The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Elizabeth Hunter is a complex, vividly portrayed character. Patrick White presents her from various perspectives-her own and those of her employees and children. She woos everyone with her wit and beauty, yet she also frequently hurts others. Callous and cruel but also capable of being generous and brutally honest about herself-she readily admits to all of her foibles-Elizabeth embodies the whole range of virtues and flaws to which humankind is subject. Furthermore, she possesses understanding and great powers of perception; whether turned toward herself or others, these attributes can be either helpful or discomfiting. Although she has experienced more than one person’s usual allotment in life, Elizabeth has not done so frivolously; she drains people and events to their dregs. Despite her many failings, Elizabeth remains a sympathetic character, while those whom she has perhaps most wronged-Dorothy and Basil-never inspire much sympathy. Both are shallow as well as flawed; their mother attains greatness because she risks so much in life, while they remain content with the superficial.

Elizabeth is a successful character probably because she is so well-rounded, so physically present. White focuses principally on the unpleasant details of her illness and impending death. Her once flawless body now tends to betray her: She wets the bed during Dorothy’s first visit to see her, Arnold overhears his sleeping client expel gas, the nurses are required to...

(The entire section is 478 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Elizabeth Hunter

Elizabeth Hunter, once a beautiful and socially poised woman, now in her eighties and slowly dying in her mansion on Moreton Drive in Sydney, Australia. Elizabeth, the wealthy widow of a successful grazier, or sheep rancher, has dominated people all of her life through the force of her charm and personality. Various affairs in her younger days inflicted emotional hurt on her solid and unimaginative husband, and her two children, Dorothy and Basil, have led rather emotionally impoverished lives, feeling more resentment than love toward their mother. A transcendent religious experience during a hurricane when she was stranded on Brumby Island has transformed Elizabeth’s vision, however, and as she approaches death, she finds some love and understanding from her night nurse, Mary de Santis.

The Princess de Lascabanes

The Princess de Lascabanes (lahs-kah-bah-NAY), formerly Dorothy Hunter, Elizabeth’s daughter. She has lived her life in the shadow of her charming and socially accomplished mother, and, despite a marriage to a rather seedy continental aristocrat, she remains unfulfilled and in middle age has become peevish and unattractive. In her inner life, she is haunted by unhappy memories of being bested in competitions with her mother (as when she lost the chance to enjoy a flirtation with a Norwegian biologist because of his infatuation with Elizabeth’s charm in the Brumby Island incident). For solace, she flees to an obsessive reading of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, in which she can enjoy the fantasy of imagining herself as the duchess of Sansererina. To find revenge, she schemes to have her aged mother placed in a nursing home in Sydney. Unlike her brother, Sir Basil, she feels little remorse over her bitter resentment of her widowed mother.

Sir Basil Hunter

Sir Basil Hunter, a famous Shakespearean actor who finds himself in middle age facing crises both in his career and in his emotional life. Although Sir Basil longs to play King Lear as the crowning performance of his career, his recent efforts have been panned...

(The entire section is 886 words.)