Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1261
Three residents of Sarsaparilla, Australia, are dying: Alf Dubbo, an Aborigine painter; Miss Mary Hare, an aging spinster from a good family; and Mordecai Himmelfarb, an elderly Jewish immigrant, or “New Australian,” working in a factory. Before their deaths, the three recall the events of their lives. Mary Hare is the last remnant of a distinguished old Australian settler family. Her estate, Xanadu, is deteriorating and is being rapidly encroached upon by the expanding middle-class suburb of Sarsaparilla. Miss Hare was once a beautiful young woman, but she frittered away her potential chances at happiness with her cousin Eustace and with other young men and has become an old maid living in her estate on drastically diminished revenues.
After the end of World War II, an English cousin resumes paying Miss Hare an allowance and she simultaneously finds herself in need of assistance with keeping her house in order. She engages a housekeeper, Mrs. Jolley. Mrs. Jolley enjoys discussing everything that happens at Xanadu with her friend Mrs. Fleck. Mrs. Jolley is a widow and has been rejected by her family as the probable murderess of her husband. Miss Hare soon learns to fear Mrs. Jolley’s ordinariness and her spite. The two women develop an intense love-hate relationship.
Miss Hare recounts some of the details of her life to Mrs. Jolley: She grew up as the only, ugly, and unwanted daughter of English parents whose delusions of grandeur were reflected in the name of their house—Xanadu. She was nursed back to life from a serious illness by a local washerwoman, Mrs. Ruth Godbold. During her illness, she saw what she calls the “Chariot” and believes that she was therefore marked as a “rider”; she believes that Mrs. Godbold is a rider as well. She has fleeting encounters with two other riders: Dubbo and Himmelfarb. She also encounters Mrs. Flack, feeling her to be a palpable, malevolent presence.
Himmelfarb tells his story to Miss Hare when they meet by chance in the overgrown grounds of Xanadu. Himmelfarb comes from a wealthy German Jewish family that had the wherewithal and international connections to send him to university at Oxford, in England. There, he was traumatized when he caught a young woman with whom he had fallen in love, Catherine, having sexual relations with an Indian prince. Himmelfarb’s father had converted to Catholicism to escape the stigma of being a Jew; his wish to assimilate into European society was such that he referred to his son Mordecai as “Martin.” Both generations’ illusions of escaping their Jewish identity—the father’s through conversion, the son’s through assimilation—were shattered with the rise of the Nazis and their anti-Semitic policies.
As the Nazis rose to power, Himmelfarb was sheltered for a time by old friends. When they, too, were taken by the Nazis, he gave himself up as a Jew and tried ineffectually to help his people while on the train to the gas chambers. Although he failed, he was miraculously delivered from the extermination camp and, half-blinded by the symbolic loss of his glasses, made his way to Israel, with the aid of many helping hands. Later, he rejected that haven and emigrated to Australia. Himmelfarb has had difficulty finding work and a context in Australia, partially because most ordinary Australians are biased against foreigners. He was steered in the direction of a Mr. Rosetree (originally Rosenbaum) for help. Rosetree treats Himmelfarb condescendingly and imperiously, because he thinks of himself as successfully assimilated into the Australian mainstream. However, Rosetree is in fact as rejected by British Australians as his subordinate. Himmelfarb has bought a run-down shack and has returned to the orthodox Jewish faith his father rejected. He works inconspicuously at Rosetree’s bicycle factory but is never fully accepted by the working-class Australians who are his fellow laborers.
Himmelfarb strikes up an unlikely acquaintance with Miss Hare; after their chance meeting, she summons him to her house in the wake of the final departure of Mrs. Jolley. Miss Hare avows that she has no personal liking or concern for Himmelfarb, and she thinks of him rather categorically as “the Jew.” She indicates to him, however, that she recognizes a kindred spiritual quality in him.
Alf Dubbo is a biracial Aborigine. Born in an Aborigine camp where his mother had been harbored, he was taken into the household of an Anglican priest, Timothy Calderon, from an early age. The priest sexually abused him, while he and his widowed sister, Mrs. Emily Pask, both encouraged Dubbo to pursue artistic and intellectual talents. When Mrs. Pask saw the experimental and explicit nature of Alf’s paintings, however, she was horrified. Her discovery served as a prelude to her subsequent discovery that her brother was abusing the young boy, but when she caught her brother with Alf, she blamed the boy rather than her brother. Alf fled the house, eventually encountering a white woman, Mrs. Spice, to whom he disclosed his (fairly evident) Aboriginal ancestry. He later lodged with a prostitute named Hannah, who kept him on during the war and its attendant stresses, though she raised the rent.
Having internalized Mrs. Pask’s dislike of Aborigines, Alf avoids contact with his fellow indigenous people, but he is still generally rejected by most whites. He holds himself aloof because of his artistic, visionary temperament. Eventually, Alf gets a job in Rosetree’s factory, where he encounters Himmelfarb. When Himmelfarb realizes that he himself has no male friends, he looks in the direction of Alf Dubbo. Finding that Alf has read the Bible and is familiar with the Old Testament prophets, he cultivates a friendship.
Like Miss Hare, and Mrs. Godbold, Himmelfarb and Dubbo begin to sense their participation in the Chariot mystique. Together, these four seem to be the tzaddikim, or righteous, described in Jewish lore. Their interior, visionary quests comprise the merkabah, or chariot, referred to in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel.
Mrs. Flask’s nephew, Blue, works in the factory along with Dubbo and Himmelfarb. He wins the lottery and is congratulated by his fellow workers, while Himmelfarb works on Passover—even though Rosetree, knowing Himmelfarb’s revived Jewish piety, has excused him from working on the holy day. Worked up into a savage heat by the revelry, Blue and his workmates attack Himmelfarb, engaging in a parodic crucifixion in which Himmelfarb is mocked and humiliated. Leaving the factory for the last time, he immures himself in his shack and lights a fire that consumes the house. He is rescued by Miss Hare, who, with Mrs. Godbold, takes care of Himmelfarb until he dies on Easter Sunday; the two women give him a Christian burial.
Meanwhile, Mr. Rosetree hangs himself, ridden with shame because Himmelfarb’s torment has revealed to him the moral consequences of trying to escape his Jewish identity. Following Himmelfarb’s death, Miss Hare wanders away and is presumed dead. (Her cousin Eustace Cheugh, who once courted her, comes to dispose of the estate.) Dubbo dies of a tubercular hemorrhage after finishing a glorious final painting of the completed Chariot.
Mrs. Jolley has figured out Blue’s true parentage, but Mrs. Flack knows that Mrs. Jolley’s family has rejected her just as Blue has been rejected. The two widows live together in a hell of their own making. Only Mrs. Godbold is left with her family to watch brick bungalows gradually spreading over the site of Xanadu. On a visit to the real estate development, Mrs. Godbold achieves a perfect vision of the “riders in the chariot.”