Last Updated on December 5, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 586
The Solid Mandala by Patrick White (1966) tells the story of twin brothers Waldo and Arthur Brown who are so opposite from one another that together they form White's conception of human behavior and human nature. Like Steinbeck's East of Eden (1952), White's novel positions two brothers forming their identities and understandings of the world through the relationship they share with one another, particularly the ways in which they are both dependent upon and repelled by one another. The tensions of good/bad, intellectual/emotional, selfish/generous, and bitter/loving are embodied in the symbols of Waldo and Arthur.
Beginning in the town of Sarsaparilla, a small municipality in Australia, the novel is divided into four parts and narrated by a third-person voice. Part two, the longest section, is narrated in the third-person limited voice from Waldo's perspective, while part three is narrated in the third-person limited voice from Arthur's.
Waldo believes himself to be superior not only to his brother but to anyone. Though he is a failed writer himself, he maintains a detachment and indifference to the world and to people, a distance that he believes elevates him from common man. However, though he is what we might call "book smart.” What he actually understands is very little due to his lack of empathy, his godlessness, and his conformity to social standards that anger him.
Arthur is the brother with whom the reader sympathizes. Though he is intellectually disabled, he is good, humble, and kind. From birth, he is curious, generous, and selfless. However, people fear him because he is different.
The novel opens when the brothers are old men and have returned to their childhood home in their retirement. Mostly they argue with one another, and Waldo blames Arthur as the reason why people think the brothers are strange. Waldo blames Arthur for many of his (Waldo's) own failings, as he believes Arthur held him back from achieving his own goals. Though Arthur is presented as "simple," he is actually ironically (and frustratingly, to Waldo) more successful than Waldo: he is more popular because of his friendliness and kindness, and he even writes better poetry than Waldo does.
We then move backwards in time to learn about the brothers' lives. Waldo never finds true friendship or true love, and his "career" is spent working in the town's library writing bad poetry. Arthur, not making it all the way through school, first works in a store, then a garage. He becomes close with two women because of his openness and desire for true connection. Waldo, always jealous of Arthur but too proud to admit it, finds himself in indirect competition with his brother and—ironically—always losing.
The title refers to Arthur's collection of marbles, four of which are mandalas (mandalas are geometric forms which are meant to represent the entire universe in Buddhism). Arthur gives these marbles away to the two women he loves: Dulcie, who names one of her children after him, and Mrs. Poulter, who believes Arthur has saved her soul. Walter, of course, refuses to accept the one Arthur tries to give him, so Arthur keeps it for himself. The giving and keeping of the marbles symbolizes the wisdom and kindness that Arthur distributes throughout his life.
The novel ends with the ultimate explosion between the two brothers, and the shocking aftermath, in which a brother ends up dead. White's novel asks us to consider the duality of all things and the way in which our perspective taints our perceptions of reality.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725
The action of The Solid Mandala is divided evenly between Arthur and Waldo Brown. The first and last sections of the four-part novel, narrated from an omniscient third-person point of view, describe events before and after the climactic moment in the Brown brothers’ lives. The two middle sections are narrated from each brother’s point of view; both recount in quite different ways the story of their lives up to the fateful climax of their relationship.
Arthur and Waldo Brown, fraternal twins, are born in Australia to parents transplanted from England. George and Anne Brown preserve some grandiose ideas about life, and so Waldo and Arthur grow up in the un-noteworthy suburb of Sarsaparilla in an atherwise average house made unusual because of its incongruous classical pediment in front. Arthur is the strong, sturdy son who is slow but also sensitive and kindly. Waldo, by contrast, is physically weaker than Arthur but clever enough to become a dry, unemotional librarian. As they mature, it becomes clear that Arthur considers himself Waldo’s protector, while superior Waldo resents having to admit to his dull-witted dill of a brother.
As the story begins, the brothers are both retired old men who live together in their original childhood home, take their scruffy dogs for daily walks, and spend the rest of their time bickering. The two have always been viewed as eccentric by their neighbors, although, as Waldo tries to make abundantly clear, it is Arthur who gives them the bad reputation. Waldo’s reminiscence about their combined past reveals him to be an unsympathetic character: bookish, prudish, and egotistic. He considers Arthur his duty, his responsibility, his “club foot,” and does his best to dissociate himself from his embarrassing twin. Meanwhile, it is Waldo who has a limp, figuratively speaking; he never gets further than working at the library in Sarsaparilla and writing bad poems and futile essays about obscure authors. Waldo remains friendless and loveless throughout his life: Although he attempts relations with women such as Mrs. Poulter across the street and Jewish—hence exotic—Dulcie Feinstein, he is sufficiently ambivalent about his feelings toward them that neither friendship nor love ever develops. Arthur infuriates Waldo throughout their lives together, not only because he is more popular but also because he has an uncanny knack for undeliberately yet effectively one-upping Waldo in almost every way, including poetry writing. Tension between the two grows until it erupts in a single, violent gesture which ends Waldo’s narrative.
Arthur re-creates many of the same events from his own perspective. Considered backward by most people, Arthur leaves school early to work first in a store, then in a garage. He builds intimate, meaningful relations with Mrs. Poulter and Dulcie because he is so utterly honest and open. Arthur’s simplicity sometimes results in his saying and doing disconcerting things, but both women value his innate wisdom and goodness. Both Dulcie and Mrs. Poulter come to think of Arthur as a kind of shaman: Dulcie names one of her children after him, and Mrs. Poulter considers him her savior. Because Arthur lives by intuition and instinct, he knows much about people, dogs, and things that Waldo never learns. Arthur, despite his lack of intellect, harbors sophisticated tastes: One shameful incident has Waldo discovering unpresentable old Arthur in the library reading Fyodor Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880) and ordering him to leave the premises as if he were a stranger. Forgiving as always, Arthur attempts to reconcile with his brother, but his efforts only enrage Waldo all the more.
Most precious to Arthur is his collection of glass marbles, of which four in particular are solid mandalas, the mandala being a symbol of totality and also the purported dwelling for a god. Its geometric form is usually represented by a square within a circle, symbolizing order imposed on chaos. Arthur reserves each of these special agates for a particular person; he bestows two on Dulcie and Mrs. Poulter in turn. Waldo rejects the one Arthur tries to give him and so Arthur keeps it as well as his own. This collecting and endowing of the mandalas represents the novel’s symbolic center. Arthur’s section ends at the same place as that of Waldo; part 4 returns to an objective narrator in order to detail the events which follow the catastrophe.