Saturday, 5 July 2014

The Rabbits

The Rabbits is an award winning Australian picture book written by John Marsden and illustrated by Shaun Tan, published in 1998 and it won several awards including the Aurealis Convener’s Award for Excellence. It is ostensibly aimed at a child and young adult audience but the complex references are interesting to adults and initially the artwork contained in the picture book may have been aimed towards adults.

The Rabbits contains a narrative that is an allegory of the historical process of Australian colonization, it is told from a “collective” first person perspective by an indigenous voice, from the perspective of imagined anthropomorphic indigenous marsupial possum creatures. The narrative is a “didactic and spare” (Do Rozario 2011 : 25) (instructive and unelaborated) description of a gradual invasion by waves of human like rabbit creatures displacing human like marsupial possum creatures, and the introduction of new species from the anthropomorphic rabbit’s original ecosystem. Significantly the narrative does not narrate a resolution that represents a “cosmic balance” (Do Rozario 2011 : 25), the narrative does not have a happy ending (Do Rozario 2011 : 26), ultimately the story is a narrative of a cosmic imbalance from the perspective of the narrator. The art work by Shaun Tan gives the book much of its resonance, the images elaborate and expand the sparse narrative into ecological and universal dimensions. The images display an exaggerated nightmarish European culture, in angular shapes with imperial red, white and gold colour schemes and the picture books representations of the anthropomorphic marsupial possum indigenous culture, is in curved shapes with earthy colours that strongly evokes the art work of Australian Aborigines. There are clear historical symbols in the picture book and an imagined but recognisably Australian natural environment that is conveyed more clearly through displayed images that the sparse collective first person narrative, “our”, that gives the picture book its universal and ecological context (Do Rozario 2011 : 25).

The Rabbit Ship from The Rabbits 1998

Some of the images are haunting, especially its interpretation of sheep. Sheep are portrayed in an uncanny way as essentially mouths attached to woolly bodies and are associated with the action of voracious chewing, the image of teeth is described by Dianne McGlasson (2013) as being a significant metaphor and uses Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection to interpret the images. Abjection means a state of being “cast off” and many of Shaun Tan’s images of childhood contain a state of abjection where the subject is situated as separate from the dominant symbolic order. Kristeva’s theory of abjection has the subject, the abject being traumatically separated from the symbolic order, thus the subject is no longer the subject of that order but is the abjected. The abject complements the superego, which is formed from the dominant discourse, representative of culture, the symbolic order. The abjected is prelanguage before being incorporated into language by the Symbolic order thus is described as being Semiotic, belonging to a preoedipal stage (McGlasson 2013 : 21).

McGlasson (2013) describes symbols as masculine because they are associated with the super ego, a symbolic order developed from a (masculine) dominant discourse and describes the semiotic as maternal because they are counter to the dominant discourse and thus have an abject state. Although this interpretation can be disputed, part of the beauty of art is that it can have different meanings dependant on the interpretation of its audience. There is an uncanny and political content in Shaun Tan’s artwork in The Rabbits that can be subjected to the interpretative orientations of its audience and it is possible that McGlasson (2013) may be, to a degree, right, in the sense that discourse can be contested along various intersections of privilege and gender is one intersection. Uncontentiously the images of teeth in The Rabbits, such as those of the sheep are removed from their normal place (McGlasson 2013 : 23), in the sense they are disproportionately large, over exposed and not associated with a smile display and thus are abject, “objects of horror, revulsion and distaste” (McGlasson 2013 : 23).

The Sheep from The Rabbits 1998

The anthropomorphic marsupial possum creatures are abjected in the picture book in the sense that they are oppressed, exploited and betrayed by the colonizing rabbits, the narrative represents the process of colonization as wrong (McGlasson 2013 : 24). There are multiple representations of process, the colonizing machines & animals engorge, process and eliminate and the text is accompanied by images of stages of a colonization process and the wrongness of these processes are demonstrated by images of the abject and uncanny, such as the images that feature teeth, as agents of abjection.

Similarly, the pictures in the picture book are argued as being abject because they critique the dominant historical discourse. The images in critiquing the process of colonization disturb conventional identity and cultural concepts, disrupting the assumption of degrees of “terra nullis”, not total emptiness, because that the aborigines were originally there is not under dispute, but the historical dominant discourse can be argued to contain the assumption that they weren’t really “using” the land, a psychological “terra nullis” (McGlasson 2013 : 20).  


McGlasson, Dianne. (2013). A Toothy Tale : Themes of Abjection in John Marsden and Shaun Tans Picture Story Book, The Rabbits. In Lion and the Unicorn, Volume 37, Number 1, January 2013. Pages 20-36.

Do Rozario, Rebecca-Anne. (2011). Australia’s Fairy Tales Illustrated in Print : Instances of Indigeneity, Colonization, and Suburbanization. In Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies, Volume 25, Number 1 (2011). Pages 13-32. Published by Wayne State University Press, Detroit.

Interesting sites

John Marsden's Home site mostly advertising the "Tomorrow" series of young adult books

Youtube video of Shaun Tan in an interview  "Do you encourage open interpretation of your work?"

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