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
(The entire section contains 2621 words.)
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- Critical Essays