Shaun Tan’s ‘The Rabbits’ as a Postcolonial and Poststructural Text

In this essay, Erwin Cabucos analyses John Marden’s and Shaun Tan’s picture book for older readers ‘The Rabbits’ in the eyes of poststructuralism and postcolonialism. These critical theories provide contexts for students to explore the effects of British colonial activities on the colonised cultures such as the Aboriginal People of Australia. They also help students to question the transformative or damaging structural dominance of white, European colonisers over the cultures of brown and coloured natives of Asia and the Pacific. Cabucos discusses how how this text proves the benefits of postcolonial and poststructural studies in the English classroom.

The Australian Syllabus: English strongly emphasizes Literature as a major component in the study of English with preferences to include Asian and Indigenous (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) texts across the year levels and curricula. With the removal of the focus on critical literacy, this strand leaves teachers with myriad options and choices with regards to theoretical frameworks from which they base their analyses, evaluation and appreciations of literary texts. Perhaps, the choices that we employ as teachers of English will be eventually and chiefly based on our considerations as to why we teach the subject in the first place. Is it for personal growth and development? Is it to maintain the heritage of the dominant white culture? Is it for the simple ‘love’ of the aesthetics of the written word and language? Or is it for social and cultural significance, or a combination of all and some of them?

A recent study on the teaching of English with graduates from the University of New England reveals the need by both experienced and beginning English teachers to acquire and use some concrete theoretical frameworks through which their engagement such as close reading, analyses and evaluation of texts with students becomes more meaningful, discerning and purposeful (Macken-Horarick,2011). This response exemplifies the inherent role and function of the subject English and its teachers to work towards the achievement of practical and concrete ‘goodness’ in the individual and society. Kress (1996:13) stresses the role of English (as a subject) in the valuing of people to “focus on the active participation in the design of social futures, equipping children with resources for confident, productive design. This implies the opportunity for the English classroom to mould a human being to be a more ethical and effective member of society.

Pope (2002:73-166) presents eight theoretical positions in the study of English that can be used both to approach specific texts and to understand their textual and cultural meanings. They include: Practical and (Old) New Criticism; Formalism and Functionalism; Psychological Approaches; Marxism, Cultural Materialism and New Historicism; Feminism, Gender and Sexuality; Poststructuralism and Postmodernism, Postcolonialism and Multiculturalism; and, Ethics, Aesthetics and Ecology.

This essay will utilise the premises and positions of Poststructuralism and Postcolonialism using a multimodal text: John Marsden’s and Shaun Tan’s picturebook The Rabbits. Firstly, this essay will briefly discuss prominent features of the two theories. Secondly, it will identify commonalities between the two theories which will subsequently justify my reasoning for choosing the theories in relation to the value of the teaching of English. Thirdly, it will analyse and evaluate The Rabbits using the lenses of the two theoretical approaches.

The Theories of Poststructuralism and Postcolonialism

Poststructuralism considers texts as specimens which can be broken down to identify differences and notions of centring and marginalising, and privileging and silencing. It developed from the writings of Barthes, Derrida and Foucault which combine the elements of semiotics, the study of signs and significations, which gave way to the idea of reading and power relations between the author and the reader or viewer. This theory also gives importance to the notions of discourse, ideology and cultural assumptions, including stereotypes which are perpetuated in the social milieu by media and other agents. The dominant Western traditions of privileging ‘white’ before ‘black’, ‘male’ before female or ‘centre’ before ‘margin’ can be resisted by the reader or audience after a thorough cognizance and analysis of the representations and offering of inherent values in the text. Thus, in this theory, the audience can subvert the dominant ideologies presented to them. Hence the concepts of power structures within the participants in the texts, between the author and the reader as well as considerations of context of author, text and audience are significant aspects of the activity (Corcoran 1994, Croker 2010, Macken-Horarick and Morgan 2008, Mellor and Patterson 2007, Pope 2002 and Pride 1994). This theory became the critical landscape of the subject English in Australia, particularly in its dealing with texts and literature until the arrival of the more recent New National Curriculum. Popularly known as critical literacy, its main criticism is found in its ‘self-defeating’ and ‘debilitating’ natures which Gribble (1993) argues that it is “disingenuous to be applied to ‘rich’ texts such as Shakespeare’s and Austen’s”. I would argue, however, that the value of critical literacy resides in its offering to empower the reader as an intelligent negotiator of meaning – that, as an effective member of society, he or she has the opportunity to always examine and choose to resist unworthy presumptions within the text. This is largely significant because of the continuous inundation of welcomed and unwelcomed texts that fill our postmodern lives. The subject English is the perfect platform through which this activity can occur because of the facility of the subject to inter-connect the human beings vicariously, imaginatively or real through texts and contexts in their myriad ways.

Postcolonialism, on the other hand, refers to the awareness of the colonial and postcolonial activities of European countries on their colonised nations, particularly the events that occurred between late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It largely involves criticisms of the effects of such exercise in matters of race, ethnicity, multiculturalism, Anglo-centrism and Euro-centrism, English language domination, the centring of the white and the decentring of the black culture, as well as the black-white polarities and binary oppositions. In the case of Australia, this theory traces the ‘transportation’ of British convicts into the country and their subsequent difficult and often bloody encounters with the native people, marked by the image and axiom: “The black man is the white man’s burden” (Pope 2002:138-151). Postcolonialism traces how perceptions of the colonised have been tainted, for example, it questions the derogatory associations placed on the word ‘black’ to contain dominant associations with “evil”, “dirt” and “darkness” against “white” to contain associations with “goodness”, “innocence”, “light” and “cleanliness”. It also uncovers other negative effects of colonisation in terms of renaming and mapping which suggests perceived undesirability of the original entities, for example, Rhodesia turned into Zimbabwe and in the case of the Philippines, subjects’ surnames were turned Hispanic to be considered worthy of belonging to the Spanish colony (Pope, 2002:148, Perdon, 2010: 92). Maps have also been misrepresented to show countries of European colonisers’ are bigger than their colonised counterparts. This theory allows the reader to process elements of the texts and their possible interpretations that call for moral and ethical responses.

Commonalities between the two theories include the appreciation of diversity of peoples as well as concepts and interpretation for better cultural and social systems and processes. Kress (1996) regards cultural diversity as having economic advantages in a globalised society because of the inherent natural and cultural products it generates. He states: “Cultural diversity represents technological and informational diversity (using ‘technology’ in the wider sense of ‘the means of dealing with the demands of specific environment) much greater than anything offered by the Internet” (p.14). The second prominent feature that is common to the two theories above concerns the opportunity for readers, consumers and viewers to be empowered in terms of their dealing with texts. In Poststructuralism and Postcolonialism, recipients are not just passive consumers of the text, but also active negotiators (or resistant) makers of meaning. Readers will begin to understand the cultural place upon which he or she was positioned in the story and story telling as well as in the history of the nation. The third and most importantly, Poststructuralism and Postcolonialism provide a framework through which the subject English can mould a contemporary learner to be an ethical, moral and effective member of society.

Application of Poststructuralism and Postcolonialism in The Rabbits

Using Pope’s Model of text, producer, receiver and relations to the rest of the world, the Rabbits can be appraised as follows: John Marsden’s and Shaun Tan’s award-winning picturebook The Rabbits tells the story of the arrival and settlement of British people into Australia. This historical account uses fifteen spreads of illustration with actions, settings and characters consisting of people in animal-like, specifically, rabbit-like appearance. These grotesque created creatures form the metaphor of the story – the invasion of the foreign white colonisers into the natural and cultural systems of native Aboriginal people in Australia. Hence, the book’s dominant reading, which will be discussed later in detail in this paper, pertains to the colonisation and domination of the British settlers and the subsequent marginalisation and dispossession, and in some aspects, extinction of Aboriginal people and culture. This text is intended for young adults but the demarcation between the younger audience and adults is blurry as the text proves interesting and intelligent for educators, critics and social commentators in the way the text counters ideological narratives in the history of Australia.

Employing the combined theories of Poststructuralism and Postcolonialism in John Marsden’s and Shaun Tan’s The Rabbits, I have identified the following constructs: a) the narrative of colonisation in Australia, b) the racial and ethnic stereotypes in black-white Australian relations through binary oppositions, c) knowledge and familiarity of language and systems as power; and, d) decentring and marginalisation of the Aboriginal culture.

The Rabbits recounts the coloniser-colonised relations that took place in Australian history at the end of the nineteenth century which continued on towards the middle of the twentieth century. It follows the story of the British convicts from their eviction and ‘transportation’ into Australia out of their impoverished and desperate situations within the harsh and unjust system of British Industrialised and Victorian society. In the fourth, fifth and sixth spreads, participants wear cultured clothing, including suits, pants and hats. They carry with them the red imperial flag as they arrive through sophisticated mode of transport – the ship. They go out to the bush and record, map and measure plants and animals in the new frontier. In the fourth slide, one rabbit at the left side of the spread holds a lizard in his left hand and a test tube on his right hand. Another rabbit at the lower right side of the spread, this time a rather large one, is shown holding a globe on his left hand and quill on his right hand, mapping directions and places. The vectors created from the participants’ hands, body, feet and shadows signify the colonisers’ desire to know and familiarise themselves with the new frontier, which is clearly the authors’ way to foreground acts of invading, owning and possessing the presumed uninhabited and un-owned land. These acts contrast with the narrative process by the native animals, which metaphorically signify the Aboriginal people, who sit innocently at the side of the visual. This also foregrounds the development of the plot which narrates their role as the colonised and the marginalised in the narrative.

Furthermore, the story of the colonisation by the white settlers of the black Aboriginal people includes significant events: the sixth spread’s depiction of the dispossession and land titling of the latter’s territory, the ninth and the tenth spread’s illustration of the massacre of the Aboriginal people resulting in their death and annihilation, and the twelfth spread’s depiction of the Stolen Generation. These events denote the victimisation of the colonised and the domination of the colonisers, yet in the end, there appears to be no redemption in the deep loss and hurt suffered by the Aboriginal people.

Moreover, the narrative process of mapping and naming which reinforce the dominating power of the white colonisers are evident in the fourth, fifth and sixth spreads. With strong references on the mapping and the naming acts by the explorers of things that are native and ‘Aboriginal’, participants in the spreads are shown acts related to taxonomy, recording and measuring, as previously mentioned. Of special significance is the seventh spread where linear perspectives point to the framed picture in the middle of the visual and the vectors of the participants’ hands, showing their support and upholding of the same framed picture. Also, vanishing points are placed at the front of the image signalling the invitation to the viewer to also patronise the image where nostalgia of the old industrialised England and their prized idea of the idealised community set-up are enshrined. These significations may be related to the British heritage that the white settlers are trying to uphold and exemplify this new claimed territory of theirs. Consequently, names of places, plants and animals have been re-named in English. Systems of operations and manner of living have been patterned from those in Britain. Language and sign systems have been English and English-oriented and the whole country in itself is claimed terra nullius.

Meanings and symbols associated with white and black are evident. The idea of civilisation in the sixth spread, the papers with the words And stole our children in the twelfth spread and the cityscape in the thirteenth spread show the white colour attributed to the colonisers showing messages of ‘good’, ‘correct’, ‘ideal’ and ‘exemplary’. The Aboriginal people being moved to the sides and minutely illustrated near the margins of the page in the fourth and seventh spreads connotes their primitiveness, unstructured and inept nature, shown against the contrasting images of the ‘civilised’, ‘cultured’, ‘structured’ colonisers. The reality of being dominated in the eight spread, defeat in the tenth spread and loss and dispossession the fifteenth spread show dominance of the black colour attributed towards the Aboriginal people’s despair, hopelessness and death. This binary opposition between ‘the good’ versus ‘the undesirable’ affirms the marginalising result of the black-white polarities in the British colonisation of the natives of Australia.

This blatant silencing of the Aboriginal people and the privileging of the white settlers are typical of the realities of power and ideology in the society where this book’s context is based. The dominant ideological reading of ‘white must render dominion over the blacks’ is evident in the narrative processes, in the acts of naming and mapping and in the use of black-white polarities.

The use of pronouns ‘us’ and ‘them’ exhibits animosity and oppositions in ideologies and relationship of the two factions. Textually, it adds excitement to the plot of the text as does any conflict and tension in a narrative, however, critically and more importantly, the use of ‘us’ and ‘them’ effectively positions the readers to take the side of the colonised Aboriginal people. It identifies with the audience at the very first instance. Dichotomy in the text is used to effectively solicit viewer’s sympathy.

Evaluation of The Rabbits as Suitable Text for Poststructuralism and Postcolonialism

The Rabbit is an excellent text to use in the subject English because of the abundance of illustrations and symbols that students can decode and inter-relate to produce meanings and interpretations. In the principles of semiotics, these illustrations and symbols are signs which are coded and associated with meanings which viewers can read according to their knowledge and experiences; the meanings can then be weaved together to produce discerning interpretations about the viewer’s social and cultural world. Specific examples found in the book include: the rabbits as the British colonisers, the red flag as the rabbit’s British heritage, and the buildings as civilisation. From here, students process this knowledge to examine and detect occurrences of marginalisation of certain groups, normalisation of ideologies, perpetuation of cultural assumptions as well as possibilities of intertextualisation with other learning materials. These activities of reading and deconstruction will be interesting and engaging for students because of the cognitive and the liberating nature of the exercises. This is Poststructuralism in action.

Moreover, the book’s meanings and narratives are good areas through which students see specific examples of the Postcolonial concepts of ethnocentrisms, Euro-centrism, decentring (and its related notions of marginalising and silencing), centring (and its related notions of privileging and favouring), black-white polarities, assumptions and stereotypes, power and ideology, mapping, naming, and the imposition of use of one language for diverse users. Finding evidence and justifications of such concepts and occurrences in the book prove to be a worthwhile exercise for students of English to hone their analytical, discursive and evaluative skills. Consequently, interconnecting and applying these sorts of discussion with the principles of ethics and morality in the context of contemporary society will allow them to form discerning and purposeful work in the field.

The book’s prominent use of the image and the scarce yet effective use of the written word are a testament to the semiotic landscape that has become seemingly common in our digital society. The visual aesthetics of the book through the uses of colour, illustrations, grotesque characters, and depictions of objects which invites puzzle-like activity to the audience are postmodern-oriented elements of which the current generations may be particularly interested, at least, curious with no apparent difficulty.

Furthermore, Marsden’s and Tan’s picturebook contains valid historical accounts marked by sophisticated coherence, contemporary story-telling and important messages of peace and harmony – elements which are beneficial to the study of society, geography and history in Australia. This book explores the alternative narrative of the history of the country different from the platforms of ‘explorers’, ‘James Cook discovering an uninhabited territory’ and ‘the integrity and honour of the British imperial colony. The Rabbits’ implicit messages of invasion, rape and murders of the colonised subjects are themes of resistant literatures which are beneficial to the more in-depth and divergent contemporary approaches to studies of Geography, History and related disciplines.


As a conclusion, the absence of critical framework in the study of literature in the subject English may only cause more harm than good in as far effectiveness and purpose are concerned. Critical literacy which is a by-product of Poststructuralism has had special placement in the English Curriculum in Australia and I suspect that its demise will only lead teachers astray in the real and discerning functions of the subject English in Australian society. Brecht (1993, as quoted in Pope, 2002:81) notes: “A man with one theory is lost, he needs several of them – or lots! He should stuff them in his pocket like newspapers”. Ignoring his gendered-specific way of commenting, we can only reflect on the advantage of having a theoretical framework from which effective English teaching should be based.

This essay used the picturebook The Rabbit as a specimen through which premises of Poststructuralism and Postcolonialism could be applicable and useful. It shows elements of colonisation of a particular place, this time, Australia, racial and ethnic stereotypes in black-white relations through binary oppositions, the notion that knowledge and familiarity of language and systems are powerful and the decentring and marginalisation of the Aboriginal culture. These readings call for appropriate moral and ethical responses from readers and this activity can be reviewed, affirmed and realised in the English classroom. Such is the pertinent role of the subject English in exploring the practical, cultural and in Kress’ (1996:13) term ‘technological’ resource of our society.


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How to reference this essay?

Cabucos, Erwin, (2020), ‘Shaun Tan’s ‘The Rabbits’ as Poststructural and Postcolonial Text’, from, downloaded on today’s date.

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