Summary (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Although based on an actual expedition which attempted to cross the Australian continent in 1845, Voss is by no means a conventional historical novel. The exploration is as much of the psychological and spiritual nature of the characters as it is of the actual terrain, though Patrick White renders the latter most vividly in his concentrated and poetic style. As the novel opens, Johann Ulrich Voss, a German immigrant, calls on Edmund Bonner, the major financial backer of the expedition, and meets Bonner’s niece Laura Trevelyen. The development of their ensuing relationship parallels the fate of the expedition.
In Sydney, Voss recruits four members of the expedition, one of whom, the boy Harry Robarts, attaches himself to Voss, making himself useful and idolizing Voss as benefactor and hero. Palfreyman is a rather sickly young man, an ornithologist commissioned by a titled Englishman to make a collection of flora and fauna. For Frank Le Mesurier who has held a number of jobs but none for very long, the expedition may provide fulfillment and self-knowledge, though he is prophetically uneasy about the undertaking. Turner, a drunkard, forces himself upon Voss, assuring him that he will do his part.
Meanwhile, Edmund Bonner and his wife are preoccupied with their own affairs, to which Voss and the expedition are peripheral. Their daughter Belle is a beautiful but rather empty-headed young woman; her cousin Laura is the quiet, bookish one. The Bonners’ secure, middle-class household is disrupted by the discovery that Rose Portion, their servant, who was transported for the manslaughter of one illegitimate child, is now pregnant again. Rose, an awkward, ungainly young woman with a harelip, thought that she had done what was best for the child. Like Harry Robarts, she is somewhat simple.
Although they have spoken only a few times, at the farewell dinner the Bonners give for the expedition Voss talks for some time with Laura in the garden and requests permission to write to her. Laura agrees. The expedition sails the next day for Newcastle, where they will pick up...
(The entire section is 861 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Voss is not only considered Patrick White’s greatest novel, but is most probably the greatest single work of Australian literature. Voss is a story of a German explorer of the Australian outback in the nineteenth century. The title character is often compared to a historical figure, the German-born Australian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, but the inspiration behind White’s character is symbolic, not historical. Johann Ulrich Voss is not pictured simply as an explorer, whose primary aim is the opening up of new geographic territory. He is, equally, an investigator into undiscovered realms of the human spirit, symbolized but not fully expressed by the wild and desolate beauty of remote Australia.
When Voss comes to Australia, he is a confident, even arrogant specimen of European masculinity. His mission of exploration is an assertion of mastery, of certainty that Voss has the power to penetrate the unknown and gain the upper hand over whatever secrets that the unknown may possess. When Voss arrives in Australia, he makes the rounds of Sydney’s high society, seeking to raise money to finance his expedition. During the course of these fund-raising efforts, Voss encounters Laura Trevelyan, a young, beautiful Sydney socialite. Voss and Laura are immediately attracted to each other, but their attraction is not ever fully realized. Voss and Laura are, superficially, very different. Voss is brawny and action-oriented, and Laura has spent her...
(The entire section is 576 words.)