Colonial Identities in Picnic at Hanging Rock

Zephyrus Croft
March 6, 2024

Originally written for UTS class Becoming Australia’s second assignment task, with key readings section added for ITM.

Audio transcription is still being recorded, will be uploaded to the article when done.

Banner image credit: Photo by Benny Samuel on Unsplash.


Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay is an Australian historical fiction novel published in 1967. The novel is a celebrated icon of Australian culture and history, having been repeatedly listed in multiple collections of Australian classics from Australian Geographic, Booktopia and GoodReads (Purcell, 2011) (Vallen, 2016) (Goodreads, 2023). The novel begins with a class taking a trip to Hanging Rock for a picnic, and the idyllic day is shattered when three girls go missing. The book closes with two girls and a teacher gone and one girl missing her memories and offers no explanation, not even on a meta level. The mystery of the disappearance is one of the major draws of the novel, but the charm of the book is its depiction of the Australian countryside. Nature is a central theme of the book, with chapters devoted to describing the lush but harsh conditions of rural Australia. This colourful imagery is why it still stands strong today as an Australian classic. Anderson’s framework of imagined communities (2016), where a group of people perceive themselves as a community despite never meeting more than a tiny portion of that community through the use of shared culture, identity and history, and Ward’s book The Australian Legend (2003), who deconstructs the history and structure of the Australian character, is the basis of understanding how Australian texts use repeated motifs to construct, and then call upon, a national (and colonial) identity. Picnic at Hanging Rock is representative of Australian colonial identities, and by looking at the novel in three unique readings, the dominate story of colonialism in Australia is demonstrated: one of colonists commandeering the bush, woman in danger of the outback, and the erasure of Indigenous Australians’ history and culture.

Key Readings

Imagined Communities is Anderson’s explanation of how nationalism is built and how it works in everyday life. This section elaborates on the key readings for people who are not familiar with them or the framework. A community is a group of people a person knows and identifies with. This doesn’t quite work on large scaled communities like nations, or, theoretically it shouldn’t. However, all you need to do is look at nationalists who view foreigners as aliens. 

Anderson explains that through shared culture, from music, theatre, language, laws, and more, build up to a national ideal that the citizen can identify with. Thus, 

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.

(Anderson, 1983, p. 6). 

By presenting the nation as the community, and therefore having the interests of the community, nations are bestowed the same power that the monarchy once had on society. The king had the right to rule, commanding the shape of the country as its sole leader. Today, the nation is the controlling power, rather than named individuals. Sovereignty is given to Australia, not to the Prime Minister.

How does nationalism present imagined communities as horizontally equal, tightly knit camaraderie? Simply being born in the right area does not necessarily mean you are Australian, you must be Australian. This is achieved through the national identity: a prospective, vague and often contradictory ‘prized and exemplary citizen’ or, the stereotypical Australian.

The Australian Legend by Russel Ward delves into the history of Australia’s national identity, looking at its cultural roots from colonisation to its expression in modern times. I will be using a large quote from Ward’s work to explain how he defines the national identity. It’s succinct and I wouldn’t be able to write it better.

According to the myth the ‘typical Australian’ is a practical man, rough and ready in his manners and quick to decry any appearance of affection in others. He is a great improviser, ever willing ‘to have a go at anything, but willing too to be content with a task done in a way that is ‘near enough’. Though capable of great exertion in an emergency, he normally feels no impulse to work hard without good cause. He swears hard and consistently, gambles heavily and often, and drinks deeply on occasion. Though he is ‘the world’s best confidence man’, he is usually taciturn rather than talkative, one who endures stoically rather than one who acts busily. He is a ‘hard case’, sceptical about the value of religion and of intellectual and cultural pursuits generally. He believes that Jack is not only as good as his master but, at least in principle, probably a good deal better, and so he is a great ‘knocker’ of eminent people unless, as in the case of his sporting heroes, they are distinguished by physical prowess. He is a fiercely independent person who hates officiousness and authority, especially when these qualities are embodied in military officers and policemen. Yet he is very hospitable and, above all, will stick to his mates through thick and thin, even if he thinks they may be in the wrong.

(Ward, 2003, p. 1-2).

A real life example of the Australian national identity would be by watching this TikTok by Maeng from 2023. Maeng, a Korean living in Australia, creates a snapshot of Australian culture through imagery that an Australian recognises: alcoholism (drinking), laid back/larrikinism (baggy clothes, BBQs) and enrichment through nature (waterskiing, picnics). There are plenty of TikToks that are examples of this. Next time you encounter a video that goes along the lines of ‘only in Australia!’ or ‘just Australian things!’ see if you can draw connections between the content and Ward’s definition of the national identity.

In this essay, I will be using Picnic at Hanging Rock to showcase Australia’s national identity, and in particular its colonial history and culture. 

The Pioneer

When talking about national identities, it is important to clarify that they are fabricated and function as a tool (White, 1981). Both White and Ward break down the dominant national identity, being white, male, English-speaking, and carrying the distinct and worthy traits born from the early colonists, explorers and bushmen (Ward, 2003) (White, 1981). These men were pioneers, the first to strike out and explore Australia. They were laid back and down to earth but had a strong sense of mateship and surviving through tough conditions (Ward, 2003). Crocodile Dundee, the 1986 film directed by Peter Fairman, is an example of how this ideal is still pushed forward today. Dundee is a successful crocodile hunter but with an impolite personality ill fit for the city. He is the epitome of the Australian legend, the man who challenges the bush on a day-to-day basis while remaining relatable through a down-to-earth attitude and a strong sense of mateship (White, 1981). Four decades later, Dundee is still hailed as a true Australian icon. In the 2018 USA Super Bowl, Tourism Australia promoted the country to millions of Americans through a Crocodile Dundee themed ad. What purpose does this national identity serve? What does it have to do with Picnic at Hanging Rock? The national identity is inexplicably tied to how the outback, or the bush, is depicted in Australian texts. The outback is a source of deep pride for Australia. It is iconic, vast, and ingrained into literal images of the country. The bush is demonised and idealised, hated and loved, feared and respected, despicable and desired. As Morrison writes, 

the land is understood as haven of liberty or uncivilised place of exile, a confused conflation of mythic representations; in other words, the frontier.

(Morrison, 2017, p. 177). 

The national identity is tied to colonialism through the desire to dominate the outback. Nature and the bush are a central theme of the novel, with the first few chapters describing in excruciating detail Hanging Rock and the picturesque scenery. The characters that go missing are the ones who want to explore the area. Joan Lindsey wanted to capture the essence of the Australian bush, as Joan’s editor explained (McCulloch, 2017), and that intention is now immortalised and celebrated. There is no mistake that Picnic at Hanging Rock is about the colonial relationship with the bush.

The Lost Child

Fredrick McCubbin, Lost (1886)

When the schoolgirls disappear, the whole world reacts. Search parties scour Hanging Rock, the media covers the situation in a frenzy, and when one of them returns, she shoots to stardom, attracting the public eye wherever she goes. This fantastical response to the disappearance of the girls sounds outrageous, but the image of a lost child or harmed woman carries its own meaning. The position of Australian women and girls have always been in danger of the bush; first as a derogatory sexless hindrance and then as an innocent that needed protection (Davison & Brodie, 2005). The reverence of innocence, particularly in youth, has been immortalised in Australian culture for a long time. Fredrick McCubbin’s 1886 painting, Lost, features a weeping girl almost consumed by the bush. Her baby blue dress, white apron and woven hat stand out from the smudged green and brown of the trees and leaves. It is a cry for help. The schoolgirls that go for a picnic at Hanging Rock share this innocence; as they walk, they describe their surroundings with wide eyes, they talk with freedom and care little beyond the day’s worries. Faulkner analyses the glamourisation of innocence and youth and says innocence so worshipped needs an overlord to protect and control the innocent subject (Faulkner, 2011). The disappearance of the girls shatters the fragile protection; discussions of rape, sexuality, money, and alcohol enter the novel. Picnic at Hanging Rock is about this loss of innocence and youth. It also speaks to the loss of innocence about Australia’s history. As Pierce writes, the disappearing girls are a testimony

to the anxious suspicion that Europeans do not belong in this country

(Pierce, 1999, p. 164). An innocent child has been snatched away by the mysterious Australian bush – and the adults are hopeless. These colonists do not know their country enough to commandeer it; if that is true, then how can they lay claim to it? This is an inherently colonial outlook on innocence and country. To protect something, you must control it, and to control it, you must own every aspect of it.

Indigenous Land and Children

When analysing, what is not written speaks just as much as what is written. Hanging Rock is a real location and is a sacred and culturally significant site for the Woi Wurrang, the Djaara and the Taungurung People, the three Indigenous Australian tribes that live in the area (Macedon Ranges Shire Council, 2023). There is no mention of Indigenous people, culture, or history in the novel. Australia’s colonialism isn’t innocent – it has killed, stolen, and destroyed Indigenous life. When talking about Australian texts, culture, history and more, it is always important to discuss the absence or oppression of Indigenous Australians in the same context. Picnic at Hanging Rock’s colonialism has another layer when including Indigenous Australians in the conversation. The national identity of a pioneer is a myth: there was no land to be discovered. There was nothing to be claimed, nothing to be found. Indigenous Australians have been in Australia long before the colonists were here. In this way, the Australian legend is founded on misconceptions and lies. Furthermore, as Moreton-Robinson explains, Indigenous Australians do not own country, they belong. The idea of equating possession of land to belonging is a white colonial concept (Moreton-Robinson, 2015). Just as imagined community is a construct and national identity is a tool, possession of land is a colonial ideology. There is more to think of when reading Picnic at Hanging Rock. The novel’s climax is the disappearance of the schoolgirls. Panic grows as no trace of them is found. Explanations are offered, but the only rationale the characters can offer is kidnapping. What is truly ironic is that during the period that this novel was published, the Australian government was only just beginning to stop kidnapping Indigenous children: the Stolen Generation. The ideology behind this systematic kidnapping was to ‘protect’ children from the ‘savage’ Indigenous culture; this echoes Faulkner’s explanation that Australian culture has enforced the idea of a master to protect the innocent (2011).


What Picnic at Hanging Rock reveals about the Australian national identity is the colonial roots. First, the Australian legend is based on the pioneer and the bushman and is intricately tied to the colonist’s ‘discovery’ of Australia. These colonists saw the bush as something to dominate and own. The theme of nature in the novel is linked to this colonial treatment of the outback, by at first glamourising it, then villainising it. Next is the lost child, and the theft of innocence. Colonialism is about control, and the lost child is a symbol of losing that power. The novel’s idyllic atmosphere is ruined after the disappearance of the children. Kids gone, adults useless, no control over country. Do you need control of a country? Do you need to be aggressive on country? Indigenous Australian history and culture has clearly stated that you do not need to own the land to belong, and often the kidnappers are white Australians. Colonialism pushes the idea of aggressive possession; the image of a knife welding bushranger fighting ghosts as they try to lay claim to land is Australian colonialism. Or, as Goanna put it in their 1982 hit song Solid Rock

White man, white law, white gun.


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