Patrick White White, Patrick (Vol. 18) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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." (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

John B. Beston

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Patrick White's chief interest throughout his novels has been on 'burnt ones', emotionally damaged people who lead a lonely existence without a lifeline to other lives. He is reluctant to portray his burnt ones as totally destroyed, but seeks to find for them a compensating value that might give their life some significance. Again and again, he portrays the force that supplements or transforms their blighted personal life as a richer life within the imagination. Those who do not or cannot attain a rewarding dream life, a life of conscious fantasy, White tends to endow with a visionary quality. (p. 152)

I use 'dreams' to designate the process of conscious fantasy…. Dreaming is a universal process, but when one's personal life is especially unsatisfactory, the dreams need to be richer, and they occupy a larger part of one's existence. Some form of dreaming—and mysticism itself can be seen as one form of dreaming—is necessary as an outlet or compensation for stark reality. When in The Aunt's Story Theodora Goodman's life in the ordinary world becomes unbearable, she elects a life completely within fantasy. Stan and Amy Parker, although emotionally undernourished, are not so burnt as Theodora; they do not dream so much as she does because they do not need to and also because they cannot, lacking broad and deep experience. Amy dreams more than Stan, and finds in dreaming some outlet for her frustration. Stan, similarly frustrated, represses his impulse to dream. What then is left in compensation to give significance to his life?

Instead of an indulgence in a dream life like Amy's, Stan is endowed by White with a sense of vision. By 'vision' I mean an experience beyond a human level, something mystical. It is noteworthy that Stan's visionary sense is at its highest when his personal life is particularly empty…. The principle of compensation is evident in White's thinking: he endows Stan with a visionary sense because Stan cannot dream to any large extent. Both the dreams that White shows Amy indulging in and the visionary sense that he endows Stan with appear to spring from his unwillingness to abandon these burnt ones to a wholly wasted life. (pp. 152-53)

In this novel White shows considerable ambivalence towards the value of dreaming in making life bearable. On one hand he is saying that because life is disappointing, dreams are needed to give it significance. On the other hand he is saying that dreams are bound to disappoint in that life will not measure up to them. There is bitterness accompanying this dilemma: if one does not dream one is left empty and hopeless, and if one does dream one will be disappointed with the realities of ordinary life. In Stan and Amy Parker White depicts two people frustrated by life, with only a partial alleviation through dreams. Because of their lack of emotional and educational experiences, they are not equipped to dream richly enough to compensate for the drabness of their lives. Further, the figures that their dreams are built on are unfailingly disappointing. (p. 163)

The Tree of Man is a more depressing book than its predecessor, The Aunt's Story. It shows the bleakness of the lives of people who cannot enter the life of the imagination completely like Theodora Goodman, in order to find an alternative or a supplement to the harsh reality of ordinary...

(The entire section is 1387 words.)

John Coates

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although the religious framework of Voss is obviously subsidiary to its interest as a novel, it does throw light on one difficult subject, White's pessimism and the limits of that pessimism; the curious vision in the book of a bleak, yet in a sense self-curing world…. The continued irony and even distaste shown about the social world and 'the flesh', even after they have been embraced, makes it doubtful that coming to terms with the physical, or social salvation, are really what Voss is about. However, the problem of Voss is clearly not its quality of disgust. (pp. 119-20)

The oddity about Voss is that the gloomy landscape is not accompanied by the almost inevitable corollary, the insistence that human life must be penetrated from outside by divine Grace to have any meaning. The encounter between Voss and Laura takes place within the dark world. It is not a penetration of it from outside. The way to salvation appears almost spontaneously from the collision of two temperaments in the world we know.

Clearly Voss and Laura interact on each other. What is the exact nature of that interaction?…

Far more important than any similarity is the difference between Voss and Laura. Their spiritual ailments are radically unalike. The terrible moment for Laura is not the realisation of her pride. It is her sense of her lack of spiritual aspiration, of the thin and impoverished view of life she holds. Voss's attack on atheism … and his association with the wind … and star images appears to identify him with the spirituality which challenges Laura. Simultaneously he is himself being attacked….

In this dichotomy the parallels with the thought of Jacob Boehme … are striking. A central similarity between his and White's spiritual view is an emphasis on the spiritual androgyny of man. (p. 120)

The encounter between Voss and Laura is reminiscent of the meeting of the dark and the light and the 'lightning flash' produced by their interaction: a...

(The entire section is 846 words.)

William Walsh

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If love is the core of reality, as Patrick White says it is at a key point in [The Twyborn Affair], then sex is its several masks, fitting perfectly only on the rarest occasions and more often disguising, distorting and demeaning love. The relationship between self and sex, and sex as a mode of access to reality, are two themes glossed and dramatized [here]….

The novel firmly establishes the differences between [the protagonist's various personas] while it keeps buoyant the necessary tension between the wounded individuality of the protagonist and the experimental images which represent it. White succeeds—a remarkable feat—in balancing what Coleridge described as the two instincts in human nature, the instinct to pass out of self into images of self, and the instinct to resist the usurpation of the self by anything from the outside.

The other success in the novel is the brilliant evocation of place, whether the gleaming landscapes of the Mediterranean, the stark ones of Monaro, or the gloomy ones of London. There is consonance between each place and the character of the hero/heroine at a given phase. More than this, the unity of the character is sustained by a profound and persuasive sense of the beauty and significance of place…. One part of White's aim is to establish the real human being beneath the fictions he takes part in. The other is to show the appalling solitariness of the human person "who...

(The entire section is 443 words.)

William Scammell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I'm not so sure that Patrick White, whom I used to admire, has sufficient negative capability in his makeup to submit his intimations to much of a battering by fact.

These heretical thoughts were first suggested by a re-reading of The Aunt's Story some years ago—reputedly the author's favourite amongst his own novels. I came to the conclusion then that the vision White set over against grubby human duplicity was altogether too nebulous and undernourished, and The Twyborn Affair does nothing to help change my mind. (pp. 92-3)

Here's the … treatment handed out to a Sydney hotel:

As the waitresses, plump or sinewy, wove and interwove in their uniform black with white flashes, the head waiter, that giant currawong, a sheaf of menus tucked into a wing, swirling and descending, in nobody's pay yet open to persuasion, and woe to the heads he might crunch off as a reward for unworldliness … those seated at Sunday luncheon in this most reputable Sydney hotel should have felt assured, and for the most part were, the napkins so thick and nappy, the excessive cutlery so solid and elaborately incised; you could play a chord or two if you chose on either side of your brown Windsor soup.

It's not only the cutlery that's excessive; the whole passage reeks of overkill. I was reminded by all this hectic detail of Priestley on Meredith: 'We note...

(The entire section is 599 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gifted, energetic ("The Twyborn Affair" is a 10th novel) and Nobel-belaureled, Australia's Patrick White is still no household word in literary America—but that could be about to change. His books hitherto have tended to focus on characters—among them a 19th-century explorer, family-builders obsessed with "the land," aging residents of Parranugli and Sarsaparilla, imaginary Australian suburbs—a shade removed from late 20th-century preoccupations along our shores. But "The Twyborn Affair" is a different show. It's a case study of sexual proteanism, and the thematic core is the mystery of human identity….

Books by Patrick White offer substantial pleasures. They're written, to begin with,...

(The entire section is 737 words.)

Ann Hulbert

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Patrick White is a novelist who degrades his characters and disconcerts his readers. He mercilessly probes, picks, peers, sniffs at his creations, who ignominiously writhe while we squirm. One routine debasement he inflicts on them is food; the unappetizing digestive ordeal is an expression of the existential ordeal all endure in White's seamy world…. Instead of fulfillment, they feel discomfort after feeding and they fart. Imprisoned in flesh, White's characters voraciously seek a spirit of love in the world to lighten their lives, but they never find it. The best they manage is to expel the fetid spirit within, for momentary but hardly exalting relief—and that does little to inspire love in those near them....

(The entire section is 526 words.)

Webster Schott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The three narratives of [The Twyborn Affair] take place years and distances apart. Only inference, imagination, and Eddie's memories connect them. Yet they cling together with the intense reality—and counterbalancing romanticism—that authentic literature always asserts. In a précis White's novel is incredible. In total it's as believable as a nervous breakdown: a dazzlingly handsome, emotionally fractured young/middle-aged man does live as man/woman in The Twyborn—twice born?—Affair.

Patrick White breaks down disbelief. His characters conduct their lives and animate their emotions with our own confusions. [The novel is plainly] autobiographical, at least in...

(The entire section is 251 words.)

Betty Falkenberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Perhaps the most baffling feature of Patrick White's awe-inspiring oeuvre is its persistent reliance on anomaly and paradox to define reality. It is no news that "things are seldom what they seem." But White is saying more: Precisely through their disguises shall we come to know them, and they, themselves. Where surfaces blur, the result is not so much confusion as illumination.

The Twyborn Affair … is an extraordinary novel of quest, an odyssey through place, time and especially gender—all three of which, by virtue of their boundaries, delimit and even alienate the individual from his possible selves. The gender transformations in this work serve two purposes: to allow for the...

(The entire section is 487 words.)