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Tim Winton's model of manhood



One of the challenges that faces any society is how boys will become men. In many societies the passage is mapped and enacted through ritual initiations or through military training.

Tim Winton The Shepherd’s Hut coverIt also periodically causes great anxiety. In Cambodian camps after the Pol Pot years the refugees wanted education above all else. They feared that their children were becoming monsters. In Australia, too, the panic about Sudanese young men and the punitive treatment of boys in the justice system reflect the same anxiety.

The rising number of young men incarcerated for domestic violence, too, points to their stunted view of manhood and to the lack of good role models and of community engagement in their formation to manhood.

Two recent books encourage reflection on different aspects of the passage from boys to men. The centennial history of Newman College in Melbourne underlines the founding mission of the college to form Catholic leaders in the professions and so in public life.

The early students, all male, were privileged in having the opportunity for a university education. One of the themes of the history is the place that humiliating initiations and heavy drinking played historically in the life of the college, as they did in most university colleges. They are seen as recurrent features of the path that boys followed in becoming men.

The narrator in Tim Winton's most recent novel, The Shepherd's Hut, is Jaxi, a boy living in a small Western Australian town. He is regularly bashed by his drunken father, almost friendless, taciturn, violent, at school, and is caught having sex with his cousin, Lee. After discovering his father dead, and fearing he will be blamed for it, he escapes into the bush.

In his struggle to survive he is sustained by his memory of Lee and his hope to join her, and reflects intermittently on his life. Through an edgy relationship with Fintan, an old priest exiled to live in a shepherd's hut, and the rituals of place and daily living, he eventually comes to some awareness of where, what and who he is.


"A central element in the transition of boys to men lies in conceiving and building equal and respectful relationships with young women."


The magic of the book lies in the narrative voice. Jaxi's language is made for conflict — coarse, violent and dismissive. But he is essentially honest and, when he thinks of Lee, tender. As he focuses on survival in the bush he finds words and a rhythm to describe the world around him, and his experiences of thirst, thirst quenched, killing to eat, digging and walking. His exchanges with Fintan, who talks incessantly to avoid self-revelation, enable him also to find words to understand himself and what he wants for his life.

The modelling of manhood offered to Jaxi by his drunken and violent father and to Newman students by initiation rituals and heavy drinking is one of toughness, and taciturnity, where the closest approach to intimacy and connection was through alcohol soaked camaraderie. Jaxi hates his father and his drinking, but learns to endure his beatings and to beat up his peers who lean on him.

The Newman history suggests that initiations interested students only in the first years of college. Older students grew out of it. That may reflect the more mature relationships they had formed with young women as equal human beings, moving beyond the fear and idealising that characterised their entry to university.

This place of relationships to women in the growth to male maturity is echoed in Jaxi's story. The energy for his journey to self-discovery came out of an idealised but tender relationship with Lee, which was both counterpoint and challenge to the violence that marked his other relationships. His resilience and conviction that he was an instrument of God for good were shaped by growing inwardness and self-reflection and put at the service of love. He was in with a chance of finding himself as an adult.

This suggests that a central element in the transition of boys to men lies in conceiving and building equal and respectful relationships with young women. This requires mentoring and modelling by adults, particularly where, like Jaxi, they have grown up in violent and dysfunctional families.

Many of the messages boys receive from media and from their peers is that women are essentially objects for exploitation. The modelling that often shapes their relationships to women and their treatment of them takes the form of violent pornography. It plays into boys' own concealed fears for their own sexuality and capacity to develop relationships. They identify their masculinity with power over women and with violence towards them.

If this is so, public Australian attitudes to vulnerable young men will exacerbate the situation. Few resources are given to help families raise boys and to schools to support them in becoming resilient but not violent, loving but not exploitative, strong but not authoritarian. Instead, they are feared, neglected, locked up and demonised if they behave badly. It is no wonder so many end up in prison. They deserve better of us.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Tim Winton, Brenda Niall, masculinity



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Existing comments

This is a compassionate view of young males' journeys to adulthood. Periodically, headlines in daily papers alert readers to the loutish behaviour of (often) privileged young men residing in university colleges. The initiation ceremonies, the abuse of female students and the disrespect of authority. And certainly, young men often do grow out of this anti-social and damaging behaviour. The young women affected may take much longer to regain trust of men, and a sense of their own self-worth which has been destroyed. I daresay there are many complex reasons why men of all ages are more often incarcerated for violence, and in particular violence towards women. As a society, we do need to take seriously the growth of young men, and equally seriously the young women affected by violence.

Pam | 10 May 2018  

I witnessed the initiation of young men into manhood whilst a "Nasho" in the Army in 1970-71, then whilst at University, 1976-82 and as a teacher in a boys only school in the 1980's and 90's. A culture of heavy drinking was a feature of Army life, particularly during our involvement the Vietnam War, where it was a very serious problem, but not well addressed. In University Colleges, as Andrew observes, heavy drinking was not confined to first years, but extended across the whole cohort. Sporting teams were the major component of the problem, with boozy nights following wins or losses throughout the year, particularly the football teams . There were incidents where female students were assaulted by drunken males, leading to expulsions on a regular basis. Pam is quite correct in her comments. I strongly support her observations. We do have a serious problem with alcohol in this country . The connection between the alcohol industry and sport is very damaging to young people. Sponsorship of sports involving the alcohol industry should be banned. We need to educate young people , particularly boys to the dangers of alcohol as part of their education at school. In the home, fathers should lead by example. Some of our so called sporting heroes have committed serious assaults while intoxicated. They are a very poor role model for our young men.

Gavin | 10 May 2018  

This week's Insight (SBS, Tuesday 8th May, 8:30pm) was an inciteful (sorry) case study in the value of mentoring - of young men and young women - in high school. If mentoring and role-modelling are concepts our society seems to have lost its grasp of, this program reminds us and puts them into very human, and moving, perspective. Available here: https://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/video/1218487875976/insight-teaching-success for a while yet.

Richard Jupp | 10 May 2018  

Andrew, thank you once again for so concisely and sensitively outlining the path. Having had a wonderful example in my own life growing up with the parents I had, I have watched my own children navigate this period of life and turn into strong and gentle parents themselves. I have three sons and two daughters.

David Dignam | 10 May 2018  

My brother, the youngest of four siblings and the only boy, grew up with a father who was a depressive drinker. Dad's drinking made life hellish for all of us, but at least we girls had an excellent model of womanhood living with us. My brother lacked a model of strong and loving manhood, though indeed Dad loved us when his addiction let him. My brother also attended a Catholic boys- only secondary school, where the Brothers weren't famous for gentleness, surely. Yet my brother was not addicted to alcohol or any substance. He married his first serious girlfriend and was a faithful, loving and hardworking husband to her. His three daughters describe him as the perfect father. He died five years ago, granted the 'happy death' we learned about at school, at peace with God and his family, even our father, who, I am sure, met him at the Gates. Yet he always said he was glad he had no sons. He believed he could not have been a successful father to a boy. Andrew's important piece has explained so much about why my baby brother grew into a good and happy man, when so many boys just don't make it. Thank you, Father, from the bottom of my heart.

Joan Seymour | 12 May 2018  

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