Patrick White World Literature Analysis - Essay

Patrick White World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Like most writers, White began his career with what he came to regard as a literary apprenticeship. His first two novels, Happy Valley (1939) and The Living and the Dead (1941), were intensely disliked by their author, who discouraged publishers from reprinting them. Even after White’s death, these novels have been very difficult for literary scholars, much less the general public, to lay their hands upon. White considered his literary career to have fully commenced with The Aunt’s Story (1948), a judgment in which most of his critics concur. This novel began the series of artistically ambitious works that made White a major name in modern literature. The Tree of Man (1955) is a pastoral tale of frontier settlement, characterized by unsparing though affectionate portraits of the protagonists. This was followed by Voss (1957), generally considered to be White’s major work, and then by Riders in the Chariot (1961), which is taken up largely with the idea of a few good individuals redeeming the immorality and pointlessness of their fellows. The Solid Mandala (1966) is a fascinating tale of twins. It began a more artistically experimental phase, exemplified by The Vivisector (1970), and The Eye of the Storm (1973). White’s interests became more historical in A Fringe of Leaves (1976), which returned to the era of the European colonization of Australia, and The Twyborn Affair (1979), which is set amid the tumultuous changes of the early twentieth century. In the 1980’s, White produced both a straightforward autobiography, Flaws in the Glass: A Self-Portrait (1981), and a fictional distortion of one, Memoirs of Many in One (1986). Memoirs of Many in One explores his homosexuality more openly than do previous books.

No one has ever accused White of lacking ambition. He excited much critical controversy during his lifetime. White’s novels are massive not only in size but also in emotional and artistic scope. Each of his books seems to be trying to make a conclusive statement, in artistic form, about the nature of human experience. In this regard, White emulated such great international modernist writers as James Joyce and Thomas Mann. White’s books use setting as the backdrop for the enactment of primal spiritual quests by characters who, though sometimes trapped by the mediocrities of everyday life, are always trying to assert themselves in some sort of higher dimension. This hardly means, though, that White does not delight in sketching individual traits for each of his characters, who are some of the most memorable personages in modern fiction.

Although White was the crucial force in the emergence of modern Australian literature, he never saw himself as an Australian nationalist or as someone whose first aim as a writer was to dedicate himself to recording the full variety of Australian life and society. Opposing the narrowness and anti-intellectualism that he saw as typical of much of the Australian society, White was often at odds with the fundamental values of other Australians. White’s novels resonate, however, with the natural beauty and dynamic breadth of the Australian continent.

White was a writer of high seriousness who, although hardly lacking humor, had a very earnest sense of artistic mission. His works possess deep spiritual energy and are open to a tremendous depth of interpretation. By the end of the twentieth century, this very serious attitude toward fiction was somewhat out of style. More ironic attitudes toward art had more currency. Thus White’s reputation suffered in the years after his death. Yet it may be argued that White’s sense that art mattered, that it could make a difference, is what will endear him most to readers of future generations.

The Aunt’s Story

First published: 1948

Type of work: Novel

Theodora Goodman, as her name suggests, is a good person in search of acceptance.

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...

(The entire section is 2621 words.)