Lindsey VCE Tutoring Highlights

Like a House on Fire | Text Guide and Key Quotes

Synopsis

Like a House on Fire is a collection of short stories, written by Australian author Cate Kennedy. Each short story is set within a contemporary Australian setting, however they all focus on investigating the lives and personalities of different characters. The stories are linked together by their focus on the mundane events of everyday life. Through this narrative choice, Kennedy aims to explore the normality of ordinary characters and settings. The stories are also connected by various thematic links, as Kennedy discusses emotional experiences that are universal to human life. Throughout the collection she investigates the complex nature of human relationships and family dynamics by exploring interactions between characters. Thematically, Kennedy is interested in concepts such as gender roles, parenthood, disconnection and abuse. 

Overall, the stories are generally centred around a small emotional crisis faced by a protagonist. These challenges aim to reflect the challenges experienced by everyday Australians. Although a singular reader may not relate to the specific events of every story, the ideas explored are central to human life.

Note: We have attached a set of revision notes at the end of this blog! Simply scroll down to download the document for revision purposes.

Authorial Intent

Cate Kennedy “tries to create a world that’s a sensory one that [she is] familiar with”, in order to evoke a sense of familiarity in her Australian audience. She strives to depict un-extraordinary characters and events, in order to allow the audience to recognise their own experiences within her stories. When writing her collection, she was inspired by the mundane events taking place around her in Victoria Australia and her own experiences as a mother. Kennedy is able to “recognise the potential of small moments in real life” and creates her narratives around the miniature turning points that she watches people experience. 

Kennedy also attempts to inspire compassion in her readers, by writing her stories in a way which is non-judgmental towards the protagonists. She intends to provide the reader with a sense of hope, despite often focusing her stories on the aftermath of negative events. Overall, she aims to illustrate the strength of human resilience and contends that despite experiencing vast challenges people can find moments of optimism. However, she does not only focus on strength and instead also depicts the imperfection of human life and the flaws in our minds and bodies. In this sense, she is able to create a balance between optimism and despair in her writing. 

Kennedy also intends to comment on social issues present in Australia. She highlights the impacts of our increasingly materialistic society when she depicts children who are immersed in digital technology, so much so that they are losing the ability to play and experience the wonders of the world around them. She is also interested in exploring the impacts of globalisation and commenting on the diverse population of Australia. Finally, she condemns the gender-based power dynamics present in society, by depicting female characters who hold a stereotypically masculine power and dominate the men in their lives.

Key Themes

Gender Roles

Kennedy’s stories are mostly set within domestic spheres. She stresses the sterility or hostile aspect of non-domestic environments (e.g. hospitals) or demonstrates how, in the right hands, these spaces can be comforting and warm. Kennedy also showcases the impacts of gender roles on different characters.

As an exemplification, “Like a House on Fire” tells the narrative of a male who suffers from severe back pain as a result of a workplace mishap. The narrator is humiliated by his inability to work or provide for his family after over sixteen weeks of rehabilitation at home. The protagonist’s shame is inextricably related to a sense of insufficient manhood, according to author Cate Kennedy. The narrator’s physical frailty, inability to play with his children, and failure to support his wife, Claire, have caused him substantial pain. However, the primary cause of his humiliation is his narrow understanding of masculinity. Through this, Kennedy demonstrates that traditional male expectations can do more harm than good.

Sample Textual Analysis:

“I go to the spot I always do, like a beaten dog” p. 77 (Like A House on Fire)

The protagonist nonchalantly likens himself to “a beaten dog”, evoking an imagery of helplessness and feebleness. Through the image of him being subjugated against the savagery of life’s injuries, Kennedy highlights the impacts of his physical immobility. The simile employed also accentuates the protagonist’s loss of masculinity and his discontentment with his inability to fulfil his patriarchal role.

Relationships, Family and Community

Many of the characters in Like a House on Fire feel alienated from their surroundings, family and community. Perhaps this is attributed to the fact they have different aspirations and desires, but it can also be because of the miscommunication they experience. Characters are unable or unwilling to interact honestly with those who are supposed to be closest to them. The characters’ growing silences are generally caused by their fears of not being heard or not being understood, but also because they have little faith in others. Many of these characters strive for a sense of belonging but are unable to fulfil their desires. Ultimately, Kennedy underscores the importance of maintaining nurturing relationships and meaningful connections, and conversely warns against destructive relationships. Many of the characters in these stories do not get along; in fact, some of their relationships are destructive.

Sample Textual Analysis:

“Holding a latte, or holding a phone, but none of them a child’s hand, all of them divested of toddlers and seemingly glad of it” p.155 (Cake)

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Identity

‘Like a House on Fire’ shows that identity is not one-dimensional or simple. It is multifaceted and changes over time depending on the situation or circumstance. Characters in this anthology often lose their sense of identity as a result of the miscommunications that plague their life, as well as their yearning to escape from the domestic sphere or from reality; they feel compelled to behave, think, and act as someone else, and they are frightened to share their true ideas and dreams. This often results in characters conforming to the stereotypes of the roles they play.

Loss and Longing

The theme of loss takes centrality in Kennedy’s short stories and plays a crucial part in the characters’ journey. It is necessary to help the characters reflect upon themselves and make their way through the various hurdles in life. The loss in Kennedy’s short stories may undertake different forms: death, disconnection and isolation.

The protagonist in ‘Ashes’ has suffered multiple losses in his life. Chris’ visit is ostensibly to aid his mother in scattering her husband’s ashes, but there is also a sense of missed opportunity. Chris recalls fishing excursions with his father, moments when he attempted to engage with his son, and how, after numerous efforts at dialogue, his father gave up on trying to connect with him.

Strength and Hope

None of the characters are satisfied with their life as it is now: they feel trapped by events beyond their control and by individuals who impede them from achieving their goals. Characters are disillusioned and discontent – judgemental of their own lives, as well as the lives of those around them, as a result of their unfulfilled desire. While Kennedy implies that her characters are sometimes defeated by their circumstances, she portrays the great array of individuals in her book as largely capable of overcoming adversity. In doing so, Kennedy asserts that the glimmers of hope offered by one’s relationships and accomplishments can help people escape from confinement and entrapment.

Gender RolesRelationships, Family and CommunityIdentityLoss and LongingStrength and Hope
“After almost twenty years of invisibility, the accident gives her an odd kind of glamour” p. 4 (Flexion)“What would it have cost for him to give his father that, instead of a shrug” p. 32 (Ashes)“The person she’d been before birth, in fact, seems like a dopey, thickheaded version of who she’s become now” p. 102 (Five Dollar Family)“I spared him. Kept the news of those two blue lines on the test to myself” p. 215 (Waiting)“On every single one of your new pencils they have stamped the word artist” p. 277 (Seventy Two Derwents)
“Let him go, she imagines herself saying should Frank deteriorate and the hospital staff offer intubation” p. 6 (Flexion)“Links are what you’re after, linked hands, connections, answers, the web like a big stretched safety net” p. 115 (Cross-Country)“It’s as if the cry is pulling a wire through her, all the way up from the stitches” p. 112 (Five Dollar Family)“They don’t bother giving you the actual ultrasound films now. Well, they don’t bother giving them to me, anyhow” p. 214 (Waiting)“I don’t want to get taken away I said, and my voice was all stupid and high and squeaky like a cartoon” p. 270 (Seventy Two Derwents)
“I just can’t stand all this… chaos I can’t do anything about” p. 84 (Like a House on Fire)“The two of us content, just for this perfect moment” p. 56  (Laminex and Mirrors)“You understand, as the camera’s indifferent shutter clicks again, that the sundresses are about you mother, that what you’d seen in her face when you’d asked for the training bra was a tremor of terror, not scorn” p. 152 (Whirlpool)“What they should put in them, thought Roley, is a little brain, something to knock around uselessly in that bubble of fluid as snow swirled down ceaselessly and never stopped, while some big hand somewhere kept on shaking” p. 209 (Little Plastic Shipwreck)“I want to say I hope you are not sad now because you helped me and I tried to be brave like you said and now I think I’m going good” p. 277 (Seventy Two Derwents) 
“I go to the spot I always do, like a beaten dog” p. 77 (Like A House on Fire)“Warmth blooms briefly in her chest, tight and aching like tears” p. 67 (Tender)“You open your eyes and you’re in the middle of it, letting yourself be loose and helpless, staring up at the aching blue of the sky” p. 146 (Whirlpool) “The spreading bruise on her forehead, mulberry dark, radiating from the spot where the skin had split open like someone dropping a melon on concrete” p. 200 (Little Plastic Shipwreck)“It’s amazing, isn’t it, the level to which we’ll invent what we need” p. 125 (Cross Country)
Temper like a rabid dog and a wife who wouldn’t say boo” (Flexion)“Her children, perfect, made with her own once-trustworthy body” p. 70 (Tender)“On every single one of your new pencils they have stamped the word artist” (Seventy-Two Derwents)“Why should he do a damn thing for Sharon?” p. 137 (Sleepers)“She places his hand wordlessly, determinedly, over his heart, and holds it there” (Flexion)
“She catches herself almost revelling in the luxury of eating the first meal someone else has cooked for her in years” (Flexion)“Holding a latte, or holding a phone, but none of them a child’s hand, all of them divested of toddlers and seemingly glad of it” p.155 (Cake)“They don’t bother giving you the actual ultrasound films now. Well, they don’t bother giving them to me, anyhow” (Waiting)“Another thing: these last couple of months, he’d felt this heavy squeezing under his sternum, slowing him down” p. 133 (Sleepers)“The two of us content, just for this perfect moment” (Laminex and Mirrors)
“Fail each week to bring home any sort of paycheck” (Like a House on Fire)“She’s too needy and she knows it” p. 175 (Cake)“Nobody will graffiti anything they feel a sense of ownership and inclusion about” (White Spirit)“He thinks of the kilometres she tries to cover each night on that stationary bike, the endless net surfing she’s done on sperm motility and ovarian cysts, like someone gathering evidence for a case they have to win” p. 233 (Static)“Benign and harmless snap” (Tender)
“Forced to watch my wife and eldest son, aged eight, lugging the Christmas tree we’ve just bought back to the car” (Like a House on Fire)“Then both of them, his mother and Marie, turning the Evil Rays onto him, as if the entire thing is his ideas, his fault, when all he’s done is get out his credit card to pay for the whole bloody shebang” p. 220 (Static)“I thought they’d like it, a mural that showed their communities diversity” (White Spirit)
“People who tell you to get out and move on, they’re standing there in a thick layer of skin, cushioned and comfortable, brimming with their easy cliches like something off a desk calendar” (Cross Country)
“I look at her feeling that small heat building between us…stick by careful stick over the ashes, oxygen and fuel, a controlled burn” (Like a House on Fire)
“You understand, as the camera’s indifferent shutter clicks again, that the sundresses are about you mother, that what you’d seen in her face when you’d asked for the training bra was a tremor of terror, not scorn” (Whirlpool)“That’s what we’re here for. Cultural appropriateness” p. 183 (White Spirit)“You’ve got your own life…they can’t be dictating it” (Cake)“Anthony puts the handset down onto the stones and gazes at the plants, so steely and barbed and implacable, something that even neglect and drought put together can’t seem to kill.” (Static)“You open your eyes and you’re in the middle of it, letting yourself be loose and helpless, staring up at the aching blue of the sky” (Whirlpool)
“She can’t believe how casually her husband, Andrew, can take him” (Cake)“Nobody will graffiti anything they feel a sense of ownership and inclusion about” p. 190 (White Spirit)“You try to brush your hair up and into a ponytail like Louise’s, but it’s too long and lank” (Identity)“That’s the extent of how we communicate these days, in the tiny squeezed and inflamed gap somewhere between slippage and rupture” (Like a House on Fire)“Ardent rush of helpless, terrible love” (Tender)

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