Last Updated August 1, 2023.
The Tree of Manis a 1955 novel by the Australian author Patrick White, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his literary achievements in 1973. The novel tells the story of Stan Parker, his wife Amy, and their two children, in rural Australia in the early 20th century. White's text paints a realistic but poetic picture of life in the bush while depicting the area's growth throughout one everyman's life.
The novel begins with Stan venturing into the bush to clear the land his father left to him. Once he has built a modest home, Stan meets Amy Fibbens in the nearest town, Yuruga, and after a very quick courtship, they marry. He takes her out to his property in the bushland, and over the years, the couple works to develop their farm, raises cows, and grows comfortable in their environs.
While much of the text depicts the everyday routines of the Parkers' lives and the main characters' inner thoughts, large-scale events like destructive floods in Wullunya impact their lives. After several failed pregnancies, Amy gives birth to their son Ray, and not long after, their daughter Thelma. The town has now built up enough to have been named Durilgai, with the addition of a store and a post office. Much of the narrative relates to the Parkers' interactions with neighbors like the O'Dowds, the postmistress Mrs. Gage, and the eccentric Quigley siblings.
The region suffers severe droughts followed by catastrophic wildfires. One of the fires even reaches the house of the Parkers' wealthiest neighbors, the Armstrongs, and Stan risks his life to save Madeleine, the lady who is engaged to Tom Armstrong. The two share a pivotal moment Stan remembers for the rest of his life, but Madeleine and the Armstrongs leave Durilgai after the incident.
When the Parker children are young, Stan goes to war in Europe, and as anti-German sentiment grows, Amy is forced to dismiss their German farmhand. This episode elucidates the vast reach of international conflicts, even in isolated regions of Australia.
After the war, Stan returns relatively unscathed, and life goes on mostly as usual, though Stan has lost his faith in the power of humans to completely control their destinies. Throughout their marriage, Amy and Stan struggle to fully understand each others' psyches and, to some extent, always live in separate mental worlds.
Amy has a brief affair with a salesman named Leo, and when Stan sees the man's car in front of the house one day, he simply drives away and then goes to town to get drunk, so afraid of what he may discover if he goes home. They both find comfort in the habits they have established as a family, and both reflect on their dependence on and fondness (though not necessarily love) for each other.
Ray is a problematic child, often restless and unsure of what he wants to do with his life. Stan apprentices him to the saddle maker, but Ray hates the work and eventually leaves Durilgai to travel and find work on a steamer. He eventually marries a woman named Elsie, and they have a son named Ray. Though Elsie and Ray visit the Parkers frequently, the elder Ray is often absent and leaves Elsie for a woman named Lola, with whom he also has a son named Ray. Over time, the elder Ray gets caught up in illegal activities and repeatedly asks his family for money until he is murdered in Bangalay.
Thelma's life path is in great contrast to her brother's....
(This entire section contains 918 words.)
She attends a business school for women in Sydney and lands a job in a solicitor's office. Thelma ends up marrying the solicitor for whom she works, Dudley Forsyke, and vastly improves her socioeconomic status. She, like Elsie, is a frequent visitor to the Parkers' home, though she feels ashamed of her humble beginnings.
On one visit, she brings a friend, Mrs. Fisher, to the home, and she turns out to be Madeleine, the lady Stan saved from the fire. Though Amy acknowledges to herself that it is the same woman, she does not let her husband believe it, sensing that Stan and Madeleine shared a moment during the rescue that bonded them in a way Amy will never understand or experience.
The death of Ray Parker sets off a series of losses that characterize the narrative's falling action. Not long after Ray's death, Amy's neighbor and friend, Mrs. O'Dowd, becomes sick with cancer, and Amy visits her on her deathbed, holding the old woman's hand as she passes. Thelma's friend Mrs. Fisher also passes away, and one evening at a concert, Thelma has a strange vision of her father.
When she returns home, she learns from her husband that Stan died that afternoon. White describes Stan's death in terms of his position within the world around him, as he "was seated at the heart of" his world. As he dies, he asserts that he believes in all of those features of the environment around him; those are and have always been his spiritual milieu.
After Stan's funeral, his grandson walks out into that same environment, and White comments that "in the end, there was no end." Though the novel traced the life of Stan, from the statement of identity that he made when he cleared the bush and built his house to his final thoughts as he dies on that same land, Stan's legacy, and life in general, will continue after him, through his family and through the land.