Patrick White Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Patrick White is best known for his novels. In addition, he published numerous short stories and an autobiographical volume that he called a “self-portrait.” He also wrote a screenplay based on one of his short stories, “The Night of the Prowler.”


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In 1973, Patrick White received the Nobel Prize in Literature for his fiction. Thereafter he wrote several more novels, short stories, and plays, which have been staged along with revivals of his earlier plays. Because his dramatic works are not widely known outside Australia, White’s international reputation rests on his fiction, which constitutes an astounding achievement. In its grandeur and metaphysical use of the Australian landscape and character, it altered the course of that country’s literature, previously marked, for the most part, by self-conscious realism and nationalism. Although many critics in Australia scoffed at his complex philosophical work before he received the Nobel Prize, White had steadily built a following abroad, beginning with the publication of The Aunt’s Story in 1948. He has often been credited with setting Australian literature into the mainstream, as well as freeing and influencing an entire generation of writers in Australia whose work is now highly esteemed among those bodies of literature written in English. Whether White is a major dramatist may be open to argument; he does, however, deserve attention for a limited but solid achievement in plays characterized by originality in structure, powerful language, and expression of universal concerns. Although a number of Australian dramatists have achieved widespread recognition, White remains one of the first to experiment on the Australian stage. His example posed a challenge in the 1960’s, when realistic and provincial plays constituted the few native works that appeared in a country where theatergoers most often looked to Great Britain and the United States for “real plays.”

In addition to his Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973, White also was the recipient of the Australian Literary Society gold medal in 1940 for Happy Valley (1939) and in 1956 for The Tree of Man (1955). He also earned the Miles Franklin Award in 1958 for Voss (1957) and in 1962 for Riders in the Chariot (1962). Voss also won the W. H. Smith and Son Literary Award in 1959, while Riders in the Chariot received the brotherhood award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1962.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Patrick White first attempted to achieve literary success as a playwright in London in the 1930’s. His work was largely rejected, partly, he implies in his memoir Flaws in the Glass: A Self-Portrait (1981), because of his lack of connections in the theatrical world (although he did not deny that his talent was immature at that time). In particular, White believed that his effort to dramatize The Aspern Papers (1888), Henry James’s famous novella based on an incident in the life of Lord Byron’s mistress, might have succeeded, thanks to James’s dialogue, had it found a sponsor. Later, however, White successfully published a number of plays, mostly in the 1960’s and 1980’s; one play, The Ham Funeral (pr. 1961), received much attention.

White’s collections The Burnt Ones (1964), The Cockatoos: Shorter Novels and Stories (1974), and Three Uneasy Pieces (1987) bring together the best of his shorter fiction published originally in Australian literary journals (for the most part); White also published in The London Magazine, where, among others, the fine stories “Clay” and “A Cheery Soul” appeared. White experimented with writing film scripts; one was filmed and received some mildly favorable reviews. His autobiographical memoir, already mentioned, mixes poetic impressionism with trenchant satire.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Patrick White’s stature as a novelist was already considerable among discerning critics and discriminating readers in the English-speaking world before it was confirmed by his reception of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973. The books that established White’s reputation after World War II were The Aunt’s Story, which has been widely recognized as a masterpiece; The Tree of Man; and the virtually unforgettable Voss. At the same time, White’s fiction, though accessible to the general reader, unlike the work of such modernist masters as James Joyce and William Faulkner (or contemporary “experimental” fiction), never achieved a wide readership. It is uncompromisingly addressed to the same discerning public that respects Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, and Marcel Proust.

If rather philistine criticism of White’s work from intellectual readers as well as from the general public in Australia and elsewhere began in the 1960’s, after Riders in the Chariot, The Aunt’s Story is almost universally admired, and The Tree of Man, Voss, Riders in the Chariot, The Vivisector, The Eye of the Storm, and A Fringe of Leaves all have admirers who regard them as virtual classics. White’s transformation of Australian history into epic and tragic vision in The Tree of Man, Voss, and A Fringe of Leaves is brilliant, and his vision of the fragmented world of the twentieth century is equally impressive, especially in The Vivisector and The Eye of the Storm. White’s major successes ultimately assure their author a place beside the masters of prose fiction in English, including Joyce, Lawrence, and Graham Greene.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

What advantages did Patrick White enjoy in having early familiarity with both European and Australian life?

Does the protagonist of Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story find success in the United States primarily because of the virtues of the country or because her previous experiences have made her wiser?

What is the significance of Voss, in the novel named for him, being a German?

Is Hurtle Duffield’s search for the artistic life crowned by success?

Might White’s theory of fiction and his accomplishments in it suggest the likelihood of a rise in his reputation among critics as the twenty-first century progresses?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Akerholt, May-Brit. Patrick White. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988. Provides extensive background material on White’s published plays, including details on premiere dates, casts, directors, and set designers, as well as plot summaries and information on the plays’ origins. Addresses recurrent themes in the plays, comments on their technical innovations, and stresses their satiric bent.

Bliss, Carolyn. Patrick White’s Fiction: The Paradox of Fortunate Failure. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. This study offers an excellent introduction to White’s overall thematic concerns. Argues that all White’s writing stems from a paradox—that is, the failures so often experienced by the characters can in fact lead to their successful redemption.

Carroll, Dennis. “Patrick White.” In Australian Contemporary Drama, 1909-1982. New York: Peter Lang, 1985. Focuses on White’s use of symbolism, expressionism, and surrealism, and discusses the plays’ techniques and stage conventions (through A Cheery Soul). Argues that White’s work broke with the realistic Australian drama prior to the 1960’s. Sees younger playwrights moving in new directions after White introduced such experimentation.

Collier, Gordon. The Rocks and Sticks of Words: Style, Discourse, and Narrative Structure in the Fiction of Patrick White. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992. Deconstructs White’s themes and techniques in his fiction.


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