The Solid Mandala

by Patrick White

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Two Halves of a Whole

The relationship between dualism and the whole is a pervasive theme in The Solid Mandala. By creating two protagonists who are twins, Patrick White emphasizes the idea that the universe is divided into two complementary halves. The characters of Arthur and Waldo often seem more like two components of a single whole—even though they are fraternal rather than identical twins—because of their extreme emotional dependence on each other. They have each been so shaped by the other that it is impossible to separate them as individuals. This is further enhanced by the different qualities each brother possesses. Arthur is creative, kind, and open to connection. Waldo, on the other hand, is book-smart, cold, and more prone to follow the norms of society. Waldo resents his brother’s success, believing Arthur is lacking due to his cognitive ability. He hates that Arthur continually one-ups him. Arthur, on the other hand, thinks of himself as Waldo’s protector. Together, they are balanced but as individuals, they are missing something; they need one another.

Spirituality and Materialism

A related theme concerns the relationship between spirituality and materialism. The cookie-cutter sameness and material comfort in the sterile suburban environment where the twins grow up, the author suggests, has stifled their spiritual development. For Waldo, a rational approach based in intellect has provided a means of rejecting the mindless conformity that suburbia sought to impose. Arthur seeks emotional connections and spiritual insights connections beyond these drab confines, but these also bring the risk of detachment from reality. He also seeks satisfaction in marbles, which are small, cold, hard objects, regardless of their quasi-spiritual label. For both men, however, their childhood home exerts an irresistible pull. This in turn suggests the theme of the spiritual importance of home. Even though it provides a place of refuge in their old age, the home holds memories of their childhood conflicts that fuel their animosity more than their affection for each other. Though the idea of returning to one’s childhood home to resolve long-held issues seems idyllic, this is not what happens to Waldo and Arthur. Their ties to their home and one another are not necessarily outwardly positive or restorative.

Gender and Sexuality

Gender and sexuality are also key related themes for both brothers. Even though the strongest bond in The Solid Mandala is between the two brothers, it is also a bond between two men. The brothers are portrayed as asexual and as ambivalent in their gender identities, as shown through Waldo’s occasional transvestism. The female characters all play secondary roles in their lives, despite their enduring competition over one female, Dulcie. Her relationship with Arthur seems closer than with Waldo, but she ends up with neither brother and marries a different man. Their mother’s alcoholism is offered as a factor creating or exacerbating the emotional distance from her sons. Other female characters seem to be maternal substitutes or friends. In this sense, sexuality plays an important role by being relatively absent from the brothers’ lives. It is almost as if the most powerful and impactful relationship the brothers can possibly have is with each other.

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Chapter Summaries