Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1105
Patrick White, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973, has created through Riders in the Chariot a striking parable—complex in its design and structure, yet altogether lucid in its meaning. Most often in White’s novels, a single character acts as a visionary, grappling with life’s mysteries and finally receiving illumination, usually through death or madness. In this novel, however, the stories of four prospective illuminati unfold individually then intertwine as they move toward their shared destiny as riders in the chariot. Their destiny is to glimpse life’s great mystery, whose central force is love.
The seventeen chapters of the novel are organized in seven unequal parts to describe the events in and near the Australian town of Sarsaparilla, which White has fixed on as his recurrent locale. Parts 1 and 2 of the novel tell the past histories of Miss Hare and Himmelfarb; the fourth and fifth parts tell the stories of Mrs. Godbold and Alf Dubbo in less detail and at shorter length, a modification caused by the increasing pace of the plot in the later sections. In some ways, these characters form an unlikely quartet to embark on a mission of illumination: The four riders include the introverted offspring of decadent aristocracy, a Jewish refugee who has turned his back on religion, a tubercular Aboriginal painter who was seduced by a priest, and a local washerwoman whose husband deserted her and their six daughters. Nor is the setting one of grandeur: The action unfolds in the fictional Sarsaparilla, a dreary Australian suburb outside Sydney.
Superimposed on the stories of the four strange riders are those of other residents of White’s imaginary suburb. Their drab surroundings are the symbols and teachings of world religion and Jungian philosophy. In spite of the apparent impossibility of the task White has set himself, Riders in the Chariot succeeds immensely as a narrative.
The novel’s success rests primarily on its storytelling, which never lags. To explore the present actions of the four riders, the narrator relies on flashbacks, an unfashionable technique in contemporary writing. The most striking of these visits into the past is Mordecai Himmelfarb’s story, beginning in his native Germany where he taught at a university, then moving into the Nazi period, when Himmelfarb and his wife were taken to a concentration camp, and finally progressing to Himmelfarb’s miraculous escape, which brought him first to Israel then to Australia. For each of the other characters, there is a similar unfolding of the past: Mary’s miserable childhood, Dubbo’s unhappy experience in a white Christian household, and Mrs. Godbold’s bleak life, first as a servant, then as a deserted wife taking in washing to support her daughters. The quality that dominates all of these past experiences is the absence of love. This absence is extreme when Himmelfarb faces Hitler’s rise in Germany and a persistent feature of Dubbo’s experience as a member of a colonized race. It manifests more subtly in the humiliation Mary suffers at the hands of her father, who dislikes her because she is ugly and awkward. In Mrs. Godbold’s case, it is a matter of love turning into possessiveness.
Hate, which is a subtext of the novel, finally reveals itself completely through the book’s most memorable scene, the mock crucifixion of Himmelfarb that takes place at the bicycle factory on Maundy Thursday of Passion Week. Led by Blue, a simple-minded and cruel man, the workers conduct the grisly rite: “The Jew had been hoisted as high as he was likely to go on the mutilated tree. . . . a burlesque. . . . what they suspected might be blasphemy. . . . The Jew hung.” The onlookers relish the bleeding Jew, especially his one hand that looks as though it has been pierced. They laugh and spit water at him; one throws an orange but misses her target; a purple-haired old woman offers to buy Blue a drink as a reward for his cleverness. This may well be the most unpleasant passage in modern literature. The four illuminati are integrated into this pivotal scene—Dubbo is a stunned witness. Mrs. Godbold is at home ironing sheets thinking of how the women of the New Testament lovingly prepared such sheets to receive Christ’s body after His crucifixion. Miss Hare is in her crumbling mansion watching “the marble shudder, the crack widen,” which is suggestive of the quaking described in that original Crucifixion.
This scene has often been criticized as melodramatic, unlikely, or unmotivated. Regardless, it not only remains essential to the overall pattern of the novel but also demonstrates White’s rare technique of consistently implanting idea into action. The hatred of the factory workers is directed toward immigrants to Australia after World War II, especially Jewish ones. This becomes evident when some of the onlookers shout: “Go home to Germany!” The painful events, which take place near the end of the novel, expand in meaning when considered as the climactic moment in the riders’ movement toward the chariot and the truth within. To eliminate or to alter the crucifixion scene would be to unbalance the intricate structure of Riders in the Chariot, from a narrative and a thematic standpoint.
The antidote to hatred is love, to darkness is light, to death is life. As the complex story of the riders comes to an end, love, light, and life triumph. Such a conclusion might appear contradictory because only Mrs. Godbold survives. Mary Hare disappears into the night after Himmelfarb’s death in the burning house. Alf Dubbo dies in his room, where “The sharp pain poured in crimson tones.” Most often in White’s novels, the visionary fails outwardly and can unravel life’s mystery only in death or madness.
For a visionary to survive whole, as Mrs. Godbold does, is a rare occurrence, but Mrs. Godbold lacks the complexity of Himmelfarb, the European Jew; of Mary Hare, the daughter of sophisticates; or of Alf Dubbo, the gifted painter. That the washerwoman appears last, in a sense as the mediator for her more accomplished fellow riders, illustrates the novel’s move from complexity to lucidity, its leap from condemnation to celebration. In spite of the novel’s record of cruelty, cultural desolation, ignorance, and malevolence in all its forms, its ending tempers the bleak picture. Mrs. Godbold, trudging upward—if it is only up the hill toward the shed where she lives—has experienced a reconciling vision that redeems and heals: “She had her own vision of the Chariot. Even now, at the thought of it her very center was touched by the wings of love and charity.”
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