‘Man is an exception whatever else he is

‘Man is an exception whatever else he is. If it is not true that a divine creature fell, then we can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head.’
Through the novella, ‘Fly Away Peter’ David Malouf explores the themes of life and its links to the harshness of war through symbolism, characterisation and poetic descriptions of the battlefield. The novella effectively expresses the reality of war on the surface and then leading the reader to understand the continuity of life on a more philosophical level. One of these themes include the significance of the birds and Jim’s attachment and longing towards them. Through his mesmiration of the birds, it is as if Jim is attracted to the quality of something that will not last forever. Through incorporating World War I and its impact on Australian society, Malouf further his writing into analyses of society, idea of life and the remaining side effects of war on the people. The idea of ‘migration’ is explored specifically and is an important symbol of the how the cycle of life will continue on go on- even through unfortunate events and tough times of war. This action represents the idea of ‘peace and unity’ and is shown in the novella through the movement of birds and their migration to a better place and freedom, “It was the presence of the birds, and to find his way back at times to a natural cycle that the birds still followed undisturbed” where the birds are continuing their lives and therefore symbolising the continuity of life
“‘The man is an exception to all other beings in this world; that is, they are either better or worse than animals. Therefore, factors such as religion, ideals, beliefs which are harmless to animals may pose as deadly threats to mankind.
The various forms of symbolism reoccur at different parts of the novella and portray Malouf’s own perspectives towards war and his ideas towards society. The most prominent symbol is the existence of the ‘birds’ and the links to the novella’s main character, Jim. This is also effectively shown when Jim encounters Imogen, who takes photos of the birds, capturing their perfect form and moment on paper. ‘The bird’s passage through its own huddle of heat and energy had been caught for a moment and fixed, maybe forever’ (Malouf 1982; pg 27-28) Imogen clearly understands that as time passes on, the cycle of life must also continue- but in that moment, taking the photograph was her way of keeping that perfect moment of the sandpiper both on paper and in her memories forever.
Although the two were not acquainted with each other beforehand, their common interest in the sandpiper is the desire to understand the true meaning of life and purpose. The idea of birds are stereotypically associated with the idea of freedom and life as suggested in the novella- therefore it is also apparent that despite the war leading to countless deaths, chaos and misery, the birds overcome these factors and live on the way nature intended them to.
After experiencing war, the symbols that represent the longevity and continuity of life is shown through various aspects. This includes signs in the early stages of war when Jim discovers the presence of life and the tiniest hint of normality, ‘even here, in the thick of fighting, there were birds’ (Malouf 1982: pg 106) Even through these conditions, the miraculous survival of life is truly astonishing to Jim and comforts his own minds during the stages of war. It reassures his own sense of mind that the cycle of life is still continuing.
Malouf allows the reader to understand this idea of life right until the very end through his characterisation of Imogen and the description of the waves. “She watched the waves build, hang and fall, one after the other in decades’ (Malouf 1982; pg 132) This passage links the movement of waves to the passage of human life- how life runs in a cycle, rises to its peak and eventually falls back into the ocean to an end. This suggests to idea of death but it not being the end of one’s soul. The cycle is repeated over and over each person lives out their life to its full potential. This allows both the reader and Imogen time to process Jim’s death and relate to him when that time comes.
All these elements allow the reader to gain an insight into Jim’s personal thoughts of war and his perception about its existence during that time in society. The main idea presented is the concept that life is an every lasting cycle, with its peaks and the eventual downfall- regardless of any external factors there may be. In the novella, everything regenerates; not only the physical form but also in the spiritual sense. The way that birds migrate to another place and are replaced by new flocks every year, the old man unaffected by war conditions and how Jim’s spiritual form comes alive on the surfer through the eyes of Imogen.
In contrast to the idea of the contintuity of life, the rats syhmbolise the opposite of idea of brutality and sufferings associated with war. Ontop of being present in the war, they were another enemy Jim and the other soldiers had to deal with during the war.
During war back then, digging symbolised a grave and during the short period of Jim’s consciousness right before his death, he meets Clancy, the first signal that death was near. Clancy asks him to dig, which follows the assumption that Jim was going to join his friend in heaven. ‘That’s the style! Dig! When you are buried you are returned to the earth, and hence returned to the stone. This is part of the continuos cycle of life.’ This further foreshadows the ending and completes the life cycle as well the key idea Moulaf is portraying.
‘It was comforting to see the familiar creatures and to see they were hardly touched by the activity around them’ (Malouf 1982; pg 62)