The story is set on a warm day during the Australian summer. No date is mentioned, but it is most likely in January, which is Australia’s hottest month. During this month, Australians celebrate two historical events: Australia’s Independence Day on January 1, which honors the day the country won its independence from Great Britain in 1901; and Australia Day on January 26, which honors the date in 1788 when the first white settlement was established. Some critics have assumed that the story takes place on Independence Day, but others have inferred that it is Australia Day. Malouf never identifies the specific holiday that becomes the backdrop for the story, perhaps to place more emphasis on the reunification of family. Historical details do play an important part, however, at the end of the story when the museum that contains many of the family’s artifacts burns down. Peter Pierce, in his article on Dream Stuff notes regional elements in “Great Day,” arguing that while there are no aborigines in the story, and “no bonfires of theirs will ring the long continental coast in celebration,” on this national holiday, Malouf asks us “to reflect on where and how far Australia has traveled since the McGiverns . . . came to the blacksoil country and other regions of Australia that they pioneered.”
Aborigines, the name given to the original inhabitants of Australia, may have emigrated from Asia approximately 20,000 years ago. Though various groups of aborigines moved there, the country remained isolated from the outside world until Europeans began to explore and settle it. Portuguese Manuel Godhino de Eredia is considered to be the first European to sight the continent in 1601, followed by Spaniard Luis Vaez de Torres in 1605. Dutch explorers later named it New Holland. In 1770, Captain James Cook landed on the east coast and claimed the land for Great Britain. The first British settlement, soon established in 1788, was a penal colony in Port Jackson, which is now Sydney. The continent became a British dependency by 1829. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Australia became a dumping ground for anyone deemed undesirable by the British government. In the middle of the nineteenth century, a gold strike brought an influx of people from around the world to the continent. By the mid-1800s, permanent colonization had erased the old penal settlements, and by 1901, a self-governing confederacy with its own constitution was established.
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