Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4456
White, Patrick 1912–
The Nobel Laureate in Literature for 1973, White is a British-born Australian author of novels, plays, and short stories. Although the Swedish Academy commended him for "introducing a new continent to literature," he is, as Pearl K. Bell affirms, a modern writer rather than a regional realist, displaying "a characteristically twentieth-century obsession with human loneliness and alienation, and with the tragic perversions of personality."
White's painter, Hurtle Duffield [the protagonist of The Vivisector], is a completely objective and imaginative creation; he may be a trifle too reminiscent now and then of Joyce Cary's Gulley Jimson, but White never forgets that his hero is a man primarily involved in seeing things—he is an Eye, above all else—and as long as the book stays with Hurtle in his (and White's) native Australia and deals with Hurtle's serio-comic adventures among the proletarian family he stems from and the upper-bourgeois set who adopt him, it is superb—an object-lesson (compared with Islands in the Stream) on the gulf between the true creation of a fictional world and the pseudo-creation which is only the overspill from a tired man's memories. Things go wrong in the book, as it seems to me, when it moves out of Australia and Hurtle gets into a European "cultured" environment. There is too much travelogue-and-gossip stuff; the satire isn't quite adequately knowing and astringent; and Hurtle himself, removed from his native soil, seems to lose vitality and become a caricature instead of a strange but real creator. But The Vivisector is worth reading, very much so, if only for that first half of it. (pp. 180-81)
Patrick Cruttwell, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1971 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Spring, 1971.
Patrick White's novels are in the mainstream of European literature. They evoke the works of such writers as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Blake, Johnson, Schreiner, Bunyan and, far more basically, the older traditions upon which these artists draw, the Judaeo-Christian-Classical heritage. Through the use of archetypes and images common to Western literature, White's novels obtain a richness of association, a cumulative power and an impersonal dignity. (p. vii)
The view of man and his world which underlies White's novels is religious in its basic orientation. His heroes are seeking the true permanence or unchanging structure beneath the illusory flux, the true freedom which is valid even beyond physical death. All his novels testify to the reality of another world, not outside this one but inside, "wholly within," as stated in the first two epigraphs to The Solid Mandala. And essential to White's vision is the affirmation that this other or spiritual world is immanent in our natural one, as well as transcendent to it. William Blake found God in a grain of sand; White finds him in a gobbet of spit, or a table. Like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, White views matter as something good, something inherently spiritual, not opposed to spirit as the ancient Greeks conceived it to be. (p. 1)
His novels examine such problems as the meaning of suffering and the possibilities of salvation and atonement for evil. His basic concerns, that is, are theological, but existential rather than dogmatic in approach. Like Dostoyevsky, White believes that suffering is a necessary route to spiritual progress, beneficial both to the individual who suffers and to those involved in the suffering. The idea of the movement into the world and back to faith which we find in White's novels also underlies much of Dostoyevsky's writing. Indeed, much of White's work shows the influence of both Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy; and, like the works of these writers, it has received more recognition outside his own country than within. His vision is not original but traditional, an expression of the Judaeo-Christian cultural heritage from which it flowers. We find this tradition, or vision, expressed in centuries of our literature, from William Langland's fourteenth-century poem, through Bunyan, Blake, Hopkins, Browning, and Schreiner, to twentieth-century authors such as Eliot, Christopher Fry, Cary, and David Jones.
Although his novels are novels, not mystical essays as one critic suggests, the vision from which they spring belongs to the tradition of mysticism, which seeks direct experience or immediate awareness of God, and sees the soul as something wholly distinct from the reasoning mind with its powers. The religious character of his vision and its insistence on the inadequacy of reason to solve man's ultimate problems are in opposition to the modern zeitgeist, so that a basic antagonism to White's whole way of seeing man and his world may be discerned in some of the criticism of his work. (pp. 2-3)
Like Herman Melville's Moby Dick, White's novels suggest that a vast Design or plan lies behind apparent acts of free will or chance…. References to fate or design, to a divine teleology or master plan, form a consistent motif in each of White's novels. (p. 4)
While the concept of fate or Providence is evident in all his novels, the last three are especially concerned with the problem of redemption. The four Riders, Arthur Brown ("getter of pain"), and the afflicted Rhoda are co-workers with the divine Providence to this end. The idea that suffering advances the individual's own spiritual progress, as found in the experience of Oliver Halliday in Happy Valley, is supplemented in White's later novels by the idea of the suffering of the spiritual elect as instrumental in the redemption of all men.
The inadequacy of reason to provide the solution for man's ultimate problems is a constant theme in White's novels…. White's attitude to the intellect, as evidenced in his novels, reflects a contrast between two sorts of knowledge—spiritual wisdom and purely abstract rationalism—a contrast which has a place in the traditional themes of English literature and which conforms to New Testament attitudes towards knowledge…. The Greeks considered the speculative intellect as the highest power of man, and an intellectual vision of truth as the goal of man's endeavour. White's protagonists obviously do not…. White's version of the holy idiot or divine fool, which is found in each of his novels, is an expansion of this concept of the sterility of the intellect when it is divorced from the spirit and from love.
White's attitude towards man's sexuality is currently no more popular than his deflation of the intellect. While many of his characters experience fulfilled sexual love, the perspective afforded by his novels shows sexuality within a supra-temporal framework. (pp. 5-7)
White's novels indicate that he is familiar with Jung's theories of the bisexual nature of the human personality, and the archetypes of the collective unconscious. (p. 9)
White's basic theme, man's eternal quest for meaning and value, is universal and timeless. His expression of this universal theme, however, is through his own particular land and time, twentieth-century Australia, the setting of [nine of his ten] novels…. His comic sense does not conceal his compassion, and his simplicity reveals the depth of his vision, like water in a deep pool of exceptional clarity. White's novels present time in its conjunction with eternity, the eternal now of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets. (p. 13)
White has described his writing as being "on two planes, the immediate detailed one and the universal." Metaphor provides the relation between the symbols or isolated units of a literary structure. The radical metaphor is a statement of hypothetical identity: let x be y. Two things are identified, while each retains its own form: "Identity is not uniformity, still less monotony, but a unity of various things." White uses simile only infrequently, and more in his first two novels than in his later ones. The radical metaphor provides a natural vehicle for the expression of his vision of the interpenetration of the natural and spiritual worlds. This is not to suggest, as one critic does, that a work such as Riders in the Chariot is a "fictional essay" on mysticism rather than a novel, a work of art. (p. 18)
Within the synoptic framework of literary criticism found in Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, the structural classification of fiction is based, firstly, upon the hero's power of action in relation to his audience or reader. In terms of the five generic modes so defined: myth, romance, the high mimetic mode, the low mimetic mode, and the ironic mode. White's novels may be classified as belonging principally to the fourth or low mimetic mode, that of comedy, melodrama, and "realistic" fiction, where the hero is superior neither to other men nor to his environment. Unlike the superior protagonist of the high mimetic mode, the comic hero is on a level with ourselves, someone with whose common humanity we can identify. (pp. 19-20)
One of the structural bases of White's novels is the spiritual quest of the hero or heroine. Unlike the quest of the romance mode itself, which involves external movement and marvellous adventures as well as inner significance, the journey of White's protagonists is primarily inward into the depths of their own natures, there to discover undesirable qualities repellent to themselves, and there to seek a happier state. This spiritual quest for redemption is depicted in terms of four archetypal stages: the Edenic state of innocence, the adult recognition of guilt, the assumption of suffering, and a fourth state which lies beyond death and outside temporal limitations. (p. 22)
The quest of White's protagonists is shaped, in part, by the quest-myths found in the Bible, and in medieval romance literature with its dragon-killing theme. Romance focusses upon the conflict between the hero and his enemy, making the hero analogous to the mythical Messiah or deliverer who comes from an upper world; White uses the St. George myth, but his hero finds his chief enemy within himself. (p. 24)
In White's modern comedies, where the idealized and supernatural forms proper to romance and myth are displaced by a narrative of verisimilitude or apparent "realism," myth is used as archetypal and anagogic metaphor. (pp. 24-5)
White frequently draws upon music, drama, painting, and poetry in order to illumine his own art, the novel. At least one of the other arts is important to each novel and helps to fuse the immediate and the universal. (p. 25)
Folk songs and nursery rhymes are all grist to White's mill. They support the general mood and, more frequently, serve as archetypal metaphor…. (p. 26)
To maintain the two planes which White has called the immediate and the universal, he makes use of dramatic situations where the characters may be drunk, delirious with fever, or dreaming. These states permit the characters to speak more truly than they know, or than their conscious minds might permit. The extreme simplicity of the divine fool, the relative simplicity of the uneducated, and the conscious irony of an intellectual may all be used for double entendre in this way. Popular clichés and aphorisms such as we find in the conversations between Mrs. Jolley and Mrs. Flack, Mrs. Poulter and Mrs. Dun or the O'Dowds also serve as vehicles for apocalyptic or demonic utterance, and frequently have the added advantage of being extremely funny. As with nursery rhymes and popular songs, this folk material permits the use of myth and archetype in a displaced technique of apparent verisimilitude. (p. 28)
The stream of consciousness technique popularized by Joyce and Woolf is used occasionally for specific purposes…. White more often uses the "objective" technique developed by Henry James whereby indirect narration is given from the point of view of the fictional character and not from that of the author. White's own viewpoint is fused with those of the fictional characters, often through irony. He uses a multiplicity of reflectors in this technique of limited consciousness, so that the unity comes primarily from theme and vision rather than from the use of a single central intelligence such as James favoured. Most striking is the degree of concentration found in these novels. The prestige which has traditionally been accorded to poetry among literary genres may have come, in part, from the concentration and purity of that genre. In the hands of masters such as Joyce and White, the twentieth-century novel has reached the same degree of artistic purity, where hardly a word can be altered or deleted without injury to the whole.
White's novels contain superb comic scenes, and characters who rank with the immortal clowns of literature. They are also comic in a structural sense, moving towards the "happy ending" of the redemption and the integration of the hero and his society. Like Dante in The Divine Comedy, White sees a happy issue to man's pain and suffering. He sees, that is, the possibility that pain may be accepted and transformed into something good even within this life…. His novels contain a unified vision of the extraordinary behind and within the ordinary, the "mystery and poetry" which makes our lives bearable; this vision is expressed not through the dreary techniques of "journalistic realism," but through artistic techniques which are one with his vision. (pp. 29-31)
Patricia A. Morley, in her The Mystery of Unity: Theme and Technique in the Novels of Patrick White (© McGill-Queen's University Press 1972), McGill-Queen's University Press, 1972.
It should be allowed … that the early disregard of White in Australia is understandable. Though Graham Greene described White's first novel, Happy Valley (1939), as "one of the most mature of first novels in recent years," and though the author himself still regards it as "not so bad," nonetheless he has refused to allow it to be reprinted. Its successor, The Living and the Dead (1941), is still diffident in its statement and pedestrian in characterization and style, so that The Aunt's Story, in retrospect, must have seemed like an accidental success—the sort of novel that any undistinguished yet reasonably capable writer, given time, would eventually create. But The Tree of Man (1955) was of such uncommon maturity, in both theme and technique, that White's work could no longer be overlooked, appraised in condescending terms, or passed over lightly. (p. 439)
The characters in Happy Valley exist "in spite of each other." They are misfits; people who fail to belong; people who hope to, but cannot, find meaningful relationships. They are vapid, unassertive, lacking in the strong emotions, either of hate or of love: "their hands touched and sauntered, and it was enough to be there … that was quite enough." It is this lack of commitment, lack of strength, in Happy Valley (as in Australia itself, in White's eyes) that keeps its families isolated and keeps it isolated from other communities. Love and the conjunctive emotions, we are informed, are alien in an arid land that desiccates everyone and everything that intrudes. The consequence of such an intrusion is suffering, failure, destruction. The tree of man may be planted and artificially nurtured, but it will never come to fruition. Aaron's rod has no place in Australia.
In addition to developing this theme of the inability of people to find fulfillment, White shows the loneliness of existence, the basic alienation of us all, our subservience to the suzerainty of a Hardyesque "purblind doomster," and the irrepressible desire to supersede mortality.
White's second novel, The Living and the Dead, restates his conviction that most of us are paradoxical persons: physically alive, emotionally dead. Essentially, it is the theme of D. H. Lawrence. And White, like Lawrence, has his strongest characters closely associated with the land, with the world of physical satisfactions. But in this book White's subject-matter is ostensibly English: there is no mention of Australia. His world is the vapid, degenerate London of the 1920s and 1930s. (p. 440)
In his third novel, The Aunt's Story, White can be said to have found his métier. The idiosyncrasies of the earlier novels (the contorted syntax, the overt attempts to master the stream of consciousness technique, the tentative statements of philosophy, the labored aphorisms, the overuse of the short, declarative sentence) are muted and controlled, so that they are functional rather than decorative. The wide lens of the earlier books is replaced by one of finer focus, so that the intensity of psychological penetration is enhanced and we have a deeply affecting portrayal of a lonely, unmarried woman's search for meaning, love, and satisfaction. (pp. 440-41)
While The Aunt's Story represents a grand advancement on Happy Valley and The Living and the Dead in all essential elements of prose fiction, it reveals, in Part III, that White's ear for American idiom is faulty. Even though he travelled in the United States—especially New England—he has failed to differentiate Australian and American speech. (p. 441)
Geoffrey Dutton, whose judgments of his books Patrick White has applauded, has commented that "By the time he wrote The Tree of Man, White was an artist of such stature that he could write about simple people without condescension and without that phony mateyness which is only another form of mateyness." And the Parkers are simple people—"battlers" as the Australians call those who work hard throughout life, are beset by reverses and hard times, yet persevere and never really amount to much themselves…. They are, then, paradigms of their class; they represent the uncounted masses of ordinary, hardworking, struggling, leaderless and unsatisfied peasant proprietors. (pp. 441-42)
Riders in the Chariot is a restatement, in allegorical form, of the continuing theme of White's oeuvre: the destruction of man by man. Miss Hare, the psychotic spinster of the novel puts it this way: "Men usually decide to destroy for very feeble reasons…. It can be the weather, or boredom after lunch. They will torture almost to death someone who has seen into them." And that is as succinct a statement of the thesis of the novel as can be formulated.
Unfortunately, Riders in the Chariot supports the criticism that White is often prolix: the simple statement seems unknown to him. He can write the simple sentence, but he can't write the short, simple, straightforward novel. It seems improbable that he will ever produce anything after the model of The Pearl or The Old Man and the Sea—both allegories and both more satisfying and less turgid than anything that White has so far written. Some critics greeted Riders in the Chariot as the author's major study of the alienated—for they are all that. But it is disquieting. There is too great a distance between the major characters and the minor ones—the evil or stupid as we are persuaded to regard the ordinary people of society. Whether White himself sensed that he was approaching a literary cul-de-sac is uncertain; but after 1961 he left the novel for a while and resumed activity as a dramatist, an activity that had, as early as 1947, resulted in The Ham Funeral (not produced until 1961).
Within two years White wrote three plays, The Season at Sarsaparilla, A Cheery Soul and Night on Bald Mountain, that gave a new direction to Australian drama…. (p. 443)
A Cheery Soul had been adapted from the short story of the same name, one of those included in the collection The Burnt Ones (1964), a satisfying collection of stories dealing with "the poor unfortunates" who deserve our unrestrained compassion. In his sympathy for these atypical ones, White writes in lyrical and evocative language of great grace, and it is only a matter of structure that distinguished the collection of stories from a novel—from Riders in the Chariot especially. It is to be hoped that White will continue to use the short story form, for he has great skill in it.
When The Solid Mandala (1966) appeared, critics who had been predicting a Nobel Prize for White were apprehensive: it seemed that he had lost his finer bearings, or that he had attempted too great a task for a single novel. The second is the more probable alternative….
[For] all the obvious meaning in the novel, and for all its exquisite writing (some of it the best that White has produced), it is not wholly satisfactory. The ending is somewhat artificial and contrived; the communal reactions are improbable and strained, and the allegory is too heavily weighted. One critic's reaction is that Mandala is the first true example of Australian gothic. It is not an indefensible assessment. (p. 444)
The Vivisector, the longest of White's novels, is the most artistically satisfying work and perhaps his crowning achievement. It is a major statement that will require a vast critical commentary….
Mrs. Hunter, the aged mother in The Eye of the Storm, is attended on her deathbed by her children, who have returned to pay the required respects and to claim what inheritance they can. Their lives have been wretched in the extreme, though superficially they are enviable: they represent the complete annihilation of hope, love, joy, selflessness, and find some sort of meaning only in their ultimate incest. But even this is furtive and mechanical.
There can be little doubt that Patrick White is a great writer: his novels are extremely well-wrought and, with only occasional lapses, are of ever-increasing profundity, technical skill and mastery of form. His plays are avant-garde and experimental, his short stories poignant and piquant. As delineator of the alienated, the possessed, the bizarre, the loveless and the visionary, he has few peers. (p. 445)
A. L. McLeod, "Patrick White: Nobel Prize for Literature 1973," in Books Abroad (copyright 1974 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 48, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 439-45.
The six novellas and short stories in The Cockatoos, varying in location from Sicily to Sydney, show Patrick White, if not absolutely at the pitch of his powers—since this would require a richer orchestration of theme and a larger area to maneuver in—certainly as possessed as ever of a ferocity of communicating skill and as capable of constructing from sleazy and dandruffed material a celebration of human possibility both lyrical and terrifying. There is the same flow of creative capacity that one sees in the major novels, which can find, in situations of a seedy simplicity and characters of conventional mediocrity, subjects and themes of depth and urgency. The manner combines the more nearly abstinent idiom developed about the period of The Solid Mandala (1966) with the endless, burrowing spiritual inquisitiveness so characteristic of the mature work. The stories are told with a straighter narrative, a more regular syntax, and a much less drowning torrent of metaphor. But there is still the accustomed ease and flow of imaginative energy.
There is indeed a positive advantage in the short stories in that they head off White's occasional inability to resist gratuitous and unnecessary symbolism, of the kind, for example, which marred significant junctures in Voss and Riders in the Chariot. In these stories, or in most of them, the movement between idea and material is vital and unbroken, the theme as intimate with the material as soul with body. (pp. lxxii-lxxiii)
[One] feels something tearing and intense in the artist's reaction, the Manichean nature of Patrick White's sensibility: on one side the flow of love and grace …; on the other, the dialectic of loathing expressed in the appalling horrors of the flesh…. Patrick White has always made great play in his work with ["raw, ugly, or offensive"] elements in Australian provincial life, which often serves as a baseline against which the reader is to measure simplicity and goodness. But where these things once filled him with mockery or bitterness they now suffuse him with disgust and despair. Stench, slime, mucus, excrement, decay, the ruined body—these are notes very often touched on in these stories. Even a meal in a restaurant assumes an appearance of horrors. (pp. lxxiii-lxxiv)
White in these shorter works as in the major novels shows himself not greatly concerned with originality in situation or character. The situation in most of these stories is orthodox, even traditional. (p. lxxiv)
Patrick White's extraordinary skill allows [the ordinary] to become—I put it like this because his treatment, once seen, seems inevitable—monstrous and illuminating…. One cannot too highly praise, for example, his power of representation, the conviction of his surfaces, textures, implied depths. At the same time his incessant interrogation of every form of existence gives to the dense reality of things and persons an intellectual and imaginative buoyancy. Everything moves, there is no arrest in personality, existence glides and turns and flows. What we see in these stories is the process of becoming. White's art is at the other extreme from the static, his universe like the relations of his characters melting and modulating at every point.
The stories in The Cockatoos are the product of a powerful and singular literary personality. At its center is a vision of the violence of existence, of the intensity of being itself; and it is rendered with an astonishing energy of realization. I have perhaps in this note stressed unduly the separation in his vision, the divorce of grace and horror. It might be added that it shows itself in a more than usual share of the current awareness of the nastiness of certain spheres of experience, and a fierce disdain of the middling and the commonplace—aristocratic characteristics that White shares with Eliot. This argues, I think, a certain failure or distortion in the range of his sympathy for human nature and experience. Perhaps it is a deficiency in our civilization forcing itself into the artist's work and revealing itself in deficiencies of tact and grasp as well as in a certain lack of tenderness toward the language.
But at its most mature—and some of these stories come close to belonging to that category, particularly "Sicilian Vespers," "The Cockatoos," "The Full Belly," and "Five-Twenty"—White's art is quickened and unified by the most powerful and creative quarter of his sensibility. It is a concept of goodness which depends upon an unspoiled wholeness of the person. Such goodness, although it may be striven for, cannot be deserved. It is a stroke of providence or a form of genius, but in any case a gift, a grace, and one most likely to be found in the possession of those commonly regarded as blemished or eccentric or hateful. In Patrick White's eyes the supreme gift of man, existing in a context of surliness, ugliness, and cruelty, is precisely this clarified consciousness. It is something which belongs above all to those he called in the epigraph of his other book of short stories, The Burnt Ones, the poor unfortunates. There is a sufficient presence of the burnt ones, the poor unfortunate ones, in The Cockatoos to justify, to put into place, the monstrous horrors of human living, of which this sumptuous and tortured talent is harshly conscious. (pp. lxxiv, lxxvi)
William Walsh, "White and the Violence of Being," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1975 by The University of the South), Summer, 1975, pp. lxxii-lxxiv, lxxvi.
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