The Solid Mandala

by Patrick White

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, 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.

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