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...
(The entire section is 1105 words.)