(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Hurtle Duffield begins life as one of a large number of children whose family lives in abject poverty. Mumma Duffield does laundry for some of the wealthier people around, and on one occasion, she takes young Hurtle with her to the Courtney mansion. The Courtneys, childless except for their hunchback daughter, are charmed by the precocious little Duffield boy. They offer to purchase him from his beleaguered parents who, faced with the prospect of yet another baby on the way, agree. Hurtle therefore goes to live with Alfreda and Harry Courtney and their spiteful daughter, Rhoda.

Alfreda and Harry introduce handsome, clever Hurtle to a world of crystal chandeliers, silk ball gowns, bonbons, and private tutors. He eases for his adoptive parents the disappointment caused by the birth of their deformed, unsatisfactory daughter. Hurtle is seduced by the Courtneys’ superficial, materialistic life-style but never feels exactly at home in it. He develops a fondness for Harry but remains wary of possessive, incestuous Alfreda and of his resentful adoptive sister. Hurtle enjoys a good education and long trips to Europe with the Courtneys; on one such journey to England, Alfreda is horrified to come across the display of a little dog which has been vivisected—that is, dissected while still alive. The vivisection of animals becomes one of Alfreda’s causes and, ironically, something of which she later accuses Hurtle: “‘You, Hurtle—you were born with a knife in your hand. No,’ she corrected herself, ‘in your eye.’” Hurtle’s artistic talent has begun to surface, and he obsessively turns out drawings and paintings which disturb those who see them.

With the advent of World War I comes Hurtle’s chance to escape. He enlists at the age of sixteen and remains in Paris for a year after the war ends. Finally, he returns to Australia, though he never contacts his former...

(The entire section is 773 words.)

The Vivisector Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Vivisector is White’s most concentrated study of the nature of artistic genius. Like The Aunt’s Story, it is about an individual marked off from his peers at an early age by an unusual creativity. Unlike Theodora Goodman, however, the protagonist of The Vivisector, Hurtle Duffield, is not merely an eccentric victim of society’s prejudice. Duffield harnesses his creativity into the production of paintings, channeling his talent into a concrete and socially recognized outlet. His art nevertheless stands as a testimony to his unique, sensitive, and tough-minded soul. In telling the story of the life and fortunes of an artist, White places his novel in the European tradition known as the Künstlerroman, or “novel of the artist.” Such a novel not only conveys the biography of an artist, it also serves to reflect upon the nature of art and the role of art in life. The Vivisector is no exception to this tradition.

Young Hurtle Duffield is early recognized for his artistic potential. Hurtle loves his parents and is appreciated by them, but the Duffield family is mired in poverty and knows Hurtle is fundamentally different. Seeing this situation, Mrs. Courtney, a wealthy patron of the arts who has noticed Hurtle’s talent, offers to pay the Duffield family a sum of 500 in order to gain the right to bring him up herself. Even at the age of eight, Hurtle, through his separation from his family, comes to understand that artistic achievement may necessitate sacrifice.

The Courtneys provide Hurtle with comfortable...

(The entire section is 652 words.)

The Vivisector Bibliography

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Baker, Robert S. “Romantic Onanism in Patrick White’s The Vivisector,” in Texas Studies in Literature and Language. XXI (Summer, 1979), pp. 203-225.

Brady, Veronica. “The Artist and the Savage God: Patrick White’s The Vivisector,” in Meanjin Quarterly. XXXIII (June, 1974), pp. 136-145.

Herring, Thelma. “Patrick White’s The Vivisector,” in Southerly. XXXI (1971), pp. 3-16.

Ramson, W. S., ed. The Australian Experience: Critical Essays on Australian Novels, 1974.

Smith, Terry. “A Portrait of the Artist in Patrick White’s The Vivisector,” in Meanjin Quarterly. XXXI (June, 1972), pp. 167-177.