The Solid Mandala

by Patrick White

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Critical Context

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The Solid Mandala remains one of White’s least critically acclaimed novels, probably because it is so schematic in structure. The notion that an individual contains many selves and both sexes originates as early as The Aunt’s Story (1948), in the character of Theodora Goodman, and dominates novels such as The Twyborn Affair (1979) and Memoirs of Many in One (1986). The Solid Mandala is, however, the first of White’s books to explore fully the consuming nature of family ties, a subject which he takes up again, more successfully, in The Eye of the Storm (1973).

Arthur Brown is one of a series of innocents blessed with visionary insight who people White’s novels, just as Waldo Brown joins another line of Whitean characters who place their faith in the life of the mind. Riders in the Chariot (1961), the novel which precedes The Solid Mandala, contains examples of both such types. The “elect,” of which Mary Hare from Riders in the Chariot and Arthur Brown of The Solid Mandala are members, lead shabby, disreputable lives in the eyes of the world at large. Waldo Brown is a descendant of Mordecai Himmelfarb from Riders in the Chariot, except that Mordecai only pursues an academic career until the inexplicable evil of the Holocaust causes him to abandon books for simple, humble living. Waldo is never redeemed by this lesson, and his character type does not reappear, except for certain aspects of it, in White’s novels. What The Vivisector (1970) inherits from its predecessor The Solid Mandala is a vision of Australia as ugly and static.

White satirizes the narrow Australian mentality which condemns what it considers unusual and, hence, threatening. His consistent establishment-bashing has won for White the enmity of many Australian critics as well as the admiration of readers in other postcolonial cultures where there are similar conflicts between a stiff, British past and the immense freedom a new land offers. The fictional suburb of Sarsaparilla first makes an appearance in Riders in the Chariot but is also the setting for some of White’s plays and certain of his short stories in The Burnt Ones (1964). Squalid, stifling Sarsaparilla and its intolerable inhabitants represent White’s most scathing indictment of middle-class Australia.

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