Five Bells Gail Jones Essay Outline

The writer’s craft

Narrative isn’t everything in a novel though, and a novel read only for narrative will tend to have you skimming ahead for what happens. Tone, character, prose, place, as well as engaging exposition should hold you too. And it’s these elements that Gail Jones seems more interested in.

– John Bauer

What I love about poetry is its quality of intensification and condensation, and the fact that it gives a privilege to metaphor. When I write prose, I am not thinking so much about the forward movement of the story, about the unfolding of the plot. I am thinking more about the texture of language because it is a more complicated kind of aesthetic compulsion.

…I suppose I’m aiming for a kind of prose poetics. 

– Gail Jones

Both of these quotations – one about Jones the other by Jones – acknowledge how important language is in this novel. As students read they should be invited to look for the ‘prose poetics’ and create their own definition of this in action. They can collect metaphors that they like and share these with the class.


Novels are important vehicles for ideas but they do this within a range of structures which develop the narrative.

These narratives usually follow specific patterns such as:

Exposition → complication → rising tension → climax → denouement → resolution

The pattern can be changed for effect. It can start at the climax or in media res (in the middle); it can be linear (chronological order – following events as they occur); it can comprise a series of flashbacks (analepsis), or it can have a sense of circularity beginning and ending in the same place or moment. And of course there are other possible structures as well. Whatever the structure, the reader’s satisfaction comes from seeing a story unfold and perceiving an ending.

One of the features of the novel that John Bauer comments on (above) is the ‘engaging exposition’. The book starts with: “Circular Quay: she even loved the sound of it.” The first character, Ellie, reveals an excitement and openness to new experiences. James De Mello is introduced as “obstinately unjoyful”, Pei Xing “loved the elevated train” and Catherine “dropped her ticket.” The first sentences about each character immediately establish the type of person each is. Their reactions engage us and invite us to read on in this intricately arranged pattern of different lives. Jones is conscious of the importance of the structure of her novel:

I am very attentive to structure and design and I think this interest comes from the visual arts, from the look of things, and how different shapes juxtapose to make an overall shape. … The artifice of the novel captivates me a great deal, and there is no reason why one can’t represent in some empathic and authentic way the feelings of people and their everyday experiences, and also place them in a pattern.

– Gail Jones in conversation with Maria Del Pila Royo Grasa 

Each character’s life is presented, as Jones says, in a pattern.

  • Students can trace the structure of the text to see if a pattern emerges in the way characters are revealed.
  • They can try to map the story against the usual pattern of exposition → complication → climax → denouement → resolution.

The revelation of each character’s perspective follows a repetitive structure with each character observing the scene, thinking about the past, considering a literary or artistic connection, connecting with another character, but not necessarily in that order. By mapping out the structure, students can understand the way the text weaves in and out of ideas.

Divide the class into groups and assign a chapter to each group. Each group needs to map out the movement of the text from one character to another, registering different times (past, present, future) and places, as well as references that link the characters. They should report back and combine their observations to understand how Jones has moved in and out of different lives to bring them together at this place: Circular Quay.

What is she saying about life, memory, place, by her organisation of the structure? You can use the model in the attached file: Five Bells – Structure (PDF, 141KB) dealing with Chapter One to show students a way of mapping the story. Jones’ opening lines suggest a circular structure returning to the beginning at the end (Circular Quay:… she knew from the lilted words it would be a circle like no other, key to a new world.) Students should look closely at the attached worksheet: Five Bells – The Ending (PDF, 175KB).

Narrative according to the Bauer quote above, is about ‘what happens’; this novel is not driven by narrative but by free, indirect discourse that makes us see into the lives of the characters who in turn exemplify important ideas. The structure of Five Bells is therefore important, revealing the past in a controlled way that allows the reader to understand the changing point of view. Unlike a film we cannot see the new face thinking, but the book moves cinematically between characters, editing different times, places and faces. We are always aware of each new character because Jones makes sure the name appears. This is part of her skill as a writer.


The setting of the novel is not an imagined space – it is a very real place – and yet it creates very different responses in the characters. The place serves to bring them together but it also holds them apart in the way they see it. They come from many different places and have many different imaginings but this all merges on to this well-known tourist destination.

Ask students to find an image of the Quay, the Harbour, the Museum of Contemporary Art or the Opera House which looks like one of the descriptions in the novel. Using one of the descriptions in the novel they should annotate the image and present it to the class. How realistic are the descriptions offered in the novel?

(For a more complex understanding of Setting go to the last tab ‘Informed reaction’ and read the section on psychogeography.)

Approach to characterisation

Student activity

While it is the setting that brings the characters together and triggers a response, it is characterisation that is central to the novel Five Bells.

For this activity students can be divided into groups to answer questions on one character per group. The table can be a compilation  of their notes using the following questions to guide their collection of notes.

Questions to consider:

(add page references or examples)

Ellie        James    CatherinePei Xing
Where is the character from?
Why is the character at Circular Quay?
What does the character’s reaction to the scene reveal about him/her?
What trigger leads the character into the past?
What trauma does the character remember from the past?
How has the character dealt with past trauma?
What literary or artistic references do we connect with the character?

What does this reveal about that character?

What senses is the character using? Give examples.
What does this character value?
Trace the route of the character through the city.

Values are closely connected to the themes of a book. If we know what the characters value we can draw some conclusions about the themes.

  • What do we start to see as the themes of the novel when we look at the characters?

Point of view

Because we have different characters’ stories, point of view is an important element of this novel. There is an omniscient narrator allowing us to see the scene and move smoothly from one character to another but the changing point of view invites us to share the introspection of each character. The description of the scene in so many different ways emerges because Gail empowers her characters to speak to us through their thoughts. We see their worlds through their senses and we know their past stories through the flickers of memory.

  • Students can find an example of point of view for each of the characters.
  • They share these with a partner who looks critically to see if this is a revealing point of view.
  • They place this on a sticky note and compile a board of characters’ remarks.
  • Students should look closely at what everyone has selected as a quotation and determine: how does the language indicate point of view? They might look at verbs, pronouns, senses and then discuss the way writers present point of view.

Language and style 

1. Sydney Opera House descriptions

By looking closely at the descriptions of the Sydney Opera House we can see some of the elements of style in Jones’ book.

(Extracts from: Gail Jones, Five Bells, Picador, 2012)

The attached worksheet, Five Bells – Style (PDF, 162KB), invites students to consider some of the word choices that add to the style of the novel.

2. Auditory senses

In her article “The synchronous City: Aural Geographies in Gail Jones’ Five Bells”, Ella Mudie quotes Jones, who says it is an ‘acoustical novel’. She sees the role of sound as multi-faceted in the book, as a ‘powerful trigger for memory’, ‘unlocking spatio-temporal complexities’ and trauma.

In order to test her ideas, students should first find references to sounds. Then they should consider whether sound is being used to develop the characterisation, mood or themes of the novel.

3. Allusions

Just as Jones has been influenced by Slessor’s poem “Five Bells”, Jones’ characters are influenced by different writers and artists. Students can trace the writers and artists who are mentioned and consider how these allusions are being used.

  • How do they develop the ideas of the text?
  • How do they connect characters?


Memory / Death / Grief / Trauma / Time

Themes are the repeated ideas that we find in a text. They form the fabric of the text and unify the action. In this novel the themes centre on each of the characters, who have had different and yet similar experiences. They understand death, grief and trauma through their memories which cross time.

We can gain insight into the themes of Jones’ novels by considering the poem by the same title. Slessor’s poem “Five Bells” set on Sydney Harbour is an elegy to Joe Lynch who drowned in Sydney Harbour. It is about death, about grief, about memory and time. By tracing each character, students can find in the pattern of their lives that they are connected by all these ideas. Each character illustrates an aspect of the themes being explored. Each character carries the weight of the past, with different sensations unpacking the memories.

For James it is “the leathery hands of the old woman sitting beside him that makes him feel ‘the tug of time'”. He thinks, “So much of the past returns…lodged in the bodies of others.”

The image of the Luna Park mouth with its teeth triggers yet another memory of an Easter Show long ago and he perceived that, “Death was like that … the limp panic of imagining oneself as raw meat.” He moves further into memory of smell, “the reek of stale tobacco …” He becomes “pissed off by this ridiculous memory siege.” Sight, sound and smell become the triggers for memories that break down time.

Jones comments on the importance of memory as a theme in her novel.

…memory exists as another time, one we transfer into the present and that mediates our present. I’m fascinated by memory and by forgetting, and I do want to try suggest a separate time of being, as though we carry a past within us that interrupts and intercepts ourselves in the present tense. That omnipresence of the past recollected through memory is very compelling.

We can understand ideas about memory by reading the characters’ thoughts. Students should read the quotes below and answer:

  • Who is saying each of these quotes?
  • What do we learn about the character/s from these quotes?

Memory was not in the prefrontal cortex, or the hippocampus, or the cerebellum, or the amygdala – how he loved this vocabulary saved from his days as a medical student – but in the space into which an infant might be lifted and turned. (p. 33)

There was no face, or clear memory, just this swoop upwards into the sky. (p. 32)

There was a dorm of memory, yes, that resided in the cells of the body. (p. 179)

Students can trace the different perspectives each character has to the themes listed below. Cite page references and copy relevant quotes.

JamesElliePei XingCatherine
What memories does the character have?
What does the character know and think about death?
How does the character grieve?
What trauma has the character experienced and how has he/she managed this trauma?
What is the place of forgiveness in the character’s life?

Another way of leading students into exploring themes is to ask them to collect quotations about the themes. About time? Death? Forgiveness? Grief?

Once they have collected the quotations they need to then consider what pattern they see emerging in the way the idea is being represented. Are the characters saying the same thing? If they are not, then which character’s perspective is being privileged?

Rich assessment task (Productive mode)

From poem to prose

There are four parts to this task:

  • locating a poem and images;
  • writing prose descriptions;
  • writing a reflection; and
  • presenting the end result to the class for discussion and constructive feedback.

Students should complete the worksheet on style in Five Bells (PDF, 161KB) as preparation.

Students will locate a poem about a place which they will use as the stimulus for writing descriptions from three different characters who are somehow linked by that location. The descriptions need to reflect the different characters’ personalities. They have to then write a reflection on what aspects of the poem they were trying to develop in their descriptions. They present this digitally with the poem: the different descriptions and images. They can use the reflection to explain their decisions to the class and to open a discussion on the process of poetry to prose.

Students may use poems about Australian places or other places.

Some relevant Australian poems might be:


Media Reviews

"Starred Review. An elegant literary meditation on time and chance." - Publishers Weekly

"Over the past decade Gail Jones has established herself as a significant presence in contemporary Australian fiction. Thoughtful, intelligent, and intensely lyrical… a novel of unmistakable contemporary relevance." - The Guardian (UK)

"An intense… poetic tale." - Financial Times (UK)

"Five Bells is a brilliant work, both explicitly Australian and insistently cosmopolitan… [and] establishes Gail Jones as one of Australia's finest authors.... Jones gives us individuals who are achingly alive, filled with apprehensions of beauty, love, and mortality." - The Australian

"Jones's writing has the intensity of a dream… combining tension with lyricism." - The Times (UK)

"Readers who crave plot or resolution may be frustrated – a significant development occurs near the end, but isn't explored – and the languid pace and intricate detail may incite impatience. ...Ultimately, though, this is a story peopled by achingly real characters, memorably related in delicate, ornate prose, and throbbing with loss. Death comes to claim us all, it seems to say, so enjoy the transient glory of life while you can." - The Independent (UK)

"Four characters are tethered to the past in this flaccid memory piece, the fifth work of fiction from the Australian Jones" - Kirkus Reviews

"A novel that reaches beyond the glittering surface of Sydney to capture the rippling patterns of a wider human history with singular beauty and power." - The Canberra Times (Australia)

"An awkward start blossoms into a taut novel exploring coincidence." - Sydney Morning Herald

The information about Five Bells shown above was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's online-magazine that keeps our members abreast of notable and high-profile books publishing in the coming weeks. In most cases, the reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author of this book and feel that the reviews shown do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, please send us a message with the mainstream media reviews that you would like to see added.

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