Dear Mrs Dunkley
By Helen Garner
When Helen moves to a new school, she is taken aback by how strict her teacher, Mrs Dunkley, is. Mrs Dunkley insults Helen’s voice and taunts her as she completes maths equations. But when Mrs Dunkley discovers Helen’s love of language, a bond is formed between the two, however tenuous.
As an adult, Helen recalls Mrs Dunkley’s vibrant appearance. She is contacted by one of Mrs Dunkley’s daughters after including a story about her in one of her books. The daughter reveals that Mrs Dunkley was an alcoholic. This revelation prompts Helen to reflect on her relationship and understanding of her former teacher, as she realises that there is so much we do not know, and will never, about other people. She acknowledges to herself that Mrs Dunkley was an important source of inspiration in her becoming a writer.
Themes and techniques
This text principally explores the power of memory to navigate complex relationships, and to bring new understandings to past experiences. Indeed, Garner reflects how it is not until later in our lives that we can see how past experiences came together to shape who we are in the present. This awareness is reflected through Garner’s use of imagery, as she recalls Mrs Dunkley as being “An intense, damaged, dreadfully unhappy woman,” but nonetheless wishes “you weren’t dead.” There is a tone of sorrow, for the unhappy life Mrs Dunkley led, and of affection: “Please accept the enduring love, the sincere respect, and the eternal gratitude of your Great Moon Calf, Helen.” It is with this line that Garner’s purpose – to caution audiences to appreciate those in their lives and to understand that there may be more than meets the eye – comes into full focus.
‘Please accept … the enduring love, the sincere respect, and the eternal gratitude, Of your Great Mooncalf, Helen.’
sorrowful tone, epistolary structure
demonstration of understanding and knowledge
‘an intense, damaged, dreadfully unhappy woman’
‘so that as you walked you drew along behind you a thick, smudged rainbow trail.’
visual imagery, symbolism
‘But if arithmetic lessons continued to be a hell of failure and derision, your English classes were a paradise of branching and blossoming knowledge.’
juxtaposition, religious imagery
illumination of passion
‘You stared at me .. You mimicked … You corrected it. You humiliated me.’
direct address, past tense
recollection of younger experience