exhibiting strength marvels him and reminds him of his own labour in writing his thesis. But as he looks on at his baby boy, “it took his wind away.” The man feels a loss of confidence in his project. He feels incapable of determination and achieving success in his venture. These feelings are a product not of his wife’s warrior-like resilience, but the falsity that he realises in his thesis. His research previously clouds his judgement about Europe but as he goes out and looks at the cheering faces of the European neighbours, he comes to terms with a reality that his research on twentieth-century fiction didn’t prepare him for. 

Many fictional narratives of the twentieth-century concern with stereotypes and prejudices revolving around colonies. They are subject to criticism and a primitive lifestyle that deems them savage and uncultured, incapable of affection. But after living with people from such colonies, the man undergoes a change of perception. The stark contrast between fiction and reality exposes and leaves the man with overwhelming feelings. Finding his neighbours eagerly waiting for the good news delights him and provides him with a sense of kinship with their presence in his life’s biggest moment. 

 

Thus, the author presents a picture where multiculturalism is a pleasant scenario and it is possible for different cultural backgrounds to exist together in harmony. Winton’s thrust on place is central to many of his works and he projects Australia’s social fabric by emphasising on the relationship between a place and its people not basing it on nativity but on fellow feeling and humanity.  

 

Neighbours | Themes

 

Multiculturalism  – Colonialism paved way for different cultures to interact with each other, recognising their differences and similarities. A multicultural setting usually is a host to conflicts due to multiple opinions. However, in the story, the author creates a neighbourhood with migrant families from different European nations living together. Despite language barriers, they engage with each other through gestures and selfless actions. This display of compassion brings a change in the attitude of the couple who gradually learn to live with them. 

Belongingness – A man’s place of birth or the length of years spent at a particular location is a huge deciding force for his belongingness. One feels belonged with like-minded people around him sharing his culture and language. European migrants in the story travel from their native places and settle in a new land. While it is difficult for the young couple to adjust to the eccentric natures of their neighbours, it is equally challenging for the Europeans to adapt to modern lifestyles without dissecting their roots. A sense of belongingness, sometimes, does not require sharing a similar language or cultural practices. A sweet gesture or a welcoming smile does the work. The story promotes this idea to educate its readers on different ways of making one feel belongs to a place. 

Prejudice – Texts written by colonisers often present the colonies in a primitive and negative light. They are categorised as uncultured who need to be civilised in order to continue living in this world. Their ethnicities and social customs are ignored and held irrelevant. Such prejudicial understanding of many European colonies and small European nations has influenced perceptions of people over the decades. But the short story exposes that propagandist line of thought by diving into interaction between different communities. They are not uncultured and are capable of showering love and affection on others, like the Macedonian family and the Polish widower in this case. 

 

 

 

 

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