After some of them return to the house, Clem feels that something needs to be said on the occasion. He gives a disjointed speech about how everyone in the universe is connected and that “nothing ever gets .” Even though Fran had already left with a group that included Cedric, Clem feels satisfied with his speech and himself. After everyone leaves, Angie and Ralph take a walk while Audley plays the piano. Later, she goes into the kitchen to clean up where she is soon joined by Audley. They talk about Clem’s speech, which Audley admits moved him deeply. The story closes with a description of the glowing ashes of the museum, the bonfire on the beach, and the promise of “a new day coming.” The night of the celebration, Fran leaves with Cedric Pohl, an attractive thirty-three-year-old. His expensive haircut, along with his propensity for travel, suggests he is wealthy. He is “a bit too sure of himself,” but she responds to his need to relieve her of her obvious desperation. Little information is provided about him since he serves more as a illustration of Fran’s constant need to develop new relationships.
Angie Tyler, Ralph’s wife, has a sense of “stillness” and a “capacity to just sit among all that Tyler ebullience and remain self-contained.” She also has a sense of darkness that gives her sympathetic connection to Audley, which is suggested by the framing technique Malouf uses in the story. The opening and closing scenes focus on the two together, separate from the rest of the family.
Audley Tyler, the patriarch of the family, whose ancestors were among the early European settlers, has a formal bearing and appears in a black suit on all occasions. Angie regards him as “a somber column,” whose demeanor commands attention and respect. He is fastidious and at times gloomy with a ‘tendency to withdraw.” His dark side becomes ominous when he tries to disguise it with “bitter jokes and a form of politeness that at times had an edge of the murderous.” Yet he is also responsible in his position as the primary caregiver for his children and as a government official. During his years with the government, he served as a model to young, ambitious men “who saw in him the proof that you could get to the top, and stay there too, yet maintain a kind of decency.” He is the one most moved by Clem’s speech, and by the end of the story, he comes to recognize more than any of them the value of family. After the museum burns to the ground, he is also able to reconcile himself to the reality of death.
Clem Tyler, one of the four Tyler brothers, never felt included in his family since he did not seem to take after any of them. He has a good nature but is “slow, tongue-tied, aimless,” which was exacerbated by his accident. Because of her confidence in him, Fran is the only one with whom Clem “felt entirely whole.” When he is at the party, he seeks her out in order to “centre himself. Otherwise, the occasion might have become chaotic” due to the expectations others may have of him. When he cannot think clearly, he experiences moments of panic and must find a familiar object to calm himself. His obvious love and affection for his family fills him with the confidence he needs to give his speech about how connected they all are to each other and to the universe.
Fran Tyler, Clem’s ex-wife, is adventurous and restless and so is attracted to new places and new men. She turns to Clem for stability. While she demonstrates a good sense of humor, it can sometimes turn cruel as when she kept journals that attacked what she considered to be the family’s faults. Fran is the only one who is able to find a life outside the family that she balances with her need to remain connected to it.
Nine-year-old Jenny Tyler, Angie and Ralph’s daughter, is younger than her brother but appears worldlier. She rolls her eyes when Ned does not understand why Clem and Fran got divorced if they are still friends.
Jonathon Tyler, one of the four Tyler brothers, introduced Fran to the family as his girlfriend, but she soon got tired of “the assurance he had of being so much cleverer than others” and of “his sense of his own power and charm.”
Madge Tyler is a messy, disorganized housekeeper, whose bluntness and “off-hand discourtesies” sometimes put off others, especially her daughters-in-law. She is self-deprecating and full of life. Her boys have inherited her “energy and rough good humour.” She provides a nice counter to Audley’s solemn and dignified demeanor. Madge was adopted and brought up by farmers, and she determined early on that she “belonged to no one but herself,” which, according to Audley, “made life very interesting.”
Eleven-year-old Ned Tyler, Angie and Ralph’s son, tries to gain some measure of power in the family by being “the bearer of news,” and he is disappointed when the others already know that Fran is coming with Clem. He is also disappointed that the family will not be celebrating the country’s anniversary since “he wanted time to have precise turning-points that could be marked and remembered.” Ned becomes intensely concerned about things and is “quick to take offense” if he feels that others are not equally concerned, as with the question of the bonfire.
When they were young, Ralph Tyler and his brothers “had to fend for themselves, shouting one another down in the war for attention and growing up loud and confident.” Ralph is shyer than his brothers but shared their same love and respect for their parents. He is easygoing, having been part of the liberal movement of the 1960s.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, David Malouf, Published by Gale Group, 2006