Patrick White 1912–-1990
(Full name Patrick Victor Martindale White; also wrote under the pseudonym P. V. M.). English-born Australian novelist, short story writer, playwright, memoirist, and poet. See also Patrick White Literary Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 4, 5, 7, 9, 18.
A notable voice in Australian literature, White is known for his stylistically complex novels and short fiction that feature eccentric characters, harsh environments, and satirical portrayals of Australian society. White's frequent use of isolation as a theme stemmed from his personal feelings of alienation and nonacceptance by his fellow countrymen. White's work has never captured a large audience, but critical understanding and appreciation of White's work has increased over time.
White was born in London, the oldest child of a wealthy Australian couple. At an early age, White began writing plays and attended Australian schools. When he was thirteen years old, his parents sent him to Cheltenham College, a boarding school near Gloucester, England. Following graduation in 1929, White returned to Australia and worked as a jackeroo, or ranch hand. During this time, he published a thin volume of poetry and began writing novels. In 1932 White returned to England to attend Cambridge University, where he studied French and German. After graduating in 1935, White remained in London but took a trip to the United States and Europe. White returned to Australia following service in the Royal Air Force as an intelligence officer in the Middle East. His literary career spanned nearly a half century, producing twelve novels, several plays, three volumes of poetry, and three short story collections. White's work established him as an authentic voice of Australia, winning him the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature. White died in 1990.
Major Works of Short Fiction
White once remarked that the present is “a tireless dance,” and is always “a variation of the same theme.” During an interview with The New York Times Book Review, White told the interviewer that his “dominant obsession” was the search for “meaning and design” in what he described as “the tragic farce of life—to find reason in apparent unreason, and how to accept a supernatural force which on the one hand blesses and on the other destroys.” His comments during that interview reflect many of the themes that recur in his short fiction. White's three short story collections—The Burnt Ones, The Cockatoos, and Three Uneasy Pieces—feature many of the same themes, including isolation, the interplay between illusion and reality, and past events and memories intruding into the present. Employing techniques such as stream-of-consciousness narratives, complex flashbacks, use of unusual syntax, and the exploration of dreams and states of madness, White's short fiction delves into human psychology, spirituality, and man's search for meaning. Characters portrayed in White's first collection, The Burnt Ones, are haunted by feelings of isolation, intense self-examination, and an acute awareness of how they are different from others. Loneliness as a theme is present in White's second short story collection as well. In The Cockatoos, characters in many of the stories are bourgeois older couples, who in their remaining years, make various attempts to escape feelings of isolation within their marriages. In “A Woman's Hand,” Evelyn Fazackley's invasive matchmaking leads to the marriage of two acquaintances. The union, however, leads to the mental collapse of one partner and the death of the other. In “The Cockatoos,” the title story of the collection, Mrs. Davoren and her husband are alienated from each other and have not spoken for years until the unusual arrival of cockatoos in their yard. The birds provide the couple a topic for conversation as well as a connection long absent from their marriage. But the connection is short-lived after a neighbor shoots two of the birds and Mr. Davoren is killed in his attempt to wrest the gun from him. Three Uneasy Pieces, White's last published book and short story collection, differs from the previous two collections in that most of the stories are confessional and written in first person.
White's literary reputation rests primarily on his novels and plays; since his death, the majority of critical commentary has focused on his longer fictional works. White's short stories, which mimic many of the same themes and literary techniques found in his novels and plays, are similarly criticized for their multiplicity of symbols, myths, and allegories. Some critics have remarked that his writing is “unreadable” and convoluted, while others have praised White's use of language and imagery. Despite criticism of the language White used to write his stories, many have noted that his short stories and longer fiction provide insight into the mystery of the human psyche and the collective unconscious through psychological exploration of his characters. “In describing the pathos of a slow crumbling of suburban souls, his stories evoke a sense of tragedy—a tragedy not so much of an individual, but of a civilization, of a whole way of life,” said critic Hameeda Hossain. Scholar William Walsh has described White as a “richly gifted, original and highly significant writer whose powers are remarkable and whose achievement is large. His art is dense, poetic, and image-ridden. … At its finest it is one which goes beyond an art of mere appearances to one of mysterious actuality.”