Colleen McCullough’s The Thornbirds is Save the Cat’s Institutionalized

You know as I work on my current project, I always like to read Save the Cat and figure out where it falls in the Save the Cat categories. https://www.scriptmag.com/features/columns/using-save-the-cats-ten-genres

I think The Thornbirds, though it is a glorious romance, is not primarily a romance, but explores putting the needs of a family or church ahead of individual needs. The reason The Thornbirds interests me so much, is that this is one of my very favorite novels and I always like to study what moves me as a writer, so I can replicate this in my own writings. For most of my life, I have struggled with killing my individuality to surrender to a group. As a young lady, I put the needs of my church ahead of myself and thought it right to do so, assuming this to be God’s will. So reading The Thornbirds hit me at a really primal level. The end result of this is that I ended up married to someone I was totally incompatible with. So the main plot in The Thornbirds is an exploration of the dynamics that causes an individual to drown their autonomy or independence and surrender it to a group. Therefore, I feel that The Thornbirds falls under the category of Institutionalized, though it has love story subplots that are Buddy Love.

In a true Buddy Love story though, the lovers come together happily, realizing they belong together, this only happens to one of the groups of lovers in The Thornbirds and not to the main lovers, who are Ralph and Meggie. Ralph and Meggie realize their mistake at the end, and this gives the reader a feeling of finality, but when Ralph dies in emotional pain realizing his death to his self for the group wasn’t worth it, it makes you cry, because we all at some point in our lives, have sacrificed ourselves unnecessarily for a group. This is really primal with a lot of us, which may explain why The Thornbirds was a massive hit.

Also, the love between Ralph and Meggie was deep enough to last a lifetime, so that neither ever got over each other. This makes the story deeply moving and thought provoking. It makes the sacrifice they made for each other, doubly tragic and the story very powerful.

Buddy Love stories are just two people who can’t stand the fact that they don’t live as well without each other, who will have to surrender their egos to win. But in The Thornbirds, both Ralph and Meggie know they love each other from the beginning. Neither is in a battle to surrender their ego. They are both stuck in a group that condemns the love they have for each other. The whole thrust of The Thornbirds is about the group each person belongs to and how it demands of them a sacrifice, and explores the pros and cons of the sacrifice, and asks the question, “Is the sacrifice of our individuality for the group we belong to, worth it?”

For Ralph, he’s a priest and as a priest is not allowed to marry.  And the main thrust of The Thornbirds is about the pros and cons of putting the group (Catholic Church, Cleary family) ahead of the individual (Ralph, Meggie, Justine, etc.). Ralph feels obligations to the Catholic Church that he belongs to, which force him to deny the love he has for Meggie, so that he will not marry her, though he loves her. Meggie feels obligations to her family, in that as a child she was neglected because her mother sacrificed all her children (except the child of her forbidden lover – Frank) to try and honor the lover she couldn’t have, offering Meggie up as a sacrifice, causing Meggie to believe she must always be a sacrifice and Meggie must then offer up her own daughter Justine as a sacrifice in the same way her mother offered up Meggie as a sacrifice.

Each group demands a sacrifice. The Catholic Church demands its priests must sacrifice the love of a woman. The Cleary family demands that Fee must sacrifice her heart to honor the lover forbidden her, and so Fee is cold towards her children, except for Frank. Fee is so consumed with being a sacrifice, that she neglects the family right around her, planting her own disordered thinking into those about her, making them all sacrifices for the lover she couldn’t have. She passes this attitude on to her children. Fee ends up sacrificing her standing in her political family, to try and honor her heart, all the while denying her true heart to those around her. This sacrifice of her heart to her family is the group dynamics that is passed on from generation to generation, until it breaks with Justine, who honors her heart, and married the man who is her soulmate, Rain.

Meggie falls in love with a forbidden lover, Ralph, the priest. But Meggie offers up Ralph as a sacrifice and ends up marrying a man she doesn’t love, Luke. But Ralph, in a weak moment, makes love to Meggie, impregnates her, and then Meggie makes a sacrifice of Justine (her child from Luke), who is treated coldly, just like how Fee neglected Meggie growing up. Meggie passes onto her child Justice, the same coldness she experienced as a child, and for the same reason, cuz Justine had to be sacrificed to honor the family (unwritten group’s rules).

The entire novel explores the dynamics of groups – Cleary family, Catholic Church (Institutionalized), and asks the question, who is crazier, those who adhere to the group’s rules (even if unwritten rules) or those who rebel against the group’s rules?

All who have been victims of unfair or unreasonable rules from a group they belong to (just about all of us, especially now-a-days with the crazies ruling many groups) will relate to the dynamics in The Thornbirds, making the story primal for us.

The love story is moving, because haven’t all of us at some point in our lives, sacrificed something we really loved, in order to honor a group that we belonged to? The novel explores deeply the dynamics behind this and asks the question, “Is the sacrifice worth it?” The Buddy Love subplots work brilliantly with the Institutionalized main plot, because we all know that Ralph and Meggie belong together.  We also know that Fee and Paddy belong together. All the Buddy Love subplots in The Thornbirds end with a tragedy (with the exception of Justine), where the lovers don’t come together in the real sense of the word. Fee never fully realized until after Paddy died that Paddy was her true love all along and she never fully gave herself to Paddy during their entire marriage. So Paddy, too, was an unnecessary sacrifice to the political families that forced Fee to deny who she thought was her one true love.

In the end, the most important main character in The Thornbirds (Meggie) changes the dynamics, when Fee confronts Meggie, who’s about the make the same mistake that Fee made with Meggie. Meggie tells Justine she needs to live her life and honor her true lover, Rain. And that’s when the book ends. Justine, with her mother’s encouragement, chooses to honor SELF over the GROUP’s unfair rules, and that’s how we know that The Thornbirds falls in The Institutionalized category (Save the Cat).

Even though Ralph dies several chapters before the end of the novel, we don’t feel that it is inappropriate that the book never ends until Justine makes the decision to break the rules of the group, to quit being an unnecessary sacrifice, and to honor her true heart.

As a writer, I find books in the Institutionalized category the most moving and so I try to write stories with the same dynamics. In my Silver Skies 1996 Version, I will show the tragedy of honoring the group that rules the world (The Antichrist and his system) over our individuality. My other family saga novel, Nirvana: Oshu Fujiwara Dynasty, will also be exploring group dynamics that cause the downfall of a royal family (my ancestors). Though this will be as true to history as possible, I must put it in the family saga category, cuz I have to fictionalize the dialogue and scenes to pull off this story.

Another novel, Wuthering Heights, I would also put in Institutionalized. Heathcliff, a main character, does not fit into Victorian England (the group) and is treated as an outcast. This is another story where the lovers, Catherine and Heathcliff, belong together, but surrender themselves to the group, and stay apart, only to come together in the afterlife. Though Heathcliff’s actions surely are not commendable, all of us, who have been outcasts, can identify with him. This makes him a fascinating character to explore. So that while we abhor what he does, we root for him at the same time, especially hoping that Heathcliff will find where he belongs, cuz all the groups he belongs to treat him unfairly.

Right now, my own life is a sacrifice as the result of belonging to a world run by an oppressive and unfair group (Loree McBride and her supporters). My true love, Brent Spiner, has been denied me, by a group (the Jesuits) that rule the world and try to force all to conform to the Jesuit rule book. But I refuse to surrender my individuality to this unfair group, and without God’s protection, would have surely died by now for not submitting to this tyrannical group (the Jesuits). Jesus has already informed me that I will one day marry Brent Spiner, and I cling to that in strong faith. Someday, my individuality will rise up against the group that oppresses me and tries to force me into compliance, and true love will reign.

Copyright © 2019 Gail Chord Schuler. All Rights Reserved.