Without question one of Australia’s greatest writers, Patrick White received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973. By that time he had published eight novels, four plays, and two collections of short stories. Four more novels and plays, along with another collection of short stories and an autobiography, followed. The Tree of Man, his fourth novel, holds an important place in the White canon. First, it lays the groundwork for White’s imaginary Sydney suburb of Sarsaparilla, which figures prominently in his later fiction and drama. This recurrent setting has often been compared to William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The Tree of Man also brought international attention to White’s work, which had earlier gone largely unnoticed both in Australia and abroad. In addition, it marks the first of his books to be written after he returned to Australia following his university years at Oxford, a stint in London as an aspiring writer, extensive travel, and military service during World War II. Of greatest significance, however, is the way this early novel irrevocably altered Australian fiction, which had previously stressed realism and avoided metaphysical speculation. White, fairly or not, once described the typical Australian novel as “the dreary dun-colored offspring of journalistic realism.” He set out to change this gloomy assessment of his country’s fiction—and did so.
In The Tree of Man, White created a parable depicting the contemporary search for meaning. It may appear odd at first to describe the novel in this way. On a simpler level it would be better to classify it as domestic realism. It essentially unfolds the mundane story of Stan and Amy Parker, who marry, work their farm, have children, grow old, and face death. As they carve out their home in the wilderness, they experience flood, fire, dust, and flies—ironically, all of the staples of the very Australian novels White had called “dun-colored.” The novel lacks conflict. It moves slowly from one event to another, the years passing almost unnoticed. The narrative fails to build to any kind of climax, and an abundance of domestic details weigh heavily.
What makes The Tree of Man a great novel of lasting achievement is that it is a story for all people in all places at all times. It records the history of an Australian family for three generations during the first...
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