Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Many critics still consider White’s third published novel his best because of its rich, poetic language and dense, complex style. The Aunt’s Story demonstrates an ambitious and innovative use of imagery, and shows White as willing to experiment with style and novelistic form. The work also exhibits modernist touches, such as stream-of-consciousness technique, intricate symbolism, and emphasis on the individual, but thematically it is clearly concerned with a fragmented, postmodern world. Still, its message is neither nihilistic nor even pessimistic: In the sympathetic character of eccentric, unlovely Theodora Goodman, White urges acceptance of negative as well as positive aspects of being.

The Aunt’s Story represented an adventurous departure from the novel which preceded it, The Living and the Dead (1941), with its derivative, highly symbolic style, and in no way suggested The Tree of Man (1955), which followed. Here White turned to simple, biblical diction and long, rhythmic sentences in order to create an Australian epic of life on the land.

The Aunt’s Story won for White international acclaim and also succeeded in putting Australia on the twentieth century literary map. (In 1973, White was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.) Unlike The Living and the Dead, which was set in England, The Aunt’s Story is partly set in Australia, and White continued using his native land as a setting for many of the novels which followed. It was significant not only for White but also for Australia that he began turning to its indigenous forms and vistas in order to articulate his vision of life. The success of The Aunt’s Story brought White back home from years of self-exile in Europe and rescued the Australian novel from its tendency to imitate British trends.