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Literature / The Thorn Birds

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Ralph: There's a story... a legend, about a bird that sings just once in its life. From the moment it leaves its nest, it searches for a thorn tree... and never rests until it's found one. And then it sings... more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. And singing, it impales itself on the longest, sharpest thorn. But, as it dies, it rises above its own agony, to outsing the lark and the nightingale. The thorn bird pays its life for just one song, but the whole world stills to listen, and God in his heaven smiles.
Meggie: What does it mean, Father?"
Ralph: That the best... is bought only at the cost of great pain.

Not just a successful book in its own right (published in 1977) but also adapted in 1983 into the second highest-rated American mini-series ever, Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds branches over 50 years of the 20th century and focuses on the Cleary family, their home — a fictional sheep station called Drogheda — and the forbidden love between the daughter of the family, Meggie, and Ralph de Bricassart, an ambitious Catholic priest.

Has been described as the Australian Gone with the Wind, and with good reason. Not to be confused with the Korean drama of the same name.

Just starting on a character page.



  • Adaptation Distillation: The mini-series makes several minor adjustments concerning ages and the general time line of the book, as well as other alterations; probably the biggest changes are Jim and Patsy being left out altogether and Frank dying in prison. The series was a great success, so obviously they got it right...apart from the 19-year gap. See below.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Mini-series Meggie is incredibly negligent of Justine, to the point where she even finally admits—to Justine herself—that she loved Dane more. In the book, while she has a better relationship with Dane given his easy-going, Ralph-like personality, in contrast to Justine's argumentative, abrasive one, she genuinely loves them equally. If anything, after getting pregnant with Dane, Meggie tries repeatedly to bond with Justine (no doubt to make up for neglecting her during her post-partum depression), only for Justine to be the one to rebuff her.
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  • Ambiguously Gay: None of the Cleary brothers ever leave Drogheda, marry, or even date. It's implied that Fee's negligence has left them completely clueless about how to even approach a woman, but there could always be another reason...
  • Ambition Is Evil: Ralph befriends wealthy widow Mary Carson even though he dislikes her in the hopes that her wealth and influence can help him get back into the church's good graces and eventually advance his career. When she dies, she does make a huge donation on his behalf and even though by now he's fallen in love with Meggie Cleary, the prospect of advancement is too tempting for him and he leaves her—and continues to leave her in order to continue rising in the ranks of the church. By the end of the book, he admits that deep down, he always knew that he was the father of Meggie's son Dane, but taunts himself by referring to himself as "Cardinal deBricassart", because he is also forced to admit that advancing his career was more important to him than being with the woman he loved and building a life with her.
  • Arranged Marriage: Paddy and Fee, basically. After spending some time working on her family's estate, her grandmother, who's taken a liking to him, asks if he would marry Fee because she knows the family will throw her out once she dies. Paddy confides to Ralph that not until their wedding day did he ever even speak to her and that it was several years before they had a "real" marriage because they were so timid, during which he had to teach her to how keep a house because she had no idea how.
  • Author Avatar: Meggie and Justine are both based on Colleen McCullough herself—an Irish father and mother of part-Maori ancestry (Meggie), and a difficult relationship with her mother and whose brother drowned when young (Justine).
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: Fee unfortunately realizes too late that she does love Paddy shortly after Paddy's death because she was too busy mourning for her old love.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Luke and Meggie. He sends her off to work as a housekeeper while he works as a cane cutter, only visiting occasionally for a round of lousy sex and is such a skinflint that he insists on her wages being put in his account, leaving her nothing to spend on herself, and despite supposedly working so hard to earn money to buy them their own house, keeps putting it off because deep down, he has no interest in settling down with a family—when the fed-up Meggie finally leaves him, his only response is to shrug and go back to work.
  • Babies Make Everything Better: Meggie assumes this when trying to become pregnant by Luke—she's wrong. She also assumes this after getting pregnant by Ralph, content to have his son if she can't have him.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Ralph befriends Mary in the hopes that her wealth can influence his advance in the church. By the time it finally happens, he's fallen in love with Meggie and is now agonized at being separated from her.
  • Birth/Death Juxtaposition: Mary flat-out declares that she's going to die the night of her 65th birthday and indeed she does.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Justine, when she gets to this age. Though it's mostly because she's far too outspoken for her age, as she's always been. Ralph is the only one she's legitimately outright rude to.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Meggie warns Fee that if she tells anyone about Dane's parentage, "I'll be as miserable to you as you've always been to me!", finally blasting Fee for what a negligent mother she was. Later, when Meggie refuses to attend Dane's ordination, Justine sarcastically states, "I can understand if it were my ordination, but isn't Dane the one you love?", thus blasting Meggie for how much she's neglected her.
  • Chocolate Baby: Frank. Ralph suspects (correctly) that he isn't Paddy's son the moment he meets him, as his eye color and overall appearance don't match his supposed parents, though Fee has Maori ancestry just like Frank's real father did and it could have been explained this way.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl:
    • Mary Carson is so enamored with Ralph that she outright admits that she dislikes Meggie simply because Ralph is fond of her—Meggie is still a child at this point. Even in death, she invokes this, leaving her fortune to Ralph so that he'll advance in the Church—but be separated from his beloved Meggie.
    • A familial version when Ralph realizes that Justine dislikes him because he and Dane have hit it off and she doesn't like him spending time with anyone but her.
    • When Meggie goes to Matlock Island, the caretaker tells her that his wife is afraid that she'll seduce him. Upon meeting the woman, Maggie is surprised to see that she's much younger than him and very pretty, making her suspicions quite irrational.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Stuart, Meggie's brother who is closest to her in age. He lives in his own world, seldom speaks and takes whatever abuse or tragedy life offers him stoically. Shortly before he is gored to death by a boar he realizes that he never made any plans for himself because he somehow knew he was fated to die young.
  • Compressed Adaptation: The TV producers skipped over 19 years, leaving out Justine's and Dane's childhoods entirely. CBS sought to remedy this error with The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years.
  • Cool Old Lady: Fee's grandmother who refused to let the rest of the family disown Fee when Fee got pregnant as a teenager. When she was dying she arranged for Fee to marry Paddy because she realized the family would throw Fee out once she passed on.
  • Cunning Linguist: Ralph and Dane are both multilingual, though we don't get to see either of them use their skills much, making this also an Informed Ability on both their parts.
  • Daddy's Girl: Paddy and Meggie, in that Paddy seems more protective of Meggie than the rest of his children.
  • Death by Adaptation: Frank dies in the movie, but not in the book.
  • Defiled Forever: Fee's family seemed to regard her as this, as her illegitimate child made her ineligible for marriage to any man of equal social standing.
  • Determined Homesteader's Children: Meggie and her brothers can be considered examples.
  • Disappeared Dad: Frank's real father. All that is revealed about him is that he is a well known, part Maori New Zealand politician. Luke to Justine and (technically) Dane, as well, once Meggie left him.
  • Don't Tell Mama: Meggie's oldest brother Frank runs away from home when she's a girl, after having a fight with Paddy in which it's revealed that Frank isn't his. Years later, Fee happens to find a newspaper in which an article announces his conviction for a terrible crime. Frank's only comment to the press was "Don't tell my mother."
  • Emotionless Girl: According to Paddy, since their marriage began Fee has not complained or cried or even laughed, and though he and their children all love her, she only shows obvious affection for Frank - the son of the man who seduced and abandoned her, hereby explaining her demeanor. She gets warmer later on, ironically because of her husband and sons dying.
  • Evil Matriarch: While you sometimes feel sorry for Mary Carson, you can't deny that she's a conniving bitch of the first order.
  • Generation Xerox:
    • Meggie is determined never to play favorites with her children, yet she blatantly favors Dane just as her mother did Frank. She also loses her favorite child, just as Fee did.
    • Aside from his hair color, Dane bears a strong resemblance to Ralph, has many of his characteristics, and becomes a priest—also adored by his female contemporaries—like he was.
  • Genius Cripple: Anne Mueller has a disability, and she is remarkably well-read.
  • Good People Have Good Sex: Meggie is floored by how wonderful making love with Ralph is, especially compared to how bad sex with Luke was. Justine has a similar reaction after sleeping with Rain, having found sex with her previous lovers to be "pleasant", but not particularly spectacular.
  • Grand Staircase Entrance: How the mini-series presents Meggie's entry into Mary Carson's birthday party. Ralph certainly takes notice.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Luke and his cane-cutting mate, Arnie. To the point where Meggie sarcastically states that Luke should have married Arnie instead of her, since he clearly prefers Arnie's company to hers. Keep in mind, this is someone completely ignorant that homosexuality even exists.
  • Hollywood Fire: A massive one destroys some of the Drogheda property, and kills Paddy; his son Stuart finds the body, only to be killed moments later by a wild boar.
  • Homage: Ralph and Meggie's romantic beach interlude has been described as the most passionate such scene since From Here to Eternity.
  • Hot for Preacher: Mary and Meggie aren't the only ones who lust after Ralph. Dane has his admirers too—two girls almost drown because they're so enamored of him that they follow him out for a swim, only to get caught in the strong current.
  • Hypocrite:
    • Meggie. She spends years lusting after a priest, wanting him to forsake his vows to be with her. She also denounces the church constantly, blaming it for costing her both of the men she loves—Ralph and Dane. She also ultimately commits adultery with said priest and passes his child off as her husband's and blasts her mother for neglecting her and her siblings and blatantly favoring her oldest son. But she won't divorce her husband even though she's left him because she's a "good Catholic" and she neglects her daughter in favor of her son just as her mother did to her. She also blasts Ralph for failing to realize that Dane was his son, overlooking the fact that she herself never told him.
    • In one scene, Ralph is seen sternly chastising a priest who broke his vow of chastity, despite the fact that he's in the exact same situation.
  • If I Can't Have You…:
    • For all that Ralph encourages Meggie to forget him and marry someone else, he gets pretty peeved when she actually goes and does it, and Fee has to call him out on his hypocrisy. Twice.
    • Mary Carson is so incensed that Ralph doesn't return her affections that she engineers things to ensure that he and Meggie will be separated.
  • Interquel: The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years, which unfortunately, was almost completely inconsistent with both the original miniseries as well as the book in terms of both characterization and plotline.
  • I Am Not Your Father: Basically yelled by Paddy during a fight with Frank.
  • Idiot Ball: Ralph not realizing Dane was his son despite their strong resemblance and common talents and interests. It's subverted after Dane dies when he admits that deep down, he probably knew all along but was in denial.
  • Irony:
    • Meta version. In the story, Meggie marries Luke in an attempt to move on from her love for Ralph. In real life, Rachel Ward (Meggie) and Bryan Brown (Luke) were the ones who fell passionately in love on set; they've been happily married since 1983.
    • Fee neglects her daughter Meggie, but becomes a surrogate mother to her granddaughter Justine because of Meggie neglecting her.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Mary Carson is a wretched person, but she picks up on Ralph's feelings for Meggie almost instantly, calls him out on the impropriety of them, and scoffs at his protestations of "I'm a priest", reminding him, "You're a man first." Her assessments may be motivated only out of jealousy, but they're still correct.
    • In the interquel, upon finding out that Dane is Ralph's son and not his, Luke blasts Meggie as a "lying bitch" and Ralph as a "fornicating priest". It sounds harsh until you realize that Meggie did in fact cheat on him with Ralph and then allowed him and Dane to bond for months while knowing full well that Dane wasn't his.
    • He's also rightly pissed off when Meggie tries to pull The Baby Trap on him, given that he made it clear that he wanted to wait until they were financially secure before having children, which she completely disregarded.
  • Like a Son to Me: Ralph says this about Dane after hearing that he's died, not two seconds before Meggie drops the bomb on him that Dane WAS his son.
  • Love Triangle: Between Meggie, Ralph, and God. Ralph at one point admits to his superior that it's only after hours of prayer that he finds the strength to not walk out of the church and go to her, and even after they finally consummate their relationship and he tells him that he found a peace with her that he's never found with God, he still can't find it in him to leave the priesthood and be with her.
  • Love Will Lead You Back: At the end of the first episode of the Mini Series, as Ralph leaves Meggie to begin his ascent in the church, she declares, "Go on to that God of yours, but you'll come back to me, because I'm the one who loves you."
  • Loving a Shadow: Paddy and Fee. Ralph and Meggie also, to the point where Meggie marries Luke because of his resemblance to Ralph. After the marriage falls apart, she refuses to divorce him and move on with anyone else, having resigned herself to loving a man she knows she can never be with.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Mary Carson, so incensed when Ralph rebuffs her and so jealous of his feelings for Meggie that she seeks to control his destiny from beyond the grave and prevent them from ever having a chance to be together—she wills her fortune to Ralph, thus improving his stance with the church, knowing full well that the prospect of advancing his career will outweigh his desire to be with Meggie—but also that he'll simultaneously be miserable without her.
  • Marital Rape License: Meggie's boorish husband Luke forces himself on her on their wedding night because "it's time." All the more horrific for Meggie in that she is ignorant of the facts of life.
  • Massive Numbered Siblings: There are a total of nine children in the Cleary family, and Fee and Ralph are implied to have come from large families themselves.
  • May–December Romance: Ralph is eighteen years older than Meggie. To a lesser extent, Rainer and Justine. He is ten years older. The caretaker of Matlock Island is roughly 20 years his wife's senior and believes that this is the ideal setting for a happy marriage, as theirs is.
  • Men Are Better Than Women:
    • Fee's attitude towards her children for much of the book. She dotes on her sons but barely acknowledges Meggie's existence. It has suggested that her own hard lot is why she had no enthusiasm about having a female child. She does come to respect and grow closer to Meggie in later life.
    • Luke demonstrates this too. Already displeased when Meggie gets pregnant, he's even moreso when the child is a girl. Later, after Meggie leaves him, he still writes to her occasionally to ask if their last interlude resulted in a son.
    • In the midquel too—Luke only resurfaces in Meggie's life when he hears about Dane, assuming the boy is his. He pays little attention to Justine during the following weeks, and when Meggie kicks him out for good after he slaps her, it's Dane he snatches and seeks custody of.
  • Miss Conception: Book Meggie is completely ignorant about where babies come from, believing, even in her mid-teens, that one "wishes for them and they grow". Fee, of course, never bothers to explain anything to her, leaving Meggie in for a very unpleasant wedding night (her husband being a lousy, selfish, and inconsiderate lover doesn't help much). In the movie, she knows, but is still unprepared for how painful the first time can be.
  • Moving the Goalposts: Luke keeps insisting that he needs to save more and more money before he and Meggie can buy their own place and settle down to start a family, but he drags it out so long—by which point he has sufficient funds—that Meggie finally realizes he has no interest in doing so.
  • My Girl Back Home: Ralph seems to think of Meggie this way while he is at the Vatican.
  • Nephewism: Done with a twist. When Dane decides to enter the priesthood, Meggie agrees only as long as he can study with Father Ralph. Ralph's superior decides that, to throw off any suspicions from people who wonder at Ralph's obvious fondness for the younger man, they will tell people that Dane is his nephew.
  • Nay-Theist: Meggie had shades of this especially when Dane dies.
  • No Periods, Period: Averted. Poor Ralph has to explain to Meggie what's actually happening when she starts menstruating, since her mother hasn't bothered to tell her anything at all and Meggie thinks she's dying from a tumor.
    • And yet not averted: the characters exist in a No Periods, Period culture, as made clear by the very fact that Meggie doesn't know what her menstruation is: and when she finally manages to tell Ralph, he is in an agony of embarrassment at the very mention of it (the women who tell him their sexual fantasies as fact in the confessional graphically describe every aspect of human sexuality they can imagine ... except that they menstruate).
  • Non-Indicative Name:
    • "The Missing Years", referring to the roughly 15-20 years skipped over by the original series, only covers approximately one year of that time, if even that much.
    • The sections of the book are ostensibly named after whoever will be the focus—"Meggie", "Ralph", "Paddy", "Luke", "Fee", "Dane", "Justine"—but that's rarely the case. Justine gets more focus in the "Dane" chapter than Dane does!
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Likely owing to the rampant Fake Nationality. With the exceptions of Christopher Plummer (Cardinal Vittorio), Richard Kiley (Paddy), and Ken Howard (Rainier) none of the actors make any attempt at sounding the way their characters should, given where they're from.
  • Nuns Are Spooky: In the book, Meggie has some horrible experiences at parochial school because of sadistic nuns.
  • Oedipus Complex:
    • Fee and Frank, to a downright disturbing level—he flips out at the sight of Fee's pregnancy, horrified at the undeniable evidence of Fee and Paddy's sexual relationship. The animosity between him and Paddy is outright described as "the rivalry for Fee".
    • Reversed with Meggie and Dane—though she actually wants to her son get married and have children, rather than keeping him to herself (though she still sees his decision to become a priest as an attack on her).
    • Ralph and Meggie can be seen as a gender swapped version as well.
  • Parental Favoritism:
    • Justine knows all too well that Dane is the favorite. In the book, she's gotten over it (Meggie doesn't neglect her nearly as much as she does in the movie), while in the movie she resents her mother for it, although not Dane.
    • Similarly, Meggie and the rest of the boys know that Fee favors Frank more than the rest of them, as well, but Meggie resents Fee, not Frank for this.
    • It is also implied that Meggie is Paddy's favorite.
  • Parental Sexuality Squick: Frank is enraged and disgusted to see that Fee is pregnant again, ranting "Why can't he (Paddy) just leave you alone?!", and even more horrified when Fee irritatedly tells him, "I'm not the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is no different from how YOU came into the world.", thus revealing that Paddy did not force himself on her.
  • Pedophile Priest: Subverted with Ralph, who is implied to have feelings for Meggie from the moment they meet, when he's 28 and she's 10, but nothing happens between them until she grows up. But even then, she's still quite young.
  • Pink Means Feminine: Meggie wears a greyish pink ("ashes of roses") dress at Mary Carson's birthday party. Ralph associates Meggie with this color forever after.
  • Playing Gertrude: Rachel Ward is only a few years older than the actress and actor portraying her children, but this is justified in that she's been playing the role since Meggie was a teenager.
  • Posthumous Villain Victory: Incensed by Ralph rebuffing her advances and over his love for her niece Meggie, Mary amends her will. Whereas she was originally going to leave everything to her brother Paddy (Meggie's father) and his family, she now leaves the bulk of it to Ralph, even though she still leaves a significant amount to Paddy. Had she left everything to Ralph and left her brother penniless, she knows Ralph would have been angry to refuse the new terms, but this way, he has no reason to do so. Furthermore, with her financial backing, Ralph can begin to advance in the Catholic Church, something else she knows he desperately wants, but simultaneously be separated from his beloved Meggie. Despite their love for each other and even a romantic interlude that results in a son, they're never able to be happy together.
  • Preacher's Kid: Dane, in that he acts very angelic, but he is unaware of his true parentage.
  • Precision F-Strike: "The old bitch."
  • Rags to Riches:
    • The Cleary family does this; they go from living a very meager existence on New Zealand to living on a fantastic country estate in Australia, even if they do spend the first few years living in the servants quarters.
    • Also to a lesser extent with Ralph, when Mary Carson leaves most of her estate to the Catholic Church and makes him the executor of her will. This sudden influx of wealth improves his standing with the church, and he commences a rise through the ranks which eventually leads to his being made a cardinal.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Ralph is in Australia for reasons he initially refuses to reveal, before finally admitting that he was insubordinate to a senior official.
  • Riches to Rags: Fee who was disowned by her wealthy and powerful New Zealand family after being pregnant out of wedlock.
  • Scenery Porn: Mostly the Australian outback, but also Queensland and New Zealand.
  • Secretly Wealthy: Subverted with Mary Carson. People already knew she was rich, but she was much wealthier than anyone imagined.
  • Series Continuity Error: Results from the plotline of The Missing Years. Among many examples is that in the original, Ralph meets Justine and Dane as young adults and the dialogue makes it quite clear that this is for the first time, whereas in the interquel, he meets them as children and spends considerable time with them. They are far too old to have simply forgotten this by the time they meet in the original and even if not, Ralph certainly wouldn't have.
  • Sex Comedy: Justine's first time. She starts laughing uncontrollably when she sees a reflection of her partner's bouncing buttocks (whose hair tufts make her think of Dagwood). Her partner is less amused, however. Perhaps it's payback for when they got started, His reaction upon seeing her naked is to exclaim, "Good God! You really are a redhead!" To which she snaps, "What did you expect? Purple feathers?"
  • Sexy Priest: Ralph in a nutshell. Mary also wonders why so many priests are beautiful, and whether they choose the priesthood as an escape from the consequences of their appearances—or perhaps they like somehow taunting women with the fact that such an attractive man is unavailable to them. All this while she's admiring a half naked Ralph in the rain, of course.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Ralph has this reaction to Meggie when she walks into Mary Carson's birthday party.
  • Sibling Rivalry:
    • Averted; Justine doesn't resent Dane for being their mother's favorite, they love each other dearly and he's the only person she lets herself be close to for a long time.
    • Averted with Frank and Meggie; despite the fact that he is their mother's favorite child, and she seems for many years to be her least favorite, Meggie adores Frank and vice versa. In fact, Frank seems to be genuinely fond of all his younger siblings, with Meggie being his favorite. No mean feat, considering that he despises their father.
  • Sibling Yin-Yang: Meggie comments at one time about how different Justine and Dane are, and yet they get along so wonderfully.
  • Single Sex Offspring: Meggie is the only daughter of the Cleary family, with three younger brothers and five older brothers. In conversation with the priest, her mother Fiona notes that both her husband's family and her own tend to produce sons more frequently than daughters. "Girls are unusual."
  • Someone to Remember Him By: A rare case where the "him" is alive. Fee and Meggie dote on sons Frank and Dane, respectively, as they and the boys respective fathers cannot be together.
  • Spiteful Will: An unusual version in which Mary Carson actually doesn't leave anyone impoverished. She leaves the bulk of her fortune to Ralph while still leaving a good amount to her Paddy and his family, all because of her bitterness that Ralph has rebuffed her and wanting to ensure that he'll be permanently separated from Meggie because she knows the desire to ascend in the Catholic Church—which he's certain to do with his newfound wealth—will be greater than the desire to abandon the priesthood and build a life with her.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Ralph and Meggie, Fee and Pakeha, Justine and Rainer. Though in Justine and Rainer's case, it's not so much circumstances as it is Justine herself—she pushes him away because she feels undeserving of love, fears ruining the relationship, feels responsible for Dane's death (irrationally thinking had she not been with Rainer, she could have prevented Dane's drowning) and should thus be punished by never finding happiness, etc.
  • Stern Nun: Sister Agatha, who is more sadistic than stern.
  • Unbalanced by Rival's Kid: Though he gets over it and is more upset with Meggie about it, Ralph is initially rattled when he meets Dane, assuming him to be Luke's son, not realizing he's his.
  • Vow of Celibacy: The illicit relationship between a Catholic priest and a younger woman is the main conflict.
  • Wife Husbandry: Ralph's known Meggie since she was ten and when they make love for the first time, he at last acknowledges he's molded and shaped her without intending to and that she's his creation. Ummm...yay? Also averted, since he didn't do it intentionally and he resists it for as long as possible, trying to think of Meggie as a child and not a woman.
  • Your Son All Along: Although in this case, Ralph adored Dane the moment he saw him (only after Dane's death does he admit that deep down, he probably knew all along), and instead harbors some resentment towards his mother Meggie, assuming that despite their passionate interlude (when Dane was conceived), she returned to her neglectful husband Luke.