The Aunt's Story

by Patrick White

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 724

The Aunt’s Story tells the tale of Theodora Goodman, an eccentric. One of White’s aims in the book is to upend conventional notions of what is and is not normal. Although Theodora is different from most other people, the reader is led to conclude that this difference makes her, if anything, superior to the majority of other human beings, who lack her sensitivity, creativity, and depth. Theodora epitomizes these qualities, which belong to everyone, although the demands of everyday society may often require that they lay dormant.

The Aunt’s Story is an autobiographical work. In the manner of such classics as George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931), the novel attempts to chart the growth and development of a soul. There is a difference, however, in White’s novel. The other authors portray their souls as representative, as typical human selves in whose experience the reader can participate with ease. White, on the other hand, focuses deliberately on an eccentric and wayward soul, in order to show the value of personal qualities that are often despised or repressed by society. The tension between the individuality and universality of Theodora’s predicament is displayed in her name. Theodora means gift of God in Greek, and her surname clearly alludes to the goodness present in the individual.

Theodora is one of two daughters born to George Goodman, an irresponsible landowner who is an irresistible force in the life of his two daughters. The Goodmans live in a house named Meroë, after an ancient Ethiopian kingdom. As a girl, Theodora lives under the illusion that Meroë contains the entire world. Meroë, to the young Theodora, is a self-sufficient universe where she can withdraw into her own private daydream world, secure in the knowledge that Meroë and her father will protect her from any outside harm. Of the two sisters, Theodora is imaginative, creative, and artistic. Fanny is practical, conventional, and worldly. George Goodman is simultaneously dominating and incompetent. Theodora’s childhood takes place under his shadow.

The Goodmans move, under financial pressure, to the urban center of Sydney as Theodora approaches adulthood. This move away from Meroë has the air of an expulsion from Eden to it. Theodora is ejected from the protective cocoon of her childhood and is confronted with the great outside world. Theodora finds that her relationships as an adult are colored by her regret at losing her childhood world of innocence. This affects her romantic relationship with Huntly Clarkson, a young gentleman who is attractive in the eyes of Sydney society. Clarkson is likable and easy mannered, but Theodora nevertheless rejects him because he is too materialistic and too much at home in the world, insufficiently in touch with the unusual states of consciousness that have come to dominate Theodora’s psyche. Theodora has a brief relationship with a man who is more artistic, a cello player named Moraitis, but they are unable to build anything permanent.

In the second part of the novel, Theodora goes to Europe. It is the era between the two world wars, a time of brilliance and decadence. Theodora stays at the Hôtel du Midi, which is a microcosm of European culture and society. Among the representative personages Theodora encounters are General Sokolnikov, a garrulous Russian émigré, Mrs. Rapallo, an allegorical figure who assists Theodora in coming to terms with the unresolved legacy of her fantasies, and Katina Pavlou, a young woman who serves as an object of fantasy for Theodora, who attempts to save Katina from the perils of the adult world to which Theodora believes Katina has fallen prey.

These relationships, though, are transient, not providing Theodora with any stabilizing anchor. This transience leads to the pathos of the third part of the novel. Theodora finds herself in the United States. She has an encounter with a man named Holstius, which, though brief, provides her with more of a soul mate than she has ever possessed. After leaving Holstius, Theodora roams aimlessly across the country. She finally reaches her end in the home of a Midwestern farm family, the Johnsons, who, though not understanding her creativity, treat her with the compassion and humanity she has long deserved. They enable Theodora to die with dignity and honor.

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