Study Guide

The Luminaries Primitivism

By Eleanor Catton

Primitivism

As we discussed with "Foreignness," some of the characters in The Luminaries tend to exoticize the non-English people or places. Harald Nilssen, for example, gets really excited thinking about the "primitive" and "unknowable" Maori women—which is pretty weird, since he lives among the Maori and could easily get to know their men and women alike, no? Anyway, despite their penchant for emphasizing the savagery and primitivism of others, the British characters have pretty much cornered the market on savage behavior by the end of the book. After all, Frank Carver is responsible for most of the crimes in this book, and he's the son of an Englishman.

Questions About Primitivism

  1. Does the novel's general presentation of the "civil" and the "savage" change or evolve throughout the novel? Which things, people, or behaviors are ultimately portrayed as falling into those two categories?
  2. How are British stereotypes of the Maori and the Chinese as primitive challenged in the novel? Are they ever affirmed? If so, where/how, and what effect do those moments have on your understanding of the novel as a whole?
  3. Does the fact that Te Rau (probably) kills Carver affirm the English-speaking characters' racist stereotypes of the non-English characters as primitive and savage? Why or why not?

Chew on This

The book flips the British notion of the "primitive" on its head by the end, making the supposedly "primitive" Chinese and Maori characters look mighty civilized compared to the lying, cheating, and murdering English.

By making Te Rau a murderer and presenting him and the Chinese characters as largely silent throughout the book, the novel replicates British stereotypes of non-British/non-Western peoples.

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