In addition to the amount of detail afforded to hands, two items provide
grounds for examining the motif further. First, the act of holding hands
is given thematic weight in the novel's beginning and ending, which blur
together to give the story an intentionally circular shape. In the prologue,
which could be more aptly characterized as the epilogue from a different
point of view, Kerewin joins Joe and Simon:
But for now there is the sun at her back, and home here, and
the free wind all round.
And them, shuffling ahead in the strange-paced dance. She quickens
her steps until she has reached them.
And she sings as she takes their hands. (3)
The significance of Kerewin's action is not clear upon first reading
but the tone of the passage indicates happiness and some type of resolution.
Even without the context that the story provides later, the passage connects
hand-related imagery with thematic impact near the beginning of the story.
The connection calls attention to the hand-related images and messages
that follow, which are further emphasized when Kerewin is puzzled
by Simon's gestures to Joe. She thinks, "You need eyes like
an archerfish, able to see what happens on two planes at once. One
set for watching the hands, and the other for watching whatever it is he
mouths" (53). Kerewin's observation could serve as an apt instruction
to the reader, who can infer nearly as much from hand movements as
Of the three main characters, Simon uses his hands to communicate in
the most obvious way. He uses a self-devised form of sign language to compensate
for his inability to speak. Like Joe and Kerewin, though, Simon also
uses his hands to communicate in more subtle ways. The boy shuns the grasp
of people he doesn't like or trust but is quick to take the Joe's
and Kerewin's hands. His handholding becomes attached to an array of emotions,
including happiness, anger, and fear. The second time Kerewin discovers
the bruises left by Joe's abuse, as well as in the first, the boy
takes her hand: "Nothing, he emphasizes, shaking her hand once,
ready to touch as ever but flinching before the cold anger in her
Simon's handholding helps him to convey emotions that he might
not be able to put into words even if he could talk. For example, when
the boy finds Kerewin pondering her ties to him and his father: "And
as if he were waiting for the cue, Simon takes her hand. . . . He
has drawn her hand against his chest. She can feel the steady clock of
his heart. He hasn't made any other move, but she feels as though he's
saying something" (251). By taking his loved ones' hands, he demonstrates
a willingness for reconciliation with Joe after a beating, for
example, and peace that strikes a contrast with his destructive tendencies.
For Simon, handholding is a way of bridging communicative and emotional
chasms and connecting with people. When he is removed from Joe's custody,
he laments that there will be "No familiar touch, no handholding,
no-one he knows" (386).
The importance of Simon's hands is reinforced when he is injured while
fishing with Kerewin and Joe: "Simon's Thumb. It all goes sweetly
until that happens" (214). When Simon lodges a fishing hook in his thumb,
communication among the trio breaks down almost immediately. After the
injury, Simon is unable to act as a bridge and the peace that Joe and Kerewin
had established since she thrashed him on the beach dissolves into
an argument about the boy.
Simon's hands are hurt again when, upset about Binny Daniels' death
and being hit by Kerewin, he goes on a window-smashing spree. The constable
who finds Simon holds both his bleeding hands together in one hand
(306). The injury to Simon's hands occurs when he is most separated
from Joe and Kerewin because of his inability to communicate the
emotions caused by seeing Binny's corpse. As in the fishing incident,
an injury to Simon's hands precedes a breakdown among the three main characters.
Kerewin's reluctance to touch conveys nearly as much about her as Simon's
affinity for handholding relays about him. Simon recognizes Kerewin's aversion
to handholding soon after meeting her: She takes her hand away
to hold it closer for him to see, poised between her forefingers.
She doesn't like holding hands (64). Later, Joe thinks that she hates
touching of any sort (174). Kerewin's reluctance to be touched is
a manifestation of her emotional isolation. Her lack of physical
contact underscores the distance—self-imposed or otherwise—between
her and her family, the community, and Joe and Simon. Because for
much of the novel she avoids touching, it adds metaphoric weight to the
image of her taking Joe's and Simon's hands at the end of the story. The
gesture of happily initiating contact indicates that she has closed the
distance that she struggled to keep between herself and the Gillayleys.
In addition to avoiding touching others, Kerewin uses her hands to communicate
in more abstract ways. As an artist, her hands are the conduit that
allows her to express emotional and subconscious matters that
would be difficult, painful, or impossible to put into words. Early
in the story, she thinks, "No need of people, because she was self-fulfilling,
delighted with the pre-eminence of her art, and the future of her
knowing hands" (7).
Kerewin's guitar is also a hands-related outlet for expression.
It is not coincidental that she sends her guitar to her family's home when
she is alone and decaying in a hut at the height of her illness and isolation.
Her yearning to play the instrument after it is gone, sent without a note,
conveys her inner conflict between the suppressed need to communicate and
her pattern of isolation.
Hulme emphasizes the importance of Kerewin's hands in two ways: their
decoration and decay. As she explains her affinity for rings to one of
Joe's relatives, she thinks to herself, "Each ring feeds my
fingers with its particular virtue" and then considers the qualities
of each stone (291). The passage draws the reader s attention
to Kerewin s fingers and reinforces her earlier notion of hands
as "sacred things. . . .tongues of those who cannot talk" (71).
The infection of Kerewin's hands, like her forsaking of the guitar,
reinforces her isolation and emotional turmoil: "For
some time, they had been infected. When journeying through a town she hid
them in gloves. . . . Swollen, empurpled, leaking pus from every
crack" (418). Her observation occurs when she has been—from her point
of view—cut off from the Gillayleys forever, which suggests a connection
between their severed ties and her hands' disease.
Kerewin's hands may receive the most detailed treatment in the novel,
but Joe's express an equally vast spectrum of emotions. After Simon has
been removed from Joe's custody, the boy thinks, "And home is Joe,
Joe of the hard hands but sweet love" (395). Indeed, Joe's hands
seem to be alternately guided by rage and adoration. After Simon visits
Binny Daniels, a pederast, Joe wraps the end of his belt around his fist
and beats Simon until the child is gone beyond begging for it to stop and
his own hands are shaking (136). When Joe beats Simon for the last
time, the boy fights against the hand that pins him down (309). In
such scenes, Joe's hands are portrayed as instruments of violence that
may stem from things that he can't verbalize: resentment toward Simon,
whose presence helped keep him from finishing school; the frustration of
dead-end work in a Pakeha factory; the tribulations of being a minority
and the loss of his culture.
The gentle touch that Joe's hands can deliver strikes a contrast with
the damage that they inflict. When Kerewin meets Joe, she looks at his
hand and wonders at the way it has suddenly linked them all
(46). Joe's touches often act as a means of reconciliation with Simon,
including after a beating: He clucked over his child's bruised
face, over the obvious pain he showed walking, and—strangely to Kerewin's
eyes—held Simon's hands a long moment (119). By holding Simon's hand or
tousling his hair, Joe is able to help mend the frequent ruptures in their
relationship. His gestures help make him one of the most complex characters
in the novel by portraying his instruments of violence as equally capable
of doling out affection.
At the low point of Joe's despair, after breaking his arm by jumping
off of a cliff, he tries to splint the arm and watches his hand darken
and engorge (342). Joe's darkening hand loosely fulfills a pattern
of afflicted hands when characters are physically or emotionally
cut off from the others. The pattern underscores the importance of
hands in the novel: they act as a channel for the things that the
characters are not willing or able to verbalize. The relationships would
emerge—by virtue of dialogue, other characters' observations, interior
monologues, etc.—as incredibly complex without the hands motif. By
emphasizing their reliance on hands, though, Hulme shows the difficulty
that three outsiders have in communicating—even among themselves.