Study Guide

Patrick White

Patrick White Essay - White, Patrick

White, Patrick

Introduction

Patrick White 1912–-1990

(Full name Patrick Victor Martindale White; also wrote under the pseudonym P. V. M.). English-born Australian novelist, short story writer, playwright, memoirist, and poet. See also Patrick White Literary Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 4, 5, 7, 9, 18.

A notable voice in Australian literature, White is known for his stylistically complex novels and short fiction that feature eccentric characters, harsh environments, and satirical portrayals of Australian society. White's frequent use of isolation as a theme stemmed from his personal feelings of alienation and nonacceptance by his fellow countrymen. White's work has never captured a large audience, but critical understanding and appreciation of White's work has increased over time.

Biographical Information

White was born in London, the oldest child of a wealthy Australian couple. At an early age, White began writing plays and attended Australian schools. When he was thirteen years old, his parents sent him to Cheltenham College, a boarding school near Gloucester, England. Following graduation in 1929, White returned to Australia and worked as a jackeroo, or ranch hand. During this time, he published a thin volume of poetry and began writing novels. In 1932 White returned to England to attend Cambridge University, where he studied French and German. After graduating in 1935, White remained in London but took a trip to the United States and Europe. White returned to Australia following service in the Royal Air Force as an intelligence officer in the Middle East. His literary career spanned nearly a half century, producing twelve novels, several plays, three volumes of poetry, and three short story collections. White's work established him as an authentic voice of Australia, winning him the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature. White died in 1990.

Major Works of Short Fiction

White once remarked that the present is “a tireless dance,” and is always “a variation of the same theme.” During an interview with The New York Times Book Review, White told the interviewer that his “dominant obsession” was the search for “meaning and design” in what he described as “the tragic farce of life—to find reason in apparent unreason, and how to accept a supernatural force which on the one hand blesses and on the other destroys.” His comments during that interview reflect many of the themes that recur in his short fiction. White's three short story collections—The Burnt Ones, The Cockatoos, and Three Uneasy Pieces—feature many of the same themes, including isolation, the interplay between illusion and reality, and past events and memories intruding into the present. Employing techniques such as stream-of-consciousness narratives, complex flashbacks, use of unusual syntax, and the exploration of dreams and states of madness, White's short fiction delves into human psychology, spirituality, and man's search for meaning. Characters portrayed in White's first collection, The Burnt Ones, are haunted by feelings of isolation, intense self-examination, and an acute awareness of how they are different from others. Loneliness as a theme is present in White's second short story collection as well. In The Cockatoos, characters in many of the stories are bourgeois older couples, who in their remaining years, make various attempts to escape feelings of isolation within their marriages. In “A Woman's Hand,” Evelyn Fazackley's invasive matchmaking leads to the marriage of two acquaintances. The union, however, leads to the mental collapse of one partner and the death of the other. In “The Cockatoos,” the title story of the collection, Mrs. Davoren and her husband are alienated from each other and have not spoken for years until the unusual arrival of cockatoos in their yard. The birds provide the couple a topic for conversation as well as a connection long absent from their marriage. But the connection is short-lived after a neighbor shoots two of the birds and Mr. Davoren is killed in his attempt to wrest the gun from him. Three Uneasy Pieces, White's last published book and short story collection, differs from the previous two collections in that most of the stories are confessional and written in first person.

Critical Reception

White's literary reputation rests primarily on his novels and plays; since his death, the majority of critical commentary has focused on his longer fictional works. White's short stories, which mimic many of the same themes and literary techniques found in his novels and plays, are similarly criticized for their multiplicity of symbols, myths, and allegories. Some critics have remarked that his writing is “unreadable” and convoluted, while others have praised White's use of language and imagery. Despite criticism of the language White used to write his stories, many have noted that his short stories and longer fiction provide insight into the mystery of the human psyche and the collective unconscious through psychological exploration of his characters. “In describing the pathos of a slow crumbling of suburban souls, his stories evoke a sense of tragedy—a tragedy not so much of an individual, but of a civilization, of a whole way of life,” said critic Hameeda Hossain. Scholar William Walsh has described White as a “richly gifted, original and highly significant writer whose powers are remarkable and whose achievement is large. His art is dense, poetic, and image-ridden. … At its finest it is one which goes beyond an art of mere appearances to one of mysterious actuality.”

Principal Works

The Burnt Ones 1964

The Cockatoos 1975

Three Uneasy Pieces 1988

Patrick White: Selected Writings (short stories, poetry, drama) 1994

Thirteen Poems (poetry) 1930

The Ploughman, and Other Poems (poetry) 1935

Happy Valley (novel) 1939

The Living and the Dead (novel) 1941

Return to Abyssinia (drama) 1947

The Aunt's Story (novel) 1948

The Tree of Man (novel) 1955

Voss (novel) 1957

The Ham Funeral (drama) 1961

Riders in the Chariot (novel) 1961

The Season at Sarsaparilla (drama) 1962

A Cheery Soul (drama) 1963

A Night on Bald Mountain (drama) 1964

The Solid Mandala (novel) 1966

The Vivisector (novel) 1970

The Eye of the Storm (novel) 1973

Poems (poetry) 1974

A Fringe of Leaves (novel) 1976

Big Toys (drama) 1977

The Twyborn Affair (novel) 1980

Flaws in the Glass: A Self-Portrait (autobiography) 1981

Netherwood (drama) 1983

Signal Driver (drama) 1983

Shepherd on the Rocks (drama) 1987

Patrick White Speaks (speeches) 1989

Criticism

The Times Literary Supplement (review date 1964)

The Times Literary Supplement (review date 1964)

SOURCE: “Sparks from a Burning Wheel,” in The Times Literary Supplement, October 22, 1964, p. 953.

[In this review of The Burnt Ones, the critic provides a negative assessment of the short fiction collection.]

In Mr. White's more recent novels a centrifugal tendency has been increasingly apparent: things do not fall apart—Mr. White has too much control to permit that—but they do tug apart. In Voss the centre holds only by a dream communion between Voss and Laura Trevelyan which intensifies and tightens as the physical distance between them increases. In Riders in the Chariot even Mr. White's technical ingenuity is hard put to it to keep the reins of his quadriga; and the real unity of the novel depends less on its structure than on the burning vision which informs it. Now, in this collection of stories, sparks from his anvil rather than chips from the axe which shaped that holy rood, the most unified of his novels, The Tree of Man, he seems to have accepted a further fragmentation.

If a reviewer confesses to a gratitude tempered by disappointment for The Burnt Ones, this cannot be attributed to any failure in his technique. The skill is as pervasive as ever and the flaws too minor. For there are flaws: certain characteristic devices seem to recur because they have become a mannerism rather than because they have a specific function. This is particularly true of his elliptical trick of beginning a sentence with a conjunction and dropping the subject pronoun:

Nora could have been beautiful, Eileen thought. And suddenly felt old, she who had stripped once or twice at amusing parties.

And there are times when he allows the device to intrude into dialogue and become dramatically damaging: we realize it is Mr. White writing, not the character speaking.

Of the eleven stories four are set in Greece, seven in Australia. They are not separately grouped and it is...

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Robert L. Stilwell (review date 1964)

SOURCE: “A Dangerous Spark of Life,” in Saturday Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 44, October 31, 1964, p. 54.

[In this negative review of The Burnt Ones, Stilwell sharply criticizes the style of White's writing, arguing that many reviewers have overpraised his writing talent and accomplishments.]

It may seem perverse to suggest that the Australian Patrick White is among the more difficult practitioners of fiction now living and working. At first glance—and often at twentieth glance—his pages are likely to look shallow, ungainly, homemade, even simple-minded. You might suspect that, far from being masterful exploitations of language and experience, they were...

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Robert Kiely (review date 1964)

SOURCE: “Patrick White: The Short Story Pinches,” in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 56, No. 297, November 12, 1964, p. 11.

[In his unfavorable review of The Burnt Ones, Kiely maintains that the “exceedingly gifted writer may be dabbling in the wrong form” by penning short stories.]

Most Americans are not quite sure how to take Australia. The vast stretches of land, the rough living and ranch humor appeal to us and remind us of what we once were and would sometimes still like to be. But the little pockets of provincial snobbery and British respectability disturb our frontier ideal. They not only alter the vistas of open spaces and natural living,...

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George Greene (review date 1964)

SOURCE: “Taking the Measure of the Terror of Isolation,” in Commonweal, Vol. 81, No. 8, November 13, 1964, p. 241-42.

[In the following positive review, Greene discusses the common themes that tie together the stories in The Burnt Ones.]

Every living short story, as Elizabeth Bowen reminds us, demands a measure of experiment. Today, what narrows the range of some practitioners is that they pit technical bravery against their need to document a lost paradise. In this contest, invention too often becomes the first casualty. Most of us have read quite enough narratives with a “My Days as an Unlicensed Dentist in Detroit” format. Such nostalgia Mr. White vigorously...

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Jack Lindsay (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: “The Stories of Patrick White,” in Meanjin Quarterly, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, December, 1964, pp. 372-76.

[In the following essay, Lindsay praises The Burnt Ones, saying White's work “shows some important advances and makes clearer than ever the need to grapple with his work in full critical seriousness.”]

It is a tribute to the work of Patrick White that one is forced to judge it by the highest standards: even a qualified praise of its achievement means far more than easy superlatives evoked by writing which carries on in the closed circle of more conventionalised methods. His latest book, The Burnt Ones, shows some important advances and...

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J. F. Burrows (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: “The Short Stories of Patrick White,” in Southerly, Vol. 24, No. 2, 1964, pp. 116-25.

[In the following essay, Burrows illustrates how White uses observations and anecdotes about Australian society in his fiction as a form of social satire.]

At her first appearance in Happy Valley (1939), the loneliness and discontent of poor Vic Moriarty are epitomised in her absurd day-dream of being mentioned in the social pages of the Herald as having played bridge at David Jones. She pictures herself wearing a powder-blue dress (p. 37). At her final appearance in Riders in the Chariot (1961), Mrs. Chalmers-Robinson, socially rehabilitated at last,...

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Andrew Taylor (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: “White's Short Stories,” in Overland, No. 31, March, 1965, pp. 17-19.

[In the following essay, Taylor discusses the shortcomings and the success of White's short stories in The Burnt Ones, maintaining that the stories are “fine, penetrating, courageous and illuminating in their economy.”]

Patrick White is central to Australian literature just in so far as he chooses to remain at odds with its society. To say that he is one of our sharpest and best social critics is stating a commonplace. The “suburban” world of Sarsaparilla and Barranugli receive about as much sympathy as they offer love. But one of his strengths is the ability not only to...

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Hameeda Hossain (review date 1965)

SOURCE: A review of The Burnt Ones, in The Australian Quarterly, Vol. VII, No. 4, December, 1965, pp. 120-23.

[In the following review, Hossain discusses how the stories in The Burnt Ones mirror themes in White's novels and act as commentary on Australian society and the human condition.]

Patrick White was introduced to me as one of the best Australian writers of today. On reading The Burnt Ones, a collection of his short stories, which led me to read two of his more recent novels, The Aunt's Story and Riders in the Chariot, it seemed evident that he is outstanding among contemporary fiction writers outside Australia as well.

...

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H. P. Heseltine (review date 1965)

SOURCE: “Writer and Reader,” in Southerly, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1965, pp. 69-71.

[In the following review, Heseltine asserts that The Burnt Ones is “an essentially uneven book,” but that through the unevenness “shines one of our great creative spirits.”]

“Dead Roses”, the story which Patrick White has placed at the beginning of The Burnt Ones, is long, previously unpublished, and resumes the chief features of the ten which follow it. It is largely concerned, for instance, with the influence on Anthea Scudamore of her dreadful, domineering mother. It is a theme which has already engaged Patrick White in his novels; but he has imagined no more...

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Barry Argyle (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: “Short Stories,” in Patrick White, Oliver and Boyd LTD, 1967, pp.66–89.

[In the following excerpt, Argyle points out that while White is primarily known as a novelist, his short stories show the same “intelligence” and “wealth of experience” that mark the author's longer fiction.]

When in the early sixties White began publishing those stories which he has since collected, with two additions, under the title of The Burnt Ones, many of his recent English readers were surprised that a novelist who dealt in great themes at great length should bother with an art-form used mainly by beginners. It had also become an axiom among many professional...

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Eudora Welty (review date 1975)

SOURCE: A review of The Cockatoos, in The New York Times Book Review, January 19, 1975, pp. 4, 37.

[In the following review, Welty discusses how the six short stories in The Cockatoos have similar themes involving characters who “come to a point of discovery” by confronting their problems.]

These [the stories in The Cockatoos] are six stories (a few are short novels) to do with lives often driven or hopeless, but what they are ultimately about is what might have been. They bring together the possibilities and the impossibilities of human relationships. They happen in Australia, Egypt, Sicily, Greece, where they go off like cannons fired over...

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Sheldon Frank (review date 1975)

SOURCE: “Nobelity Without Authenticity,” in The National Observer, Vol. 14, No. 4, January 25, 1975, p. 21.

[In the following negative assessment of White's fiction, Frank deems White's short stories “disappointing,” arguing that while they exhibit a “verbal richness” and “psychological acumen,” they feature characters who never seem real and plots that “verge on melodrama.”]

The Nobel Prize for Literature has often been a suspect award. Writers have frequently been honored not for their literary greatness, but for their moral courage (Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn) or for their good fortune in coming from a country that had not yet had a winner in this...

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John Alfred Avant (review date 1975)

SOURCE: A review of The Cockatoos, in The New Republic, Vol. 172, No. 12, 1975, pp. 23-4.

[In the following review, Avant maintains that the short story form “demands immediate rapport between artist and audience; and White, the most austere of modern novelists, isn't an intimate writer.”]

White is a master of the novel. At his best he draws us in, but only so far: the vise that grips the reader is carefully distanced, and that distance can provide an oracular power. But the short story is a form that demands immediate rapport between artist and audience; and White, the most austere of modern novelists, isn't an intimate writer. The stories in his early...

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Anthony J. Hassall (review date 1975)

SOURCE: “Patrick White's ‘The Cockatoos,’” in Southerly, Vol. 35, No. 1, March, 1975, pp. 3-13.

[In the following review, Hassall praises White, contending that the author's writing shows he is “clear-eyed,” compassionate, and “can tell a good old-fashioned story extremely well.”]

Most of the six shorter novels and stories in Patrick White's second collection begin, like The Eye of the Storm and The Solid Mandala, at the end of life. They are about retired couples, living out their last years together. Though three of the stories have previously been published separately,1 the collection is a comparatively unified one, held...

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Rose Marie Beston (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: “More Burnt Ones: Patrick White's ‘The Cockatoos,’” in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1975, pp. 520-24.

[In the following essay, Beston asserts that the short story form “does not offer White the space he needs for his greatest strength,” which is the portrayal of his characters' fantasies.]

In The Cockatoos, Patrick White's latest collection of stories, there are only six stories against the eleven in The Burnt Ones (1964), his last collection. Two of the stories are of novella length (“A Woman's Hand” and “Sicilian Vespers”), and another two could also be considered novellas (“The Night the Prowler”...

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Ingmar Björksten (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Short Stories and Plays,” in Patrick White: A General Introduction, translated by Stanley Gerson, University of Queensland Press, 1976, pp. 75-8.

[In the following excerpt, Björksten states that the short story is “not Patrick White's best medium of expression” during his discussion of The Burnt Ones.]

THE BURNT ONES

After Riders in the Chariot Patrick White wrote eleven short stories, which were published in 1964 in his first collection of short stories. He named the collection after the Greek hoi kaumenoi—the burnt ones, the poor unfortunates. The title characterizes all White's “elect”, those...

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R. B. J. Wilson (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “The Rhetoric of Patrick White's ‘Down at the Dump’,” in Bards, Bohemians, and Bookmen, edited by Leon Cantrell, University of Queensland Press, 1976, pp. 281-88.

[In the following essay, Wilson praises White's short story “Down at the Dump,” asserting that it “demonstrates the superb adroitness with which White can modulate his discourse among many functions—satiric, compassionate, speculative—and give it a dimension that is metaphysical, even religious, in its range.”]

This typical and very effective example of White's prose is a reminder of how fully he has exploited the resources of language to create his literature and how well he has...

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William Walsh (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Other Work,” in Patrick White's Fiction, Rowman and Littlefield, 1977, pp. 67-84.

[In the following essay, Walsh discusses the common aspects of White's short stories, plays, and novels.]

The scope of the eleven stories in The Burnt Ones (1964) is naturally more confined than in the novels, but the shape and proportions are the same. There is a similar sense of the depth of human nature and the same strikingly individual sensibility, giving off a mixed odour of sweat and spirituality. The people in the Australian group of stories may be ordinary (“Dead Roses”, “Willy-Wagtails by Moonlight”) or drab (“Clay”, “Down at the Dump”), the...

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David Myers (essay 1978)

SOURCE: “Narrative Techniques in the Shorter Prose Fiction,” in The Peacocks and the Bourgeoisie, Adelaide University Union Press, 1978, pp. 173-90.

[In the following excerpt, Myers observes that White's more successful short stories mimic the intensity, tension, and density of imagery in his novels.]

In an interview with Craig McGregor that took place some years after the publication of The Burnt Ones and some years before The Cockatoos appeared, Patrick White had the following to say about his short stories:

Short stories? I don't really like writing them so much—though I have nearly got enough for another...

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David Myers (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “The Cockatoos,” in The Peacocks and the Bourgeoisie, Adelaide University Union Press, 1978, pp. 131-37.

[In the following excerpt, Myers examines the title story of The Cockatoos, asserting that it “is not a short story but a remarkably compressed novella” that integrates complex narrative methods and variations in mood.]

This is a story about very ordinary people's suffering from lovelessness and crippling inhibitions, and about their tormented yearning for the release of passion. It is also a story about both the brutal cruelty and the kindness of which humans are capable; about the perversion of sexual love into smothering possessiveness or...

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Ron Shepherd (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “An Indian Story: ‘The Twitching Colonel,’” in Patrick White: A Critical Symposium, edited by R. Shepherd & K. Singh, Centre for Research in the New Literatures in English, 1978, pp. 28-33.

[In the following essay, Shepherd views “The Twitching Colonel,” one of White's earliest short stories, as a harbinger of themes that surface later in the author's fiction.]

I wish to look at an early short story by Patrick White, “The Twitching Colonel,” which appeared for the first (and only) time in London Mercury in 1937 two years before Happy Valley in 1939. This story is of special interest for several reasons. It is a very early piece...

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Timothy G. A. Nelson (review date 1981)

SOURCE: “Proserpina and Pluto, Ariadne and Bacchus: Myth in Patrick White's ‘Dead Roses,’” in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1, May, 1981, pp. 111-14.

[In the following review, Nelson asserts that “Dead Roses” is one of the best works in The Burnt Onesand shows how White uses myth to add comedy to the story.]

‘Dead Roses,’ the longest and one of the best stories in Patrick White's collection The Burnt Ones, is saturated in classical myth. The central figure, Anthea Scudamore, is a goddess manquée who, faded and suburban as she is, seems in her finer moments to have ‘strayed out of some other category, of divinities and...

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Veronica Brady (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “‘Down at the Dump’ And Lacan's Mirror Stage,” in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, October, 1983, pp. 233-37.

[In the following essay, Brady praises White's story “Down at the Dump,” calling it one of the author's most interesting stories “for the insight it offers into people and society.”]

‘Down at the Dump’ is one of White's most interesting stories, not merely for the insight it offers into people and society but also for the structures underlying it, structures which deepen our understanding not only of White and his art but also of his relations with his culture as a whole.

By now, of course, it is a...

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Lorna Sage (review date 1988)

SOURCE: “Potato Peel,” in Observer Review, October 30, 1988, p. 44.

[In the following laudatory review of Three Uneasy Pieces, Sage praises White's short story collection, calling it “a marvelously cunning raid on the inarticulate.”]

Patrick White's new book isn't slim, it's emaciated. If his last one, Memoirs of Many in One, was about role-playing and multiplying yourself, then Three Uneasy Pieces is pared down with a vengeance to 59 pages. He's trying out a new route in his cranky, self-consuming search for illumination—not so much reviewing his repertoire as puzzling about what he has left out.

The negative way (in...

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D. J. Enright (review date 1988)

SOURCE: “Warts and All,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4470, December 2-8, 1988, p. 1350.

[In the following mixed review of Three Uneasy Pieces, Enright contends that while there are “brilliant passages” throughout the collection, the “book's chief uneasiness lies in the reader's fear of having missed the point.”]

On the first leaf of this slim triptych Patrick White suggests that we do indeed grow wiser with age, just as long as we disbelieve the myth about growing wiser with age. Sterility and decay are the primary themes here; and guilt: even vegans must feel guilty as they hear “the whimper of a frivolous lettuce, the hoarse-voiced...

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Carolyn Bliss (review date 1988)

SOURCE: “Crusades Against Hoopla and Pain,” in Critical Essays on Patrick White, edited by Peter Wolfe, G. K. Hall & Co., 1990, pp. 65-7.

[In the following review, originally published in Antipodes: A Journal of Australian Literature in 1988, Bliss maintains that the stories in Three Uneasy Pieces “lack the convincing density and scope of the major novels and even of much of White's short fiction.”]

Patrick White's Three Uneasy Pieces is a slender, 10,000-word short story collection, which makes a sharp and caustic statement in its timing, an intriguingly antiphonal suggestion in its prose. Published in December of 1987, it was rushed...

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Lee Spinks (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Patrick White's ‘Five-Twenty,’” in Westerly, Vol. 40, No. 1, Autumn, 1995, pp. 39-44.

[In the following essay, Spinks praises White's short story, “Five-Twenty,” for its “austerity” and insight into human character.]

The pages of The Cockatoos, Patrick White's second collection of short stories, are littered with ruined epiphanies. In the title story each character interprets the migratory birds as a symbol for an experience of transcendence they neither expect nor feel they deserve. Compelled by years of lovelessness into a bitter and silent marriage, Mick and Olive Davoren begin to develop a new language of tenderness in the presence...

(The entire section is 2836 words.)