Analysis of ‘The People Before’ by Maurice Shadbolt

The People Before by Maurice Shadbolt

Analysis of ‘The People Before’ by Maurice Shadbolt


Analysis of ‘The People Before’ by Maurice Shadbolt – Maurice Shadbolt is a well known New Zealand writer whose works are popular with readers even today. His stories are all based in New Zealand and seek to interpret the various influences that have gone into the making of the country. The conflict between the Europeans and the Maori find frequent resonance in his works.

Relevance of the Title

“The people before”, though not in the story as characters, influence much of the story and the attitude of the characters. The father has no time to think of them except when Jim displays the greenstone adzes. Even then the father does not relate to the “people before”; his thought is only about how much they could be worth. The people before were so intimately connected to the land that they have carried the old man to the spot where he was born so that he could see it one more time before dying. The narrator’s father on the other hand frequently talks of selling the farm when the going gets tough. The land is just something that he owns and puts to work.

Main Themes

The main theme in this story is the cultural differences of people and their divergent attitude to land. The narrator’s father has bought the land as he did not want to work as a sharemilker like his father did in his youth. It was the thought of his land that kept him going through the First World War when he was fighting in the trenches in Gallipoli. But in spite of this, he does not have an intimate bond with the land. When things turn grim during the Depression, he is ready to sell out and move elsewhere.

Between the two brothers too there is much difference. Jim is the more sensitive one; he has a special feeling for the land. The narrator, on the other hand is more like his father and he too does not quite understand why the Maoris have brought the old man to the hill. Both brothers were in the Second World War but while the elder one did not find anything to focus on, memories of the farm “the place of happy return” were a source of solace to Jim.

Characters –

The father

The father is a major character in the story. There is much to admire in him. It had been his dream to own land and it is this dream that sustained him while fighting in Gallipoli. Back from war, he works really hard to make the land yield. He expects his sons to be strong and manly like him. He does not quite understand his younger son Jim who seems to prefer the indoors and his mother’s company more.

Father has no special feeling for the land he farms and when things are not good during the Depression, he thinks of selling out. He thinks of the material worth of things more than their intrinsic worth. See how he speaks again and again of the money that adzes could fetch. It the arrival of the Maoris, with the old man, that confounds him the most. They seem to have spiritual bonding with the hill behind the farm, whereas for him, the hill has been just a wild place that does not produce anything.

The elder son

The elder son is cast in the mould of the father. He is not quite as insensitive as the father is but almost there. Sometimes he too does not understand his father’s views but tries to offer explanations for why he thinks that way. He looks at things in a dispassionate way without passing judgment on either his father or his brother. Elder son says that Jim was his mother’s boy and he is his father’s. He too does not have strong feelings for the land that he helps his father to farm; when he sought for something to focus on during the war, the farm, the place of happy returns does not suggest itself. When Jim says that he used to focus on the farm, he is jealous that Jim is able to love land in a way he cannot.


Jim is the younger son of the family. His life and interests are not bound by the farm. He connects with the land and is curious about the “people before”. He collects relics and tries to find out about their rightful owners. Jim has no interest in finding out about the greenstone adzes nor does he try to sell them. He accompanies the Maoris when they go up the hill to let the old man connect once again with the land of his birth. For Jim, the farm has really been Te Wahiokoahoki, the place of happy returns. Though the elder brother spent more time actually working the land, it is Jim who had bonded with it.


The story is about an unnamed family that buys a farm that has not been prosperous. The father has always been keen on owning land as he has seen his father work as a sharemilker on other people’s land. There are two boys in the family. The elder one is rather like his father who enjoys the outdoors and the hard work of the farm. Jim, the younger one is rather weak and he prefers to be inside with his mother. The father farms only the flat land leaving the hills beyond, which were his, to run wild.

Jim and his brother go wandering on Sundays. Jim explores the caves near the river and finds some jade adzes inside. Once he finds a human skull too which must have belonged to a Maori who had lived there long ago. When the father sees the adzes, he wonders only about how much they could be worth.

The Depression is soon on them and the father finds farming less profitable now. He wonders about selling the land and moving but plods on. One day, a group of Maori arrive there. They have brought with them an old man who had been born on the hill behind long ago. He is close to death and desires to see once again the land of his birth. The father cannot comprehend why anyone would want to do that. Jim is however impressed and accompanies them to the hill. When he comes back he tells the family how the Maoris had lived there for generations until the whites came and drove them away. The father now begins to understand what land means to some people.

The boys go away to WW II. The father sells the farm and moves to closer to the town. When the war is over, the boys return. Jim goes to the University while his brother joins the father on the farm. Once when discussing the War, the elder brother says that he had no fond memories to focus on in the battlefield but Jim says that for him, the old farm was just that, a place of happy returns. His bother feels jealous about Jim’s happy memories.

Summary –

The story is about a family that moves into a farm that they buy cheap as it has not been productive. For the father owning land had been a compulsion as his father had not owned land but worked as a laborer. Of the two boys in the family, the older one, who is the narrator, is the outdoorsy kind, much like the father. The younger boy is not sturdy and he prefers the company of his mother and spends more time inside the house. It’s hard work milking the herd and the father cultivates only the flat land considering the hills behind a nuisance.

Jim and his elder brother roam the countryside exploring caves on Sundays. Once, Jim finds greenstones adzes and also a human skull in the caves. He leaves the skull behind but brings home the adzes. The boys surmise that at some time Maoris must have inhabited those parts. When the father sees the adzes later his only thought is how much they could be worth. He does not consider the possibility of the land having belonged to the Maoris.

When the Depression is on them, the father finds the farm to be less profitable and he considers the prospect of setting it and moving. He stays on, not because any special love he feels for the land but because he has invested money and labor on it. One day a group of Maoris visit the farm. They carry with them, in a litter, an old man. They say that, the old man, a tribe elder was born on the hills behind the farm when the land belonged to the Maoris. He wishes now, when he is close to death, to see the place of his birth once again.

The father is thoroughly perplexed but Jim is understanding and offers them the greenstone adzes which he believes belonged to the tribe. The Maoris depart to the hills with the old man. Jim goes with them. Sometime during the night the old man dies and his people bury him on the mountain. Jim comes home with an account of how the Maoris lived in the area until the whites came in and defeated them. But they still consider this land to be their home. The father now begins to comprehend what land means to some people.

The boys go to the Second World War. The father sells the farm and moves closer to the cities. The boys return after war and Jim leaves for the University while the older boy joins his father on their new farm. Once during a discussion about coping with war, the elder brother says he had no happy memories to focus on during war. But Jim says, for him, their old farm was Te Wahiokoahoki, the place of happy return. The brother feels jealous that he could never feel that way.

Metaphorical Inferences

The story suggests that settlers do not share the collective history of the land.

The language is easy and conversational. The use of first person narrative gives the story intimacy and directness.

Important quotes

1. Everything went well; he had the place almost paid off by the time of the depression. ‘I never looked back, those years,’ he said long afterwards. It was characteristic of him not to look back. He was not interested in who had the farm before him. He had never troubled to inquire.
These words sum the father’s attitude to the land he owned. He was not interested in its history. All he wanted was to make the farm profitable. He worked day and night on it to make it pay. Beyond that he had no interest. It could not be said that he was bound to the land in any way.

2. I remained my father’s and I wouldn’t have exchanged him for another father. I liked seeing him with people, a man among men.
The father expected both sons to help out in the running of the farm. They were up very early in the morning, winter or summer, milking the cows, making sure the cream went to the dairy. Both of them were sleepy in the afternoon at school and nodded off during lessons. Jim, the younger son was not as heavily built as the narrator; by the end of the day, he looked worn out. So the narrator did the lion’s share of the work, sending Jim inside the house while he carried on.

The father disapproved of this saying it would only make Jim a softy. He hated people who were not tough like him. Jim came to be his mother’s son, spending more time with her. But the narrator was happy to be his father’s son. He admired the strength of his father though the father could be a bully. The father was mentally and physically strong and could hold his own among other men.

3. He paused and looked at the stones again. Yes’, he added, ‘I reckon that’s greenstone, all right. You never know, might be some money in that stuff.
Jim and his elder brother used to go exploring on Sundays. Jim was particularly interested in looking inside the caves along the river. He had at some time found greenstone adzes inside them which he surmised would have belonged to Maoris at sometime. When the father saw the adzes, he was only casually interested in the antiquity of the stones. But he spoke about how much money they could fetch if they were sold. Just as with his land, the father was interested only in the present. He did not bother about history.

4. He had no pride left in him for the place. If he could have got a price for the farm, he would have gone. But there was no question of a price. He could have walked off it if he liked.
The Depression affected them just it affected just like it affected many other families. The price of land fell to nothing; there were no buyers for anything. People abandoned their farms because it made no sense to cultivate things for which there were no buyers. The father began losing interest in the farm which had been his pride. He became despondent. He still slaved away but only out of habit. Increasingly, he felt he had been a failure as a farmer. The son feels depressed when he sees his father like this.

5. ‘Te Wahiokoahoki,’ Tom said. It means the place of happy return. It got the name when we returned here after our victories against other tribes.
One day a group of Maoris come to the farm. They were carrying an old man in a litter. They say that they are part of the tribe that had lived in that area for centuries. The old man who was a tribe elder wanted to once again see the land of his birth before he died. That’s why they had undertaken the arduous journey. The young man in the group says that the overgrown hill behind the farm had been their pa, a sacred place. The farm had been the scene of many battles between tribes. The tribe called the hill Te Wahiokoahoki, the place of happy return, as they often came back there, after being victorious in battles.

6. I felt the dismay of a long distance runner who, coasting confidently to victory, imagining himself well ahead of his field, finds himself overtaken and the tape snapped at the very moment he leans forward to breast it.
The elder brother had been the “father’s boy” working on the farm alongside the father. But like the father he had no special feeling for the land that he farmed. During the Second World War, he found that he had no happy memories to focus on whereas his brother Jim, who had spent less time on the farm, found that he had happy memories of the farm which to him was Te Wahiokoahoki, a place of happy return. The elder brother feels cheated and jealous of his brother.


1. Why was the father able to buy the farm “for a song”? Why was the father keen on buying land?
2. The mother was a shadowy creature who is heard less and less as the story goes on. Yet one remembers as a person more cultured than her husband. Substantiate your answer with quotes.
3. The arrival of the Maori group is a shock for the father. Why is this so?
4. In what ways were the father and the elder son similar? Quote lines that typify each character.
5. How does the Depression affect the father?
6. The mother remains a shadowy person most of the time. What does the author say about her character?