This is an introductory essay about the memoir "Romulus, My Father" by Raimond Gaita. The essay was published as part of the Copyright Agency's "Reading Australia" initiative.
"In a critical moment of reflection and pause, Romulus, My Father offers the reader a key to its interpretation. The author – philosopher Raimond Gaita – tells us that ‘Plato said that those who love and seek wisdom are clinging in recollection to things they once saw’. This reference to the Greek philosopher’s work Phaedrus occurs when the boy Raimond is about eight years old. He seems already to understand much about his father, in particular his father’s goodness, which he finds expressed in his workmanship, his honesty, and his commitment to friends. And yet, as Plato forewarns us, a search for the ultimate wisdom of such things must come later – several decades on, when Gaita is faced with the task of writing his father’s eulogy. It is then that a sense of his father’s character is joined to his own search for wisdom, a combination of biography and reflection that marks the memoir form at its best, and shapes the ultimate impact of Romulus, My Father...."--publisher website
The writer’s craft
Even life stories follow a plot – often this is chronological as we see in this book, but given that the book is written after the events have occurred, it is from a perspective of experience and of reflection where events are seen in a new way with the benefit of hindsight.
Find comments and references that show that the author is looking back and reassessing events with new insights.
This book may be called Romulus, My Father and may start and end with the father but it is also a story of the son, the author. It is an attempt to make sense of a life through a highly significant father-son relationship.
In many ways the plot operates as two parallel plots; we hear two stories – the story of the father and the story of the son. Construct two columns and map out the specific events of the two plots. A brief overview is offered below:
Genre: a tragic plot
The author makes clear that he was attracted by tragedies as a child and in many ways the story of Romulus can be seen as a tragedy. Raimond Gaita writes:
[T]ragedy, with its calm pity for the affliction it depicts, was the genre that first attracted my allegiance: I recognised in it the concepts that had illuminated events of my childhood. They enabled me to see Mitru, my mother, my father and Vacek, living among his boulders, as the victims of misfortune, in their different ways broken by it, but never thereby diminished. That is why my heart broke when I saw my father in the ward… shrunken and bewildered. (pp. 124–125)
He sees his personal setting as part of the tragedy when he comments that:
Religion, metaphysics or the notions of fate and character as they inform tragedy are suited to that light and landscape [in Frogmore]. (p. 124)
Another essential element of the classical Aristotelian model of tragedy is Fate and if we read the book closely we see this is clearly part of the life story. In Chapter 1 (which can act as an epilogue to the story) the grandmother sees a vision of Christina’s future in that, ‘This child I am carrying will suffer.’ (p. 8). Later, in his moments of mental instability, Romulus becomes obsessed with what the omens tell him to do (p. 142). Whether Romulus has a flaw (hamartia) or not is open for discussion. Is he too proud? Perhaps his flaw is his lack of self-knowledge (anagnorisis). Self-knowledge is an understanding that typically tragic heroes need to reach, but in this case the author questions the ‘lack of self-knowledge’ in a man who was otherwise so ‘scrupulously honest’:
Despite the paradoxical nature of the fact that the same man can simultaneously be deceiver and deceived, the concept of self-deception goes so deep in our culture that it never occurred to me that someone might simply not possess it. … In a man for whom truthfulness mattered so much this was a pathetic state of affairs. (p. 147)
That Romulus, My Father can be read as tragedy is made even clearer by reading Arthur Miller’s essay on ‘The Tragedy of the Common Man’. Miller explains the connections between the traditional and the modern views of tragedy and extends the idea of the classical tragic hero, from a ruler or high ranking aristocrat, to a tragic hero befitting our modern age, the common man. What Miller sees as the defining feature of the tragic hero is that he ‘demonstrates the indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity’. If we accept Miller’s definition that tragedy is ‘the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly’, then we see clearly that Romulus’ life as drawn by his son Raimond is a tragedy. Romulus’ insistence on character as the measurement of a man’s worth, especially as this is applied to himself, fits in with Miller’s description of the tragic hero.
Miller also insists that, unlike the modern definition of tragedy as an event ‘of necessity allied to pessimism’, or as ‘a story with a sad or unhappy ending’, that ‘in truth tragedy implies more optimism’. Tragedy, he argues is ‘the belief-optimistic, if you will, in the perfectibility of man.’ To see this story as a ‘sad’ story ignores the very positive ‘optimism’ that is clear at all stages of the book. The tragedy becomes a celebration of humanity, because it shows the strength of the individual to maintain integrity in difficult circumstances.
Tasks for students
The Classical Greek tragedy appears more rigid in its structure and dramatic conventions than Romulus my Father. It is worth, however, mapping the plot of the memoir against the classic tragic plot. Use these definitions of tragedy and the graph of Aristotle’s understanding of tragedy to answer the questions below.
|Classical Tragedy||Modern ideas of tragedy||Arthur Miller’s definition|
|Story of a great man who has fallen from power because of a flaw and his story follows a predetermined pattern.||Story with sad ending about loss.||Story of the struggle of humanity with a sense of optimism.|
- Find out what the terms on the tragic plot mean and then map out the events of Romulus’ life against the Aristotelian tragic structure graph. Do you agree that this book can be seen as a Greek tragedy?
- Now consider the stories of Raimond and Christina – map out their lives against the graph. To what extent can their stories be regarded as part of the tragedy?
- Do you think the book offers us, as Miller says ‘the belief-optimistic, if you will, in the perfectibility of man.’
- Go to the notes from Richard Roxburgh who directed the film of Romulus, My Father. He writes ‘We follow the boy’s journey through seemingly insuperable tragedy’. Why does he think this is a tragedy? Does this fit in with Miller’s or Aristotle’s definition of tragedy?
NB: Gaita discusses the idea of tragedy and Roxburgh’s interpretation of the book as such in his essay ‘From Book to Film’ in After Romulus. He states, ‘Seen from the perspective of a tragic sensibility, the film invites us to sorrow for Christina in considerable part because of the nature of her morally-toned sufferings, just as the classical Greek tragedy invites us to sorrow over Oedipus, the blameless wrongdoer.’ (p. 162)
Characters and characterisation
Characters in novels imitate real life – they are created through characterisation, the attribution of human qualities as responses to events and other characters, to explore an aspect of humanity.
As a memoir, the characters are based on real people; but even life writing borrows from the creativity of fiction. People are seen as representing values, so events and relationships are selected to illustrate those values that the author wants us to see in the person being depicted. In After Romulus, Gaita acknowledges the importance of values in Romulus, My Father, which he says ‘is written in a narrative genre that is shaped by the perspective determined by my father’s values’. For example, most of the people close to the Gaita family are described as ‘educated’ which clearly becomes a value that Gaita is conveying in his book. His father loved learning but ‘missed out on a scholarship because of a poor postal service’ (p. 3), his mother was ‘well-educated’ and studying chemistry (p. 6), the two Hora brothers were also ‘well-educated’ (p. 14) – even Vacek is well-educated ‘for the times’ (p. 67).
In this book, an even more important measurement of the worth of a person is their moral values. Raimond Gaita’s account of his father is very much about a man of integrity who maintained his self-respect by abiding by an unwritten set of rules about good and honest behaviour.
- Students complete the diagram below to build up a picture of Romulus Gaita.
- Students can work in groups and focus on two chapters per group and then share their findings so the table is comprehensive.
|Quotation from book||What this shows about the character|
3. When the table is completed students write a paragraph about the way Romulus has been represented in the text.
4. Students form groups. Using the same table, each group focuses closely on another character, choosing from Christina, Mitru, Hora, Vacek, Raimond, and shares their findings. They synthesise their information to answer the question: What aspects of character does each of the characters represent?
5. The growth of Raimond from a boy is very much at the heart of the book. As the book progresses he says, ‘my relationship with my father had changed because I had asserted my independence’ (p. 155). Students should trace Raimond’s growth and the impact of other people on him.
To be a person of Character
Like many words in English the word character can have very different meanings. As well as an imitation of real people, we can use the word character as a value and it is this sense of the word that Gaita uses to describe his father and what his father valued. To be regarded as a man of character is, for Romulus, the highest form of praise. It is about integrity and living by worthy principles. This belief in character links Romulus with his friend Hora, who occupies a great deal of the book.
1. What is character?
Assessing character: Thinking first of their own ideals and then Romulus’ ideals, students could consider the actions and attitudes below and decide whether they are a mark of character or not.
|Attributes/actions||Is this ‘character’ according to you? Yes/no||Is this ‘character’ according to Romulus? Yes/no|
|To feed your children before yourself.|
|To give to others who need it more than you.|
|To struggle to get a good job for yourself.|
|To study hard.|
|To find the best in people.|
|To constantly criticise others.|
|To be proud of your work.|
|To be suspicious of others.|
|To stand by your promises.|
Exploring the text and the concept of character
- What concept of character emerges from these quotations from the book?
- Like most Europeans he believed the basic elements of character were inherited (p. 48)
- [Christina] a characterless woman (p. 89)
- Many times he told me there are few things more important than a good name. (p. 99)
- I have never known anyone who lived so passionately, as did these two friends (Romulus and Hora), the belief that nothing matters so much in life as to live it decently. … they longed for a community of honourable men and women who humbly but without humbug, knew their own worth and the worth of others. (p. 101)
- Character… was the central moral concept for my father and Hora. … Honesty, loyalty, courage, charity (taken as preparedness to help others in need) and a capacity for hard work were the virtues most prized by the men and women I knew then. (pp. 101–2)
- They expressed a suspicion of personality because they beloved it to be superficial and changeable. (p. 102)
- …something stable and deep in a person (p. 102)
- Students can then find examples of actions Romulus does, or things he says that illustrate his idea of character.
Setting: a sense of place
The setting in this book is much more than just about place and time. It is through setting that Raimond first realises his own identity. It is also through landscape that rare moments of exclusion are felt by Romulus. Gaita describes his father’s lack of understanding for the landscape:
Though the landscape is one of rare beauty, to a European or English eye it seems desolate, and even after more than forty years my father could not become reconciled to it. (p. 14)
He also shares the first realisation of a world that was different to his father’s:
I had absorbed my father’s attitude to the countryside, especially to its scraggy trees, because he talked so often of the beautiful trees of Europe. But now, for me, the key to the beauty of the native trees lay in the light which so sharply delineated them against a dark blue sky. Possessed of that key, my perception of the landscape radically changed as when one sees the second image in an ambiguous drawing. The scraggy shapes and sparse foliage actually became the foci for my sense of beauty and everything else fell into place – the primitive hills, the unsealed roads with their surfaces ranging from white through yellow to brown, looking as though they had been especially dusted to match the high, summer-coloured grasses. The landscape seemed to have a special beauty, disguised until I was ready for it; not a low and primitive form for which I had to make allowances, but subtle and refined. It was as though God had taken me to the back of his workshop and shown me something really special.…The experience transformed my sense of life and the countryside, adding to both a sense of transcendence. (p. 61)
… paradoxically, perhaps, this encounter with a transcendent natural beauty drove me deeper into the world of books (p. 62)
Ask students to:
- Find descriptions of places in the book and how they affected the characters.
- Include: school, Frogmore, Maryborough, Melbourne.
- Consider what aspects of personality they see in the way people react to each landscape (e.g. where Vlacek chooses to live and why.)
- Use the photograph of Frogmore (1963 reproduced with the permission of Raimond Gaita) that appears below. How similar or different is it to what they have just read or imagined?
Frogmore, 1963 (reproduced with the permission of Raimond Gaita)
In the discussion on character, we see the importance of education in identifying like-minded people. Education becomes an important act of transformation, removing Raimond Gaita, the boy, from the world of Romulus to the different world of Raimond Gaita, the philosopher – implicit through the context of the author but also made clear through repeated comments on what was learnt. The learning, however, is not from school, but primarily from the two men Romulus and Hora.
Students can complete these sentences on what was learned.
From my father and from Hora I acquired .………………………………………………(p. 106)
Hora’s stories to me were always of .………………………………………………………..(p. 71)
I owe to Hora .………………………………………………………………………………………….(p. 72)
I learnt from them the …………………………………………………………………………..(p. 72–3)
From him I learned …………………………………………………………………………………..(p. 98)
He read, as few people do, with an…………………………………………………………..(p. 73)
Have students explore their own beliefs and attitudes about education. Invite them to think about important educational influences in their life and what they have learned from parents, friends, teachers and others. They could then express their views in a thesis statement that can be explored in depth. Based on this statement they could write a blog on the topic using an anecdote and personal experiences to support their ideas.
Truth and honesty
Is the truth always the right thing?
Can we believe the truth and not be truthful about ourselves?
The concept of truth is an important one in the book, presented by Romulus as an ideal to live by; but as the book progresses, Raimond Gaita starts to interrogate Romulus’ definition of truth which fails to include self-knowledge.
Add any relevant quotations or events to the list below and consider what Raimond Gaita is saying about truth and its relationship to our lives.
But you must not lie. That is worse than any damage you may do. (p. 49)
I knew that my father valued truthfulness above most things. (p. 50)
Three things fed my father’s anger: his knowledge that I was lying, his fear for my character and his dismay that he had lost something precious. (p. 50)
Despite the paradoxical nature of the fact that the same man can simultaneously be deceiver and deceived, the concept of self-deception goes so deep in our culture that it never occurred to me that someone might simply not possess it…In a man for whom truthfulness mattered so much this was a pathetic state of affairs. (p. 147)
[Hora and Romulus] were men for whom not to falsify had become a spiritual demeanour. (p. 148)
What does Romulus’ position on truth show about his character?
Students could choose one of the following themes and trace it through the book and represent it in a visual or graphic form with a clear statement about what the text is saying about that theme.
- Suffering: people argue whether suffering ennobles. (p. 172)
- The differences between religion and spiritualism.
- The impact of mental illness There is no sickness worse than mental illness. (p. 140)
- The importance of pride in one’s work.
- The importance of character.
- The nature of memory.
Exploring your own moral world
1. Read the article: ‘What is decency?’ by Springer and consider what ‘decency’ isfor you.
2. The Pinterest site on ‘Ethics and Decency’ has some interesting pins. Find one pin that:
- stands out for you and that you believe in;
- another that conforms to the ethics expressed in Romulus, My Father; and,
- one that you don’t find adequate.
Share these with a partner, explaining your choice to arrive at a joint statement of an ethical position for our time.
3. Together, or individually, prepare your own pin based on this statement. Use an attractive visual design to make it stand out and construct a Pinterest board on the wall at school to display your combined beliefs.
4. Using the class Pinterest as a stimulus, write a narrative using the actions and ideas of a character to illustrate an ethical idea.