The river and flood 

The river and flood depicted in “Rainbow’s End” are potent symbols, encapsulating the characters’ constant battle against nature’s forces and societal prejudices. The drama starts with a vivid account of a flood, a catastrophe the family bravely withstands and recovers from. The flood is portrayed as an immediate and palpable disruption: “She wails like a banshee. Rain, thunder, darkness. Time passes… The waters rise” (Act One). This vivid imagery presages the challenges ahead while also representing the unpredictable disruptions triggered by nature and their societal counterparts experienced by Aboriginal communities.

Following the flood, the characters’ resilience surfaces as Gladys confronts their ruined humpy, where everything is “saturated and muddy,” signifying their impacted home life and a wider reflection of their resilient spirit (Act Two, Scene One). As Nan Dear guides a shell-shocked Dolly out from the humpy, the “cup of billy tea” she offers symbolises more than just nourishment; it signifies emotional support and the enduring instinct for survival embedded within their family and culture (Act Two, Scene One).

The river, in the context of “Rainbow’s End,” is twofold: holding life-giving attributes and symbolizing danger and instability. The flood emerges as a theme for the adversities faced by the characters, with their perseverance mirroring their larger struggle against the overwhelming forces of racial bias and social exclusion. This flood symbolism underscores that while the family finds itself facing forces beyond its control—be it capricious nature or institutionalized discrimination—their unyielding resilience solidifies their connection. Despite the odds, they adapt, persist, and continue their journey.

The humpy

In “Rainbow’s End,” the humpy is much more than a simple shelter, it symbolizes the Aboriginal family’s resilience, bond to their land, and socioeconomic circumstances. Described as a “rough dwelling; a bush hut made from found materials” (Back Matter), the humpy is an emblem of the family’s resourcefulness and adaptability. For them, the humpy is constructed from whatever is available, reflecting their economic restrictions and systemic marginalization.

However, the humpy represents more than just an economic struggle; it holds cultural resonances. This humble dwelling is the setting for intimate family moments, the site where they maintain traditional practices, and the place where they stand their ground against interference from the government inspector evaluating their living conditions. When they are ultimately forced to leave their humpy for the manufactured houses of the Rumbalara housing estate, their loss is not just material; it’s deeply cultural: “From riverbank humpy to white house is quite a step” (p. 2). This imposed move mirrors past displacements and symbolizes the wider colonial influences on Aboriginal existence and lands.

Accordingly, the humpy in “Rainbow’s End” serves as a focal point depicting the characters’ battles against financial hardships, prejudiced attitudes, and attempts to dilute their culture. Within and around this makeshift structure take place significant encounters with their harsh reality, making it a dominant motif in the narrative. The humpy, embodying notions of temporary solution and adaptation, signifies the collision between the family’s tenacity and the daunting conditions they face in a society that often relegates them to the margins.

The white gloves and the dress

The white gloves and the dress in “Rainbow’s End” hold significant symbolic weight, representing the characters’ aspirations for social acceptance and the pressures associated with conforming to an imposed societal standard influenced by colonial values. These items, brought into focus by the anticipated event of the Queen’s visit, embody the characters’ attempts to align with mainstream norms, reflecting their negotiation between their Aboriginal identity and the broader Australian social expectations.

Gladys’s quest for respect and social recognition is embodied in her ambition to present herself and Dolly appropriately during the Queen’s visit. The white gloves she desires to wear symbolize an acceptance of Western aesthetics and manners, serving as an attempt to attain a standard of refinement set by colonial society.

The significance of these symbols deepens as they elucidate the tension between the characters’ authentic selves and their attempts to navigate a society that values adherence to Western norms. Gladys’s efforts culminate in a long and redirecting walk, holding a wilted bouquet of flowers and returning home in a state of exhaustion. Her wilted state, as she “plonks down in the only chair” in their humpy, echoes the draining impact of her attempt to conform to societal expectations (p. 4). The wilted flowers, perhaps intended for the Queen or to mark their participation in the grand event, become a symbol of deflated hopes in the face of daunting racial and economic realities.

Further, Gladys’s discomfort in borrowed shoes reveals the discomfort and misfit experienced when attempting to fit into norms that were not meant for them: “Oh my feet! Remind me never to borrow Aunty’s shoes again” (p. 4). The unease linked to the ill-fitting shoes signifies the broader narrative – the discomfort and dislocation Aboriginal people experience when donning cultural facades which aren’t inherently theirs.

In “Rainbow’s End,” the white gloves, dress, wilted flowers, and borrowed shoes are far more profound than mere articles of clothing or accessories. They stand charged with cultural aspirations and express the characters’ resilience in asserting their identity and value in the face of societal marginalisation.

The bulldozers

The bulldozers, in “Rainbow’s End,” work as potent symbols of governmental power, reflecting the control and influence authorities had on the lives of Aboriginal people. The announcement of bulldozers is not merely disruptive; it symbolizes the erasure of a way of life for the family, imposing on them a foreign structure – “From riverbank humpy to white house is quite a step” (Scene Two). This uninvited intervention showcases the government’s push for Aboriginal housing ‘solutions’ that, in truth, tear at the heart of their connection to the land and their cultural destination.

This forceful implementation is made palpable through the sounds of the bulldozers, emphasizing the cultural upheaval experienced by the family. As Gladys and Nan Dear “hold their humble possessions as the sound of the bulldozers is heard,” the oncoming change jarring and inescapable, the audience is confronted with the violation of the characters’ personal space and heritage (Scene Two). The bulldozer symbolises not just the demolition of their home, but a broader narrative of Aboriginal people’s struggles, wherein cultural autonomy is consistently undermined. 

While the government may present these prefab houses as an initiative to solve Aboriginal housing, the bulldozers in the play reveal the harsh reality of such ‘solutions’ – that they are, indeed, systematic disruptions of Aboriginal autonomy and culture. The bulldozer, then, embodies the tension between heritage and forced assimilation, highlighting the resilience needed to endure these myriad external pressures. 

Through “Rainbow’s End,” we see characters are persistently forced to adapt, maintain, and sustain their identities amidst the constant threat of cultural erosion, epitomized by the ominous presence of the bulldozers.

The spirit tree

In Jane Harrison’s “Rainbow’s End,” the biyala, or spirit tree, is a critical symbol that represents the Aboriginal characters’ deep connection to their traditional cultural identity and ancestry. This link is underscored as Nan Dear explains the concept of the biyala to Dolly, who is working on a school project to create a family tree. In contrast to the Western-style linear, paper-based family tree, the biyala is a living symbol of the family’s intergenerational ties, embodied in nature itself: “Tree? You mean the biyala? Spirit tree branches hanging low over the river?” (p. 31).

The biyala, with its branches hanging protectively over the river, is not merely a tree. It represents a spiritual bond to their ancestry, encapsulating the Aboriginal community’s long-standing relationship with nature and community. Unlike a flat, rigid family tree diagram, the biyala’s organic, branching form conveys the interconnectedness of familial relationships and the continuous flow of cultural heritage.

The spirit tree also stands as a symbol of refuge and continuity amidst the changes and challenges faced by the characters. It embodies the legacy that Nan Dear, Gladys, and Dolly carry forward—an unbroken lineage grounded in ancestral wisdom and the protection of the spirit tree.

By incorporating the biyala into the narrative, “Rainbow’s End” elevates the story beyond a simple account of the protagonist’s lives. It speaks to the deep-seated spiritual and cultural elements at the heart of Aboriginal identity. This interweaving of cultural symbolism and character exploration deepens the audience’s understanding of Aboriginal culture, asserting its permanence and significance amidst societal pressures of assimilation and change.