Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 721
Mary Hare, the homely, unmarried daughter of an aristocratic Australian family. Despised by her father because of her awkwardness and lack of beauty, and ignored by her mother, who found the child a bother, Mary survived “what passed for childhood.” She has grown into a peculiar adulthood and lives alone in the dilapidated family mansion called Xanadu. Mary cannot relate to her fellow humans, so she turns to birds and animals, at times even to plants, for companionship as she wanders about the overgrown grounds of Xanadu, performing religious rites among nature. After gaining wholeness through her union with the other riders in the chariot, she simply disappears into the natural setting, which had become her refuge. As one rider of the chariot, Mary is thought to represent the quality of instinct.
Mordecai Himmelfarb, a Jewish refugee from Germany who settled in Australia after World War II. Himmelfarb loses his wife in a concentration camp but manages to escape death himself, going first to Israel, then to Australia. He works on an assembly line in a suburban Sydney factory, and there on Maundy Thursday of Passion Week some of the other workers subject him to a mock crucifixion. Early the next morning, on Good Friday, he dies in a fire. After his headlong confrontation with evil in Nazi Germany and his subsequent wanderings, Himmelfarb (whose name in German suggests “ascension”) questions the existence of God. During his ordeal on the makeshift cross he becomes conscious of a stillness and clarity, at the center of which his God is reflected. As another rider in the chariot, Himmelfarb is considered to represent intellect.
Ruth Godbold, a washerwoman with six daughters who has been deserted by her husband. Mrs. Godbold, whose name is certainly suggestive, displays an undeniable goodness and has the ability to love without measure. Those qualities have made her overly possessive in her relationships with others, finally driving away her husband, who was not strong enough to suffer the full force of his wife’s love. Just as the meeting of the other riders in the chariot changes each one, so does it alter Mrs. Godbold. Her fierce love and forceful goodness undergo revision to become tempered and restrained. This refining process allows her to express unfettered love, free of obsessiveness, and true friendship, untainted by consciously charitable acts. Mrs. Godbold, another chariot rider, may represent the quality of emotion. The only one of the riders alive at the novel’s conclusion, she surveys the ruins of Xanadu.
Alf Dubbo, an Aboriginal painter. As the fourth rider in the chariot, Alf is thought to represent imagination. He was reared by a white clergyman and the minister’s sister, Mrs. Pask. The Reverend Calderon seduced the adopted boy, and Mrs. Pask encouraged his artistic talent but did not approve of what he painted. Alf wants to believe the Gospels’ truths but fails because “the duplicity of the white man prevented him considering Christ.” Although he is a brilliant painter, Alf is unable to locate and evince himself in his art until he meets the other riders in the chariot. Before his death from tuberculosis, Alf completes his two greatest paintings, Deposition and Chariot, which give visual representation to the spiritual discoveries propelling the chariot and its four unlikely riders.
Mrs. Jolley, Mary Hare’s housekeeper, who is drawn in sharp satirical tones. Mrs. Jolley belies her name, for she emerges as a gossipy, cruel, and pretentious woman. She represents the side of humankind that seeks no understanding beyond the immediate and material world.
Mrs. Flack, an acquaintance of Mrs. Jolley who shares her love of gossip and expression of cruelty. Like her counterpart, Mrs. Flack lacks any sense of the spiritual fulfillment the chariot riders seek. She lives in a world full of pretension and falseness.
Blue, Mrs. Flack’s illegitimate son. The ignorant, insensitive, and prejudiced Blue leads the mock crucifixion of Himmelfarb.
Harry Rosetree (born Haim Rosenbaum), the manager of the factory where Himmelfarb and Blue work. Formerly a Jew, Harry Rosetree has forsaken his inherited religion for the more fashionable and acceptable Christianity of mainline Australia. He denies Himmelfarb when he arrives at the Rosetree home but later hangs himself in remorse and guilt.
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