Study Guide

The Luminaries Setting

By Eleanor Catton

Setting

Hokitika and Kaniere

From all reports, the Hokitika of the novel is a bit rough around the edges by British a.k.a. "civilized" standards, since the arrival of the gold rush crowd was relatively recent when the novel opens. Walter definitely notes this aspect of Hokitika when he is first settling into the crown, but it doesn't seem to bother him:

This was a gold town, after all, new-built between jungle and surf at the southernmost edge of the civilized world, and he had not expected luxury. (I.1.7)

Because of the fact that this "civilized" world had just been built, more or less, Walter notices that places like the Crown have a kind of thrown together quality that only halfheartedly recreates the original British setting on which they are based. Describing Walter's first impression of the Crown, Catton writes:

It had the appearance of a place rebuilt from memory after a great passage of time, when much has been forgotten (andirons, drapes, a proper mantel to surround the hearth) but small details persist: a picture of the late Prince Consort, for example, cut from a magazine and affixed with shoe tacks to the wall that faced the yard; the seam down the middle of the billiard table, which had been sawn in two on the Sydney docks to better survive the crossing; the stack of old broadsheets upon the secretary, the pages thinned and blurry from the touch of many hands. (I.1.5)

So, while the place definitely tries to evoke the homeland, the small details belie that effort …

Another thing that immediately strikes Walter about Hokitika is how different classes and communities seem to mix there in a way he wasn't used to—and although he considers himself liberal minded and all that, he's actually a little shocked by the "strange miscellany" (I.1.43) of men he sees carousing together at the Crown:

He did not yet know that a goldfield was a place of muck and hazard, where every fellow was foreign to the next man, and foreign to the soil; where a grocer's cradle might be thick with color, and a lawyer's cradle might run dry; where there were no divisions. (I.1.43)

That's right, Walter, you and Toto aren't in England anymore.

Although Hokitika is the main setting for pretty much everything that goes on, we'd be remiss if we didn't also mention that some stuff happens in Kaniere, which is near Hokitika. That's where Sook has his opium den, and where the area referred to has "Chinatown" is. However, as Catton notes, that name is a little bit funky:

'Chinatown' was something of a misleading name for the small clutch of tents and stone cabins some few hundred yards upriver from he Kaniere claims, for although every man hailed from Guangdong, and most from Kwangchow, together they could hardly be said to comprise a township: 'Chinatown' was home, at that time, to only fifteen Chinese men. (I.9.2).

However, since apparently the Chinese characters were pretty separate from the English foreigners in both language and distance, it kind of makes sense that the characters would name it as though it were an entirely separate place.

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