Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

It has been observed that in Voss, the desert, or the Continent, becomes a major character. Certainly it is a major theme. The conquest of the land is seen not as a “manifest destiny” or as a search for wealth and power but as an arena for self-discovery, suffering, and mystical experience. Laura several times expresses variations of the novel’s central theme: “Human relationships are as vast as deserts”; “a country does not develop through the prosperity of a few landowners and merchants, but out of the suffering of the humble”; and “perhaps true knowledge only comes of death by torture in the country of the mind.” Certainly, Voss suffers as much in the country of the mind as he does in the desert and at the hands of the aborigines.

White often uses Christian symbolism and imagery to express the concepts of redemption through suffering and humility. Laura and Voss pledge their fate to each other and achieve a mystical union of souls in the Bonners’ garden, at night, a garden which has biblical overtones both of Eden and of Gethsemane. Shortly after the expedition sets out, Judd realizes that it is Christmas Day and insists on a celebration, killing a sheep for the meal. Palfreyman, his very name suggesting medieval quests, dies of a spear wound in his side.

The contrasts between the comfortable mid-Victorian merchants, fashionable and not-so-fashionable professionals, the military stationed in Sydney, and the...

(The entire section is 577 words.)