Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 981

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...

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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 half of the twentieth century and is quintessentially Australian, but it is finally not only Australian. In 1958, White wrote of the novel in his essay “The Prodigal Son”: “I wanted to try to suggest in this book every possible aspect of life, through the lives of an ordinary man and woman. But at the same time I wanted to discover the extraordinary behind the ordinary, the mystery and poetry.”

The Tree of Man presents a parable of life’s greatest mystery: an individual’s understanding of the divine, of God. In White’s fictional world, people tend to fall into one of two categories: that of the doers or that of the seekers. Most often only one character acts the role of the seeker or the visionary, with those around him or her concerned more with doing and daily living than with the eternal mystery. Stan Parker is the visionary in The Tree of Man, even though he appears to be an ordinary man, as this passage from the novel suggests: “If a poetry sometimes almost formed in his head, or a vision of God, nobody knew, because you did not talk about such things, or, rather, you were not aware of the practice of doing so.”

At times Stan’s wife, Amy, grapples toward the extraordinary, but “she could not explain that a moment comes when you yourself must produce some tangible evidence of the mystery of life.” Neither the Parker children nor any of the other characters in the novel share Stan’s “vision of God,” which comes to him finally in all its glory at the moment of his death in the garden. Amy, by then a fat, rather disagreeable old woman who neither fully appreciates nor grasps Stan’s silent spiritual quest, at times even envies it, walks away from the garden and her husband’s body, once more doing the practical thing by calling on those who can help her physically.

The final chapter, only two pages long, is a kind of coda to Stan’s quest. His grandson, another visionary, wanders through the garden where Stan died and pledges to put into poetry what his grandfather had known but had been unable to express. It is tempting to see the boy as White himself. In 1956, he had just set out to write a series of powerful novels that were to make brilliant use of the actual Australian garden in a way that far transcends the reality of the setting.

A distinguishing mark of the parable is the simplicity of its story. The Tree of Man possesses this quality. The metaphysical implications that stand behind every line do not intrude on the narrative itself, which offers a touching, sometimes comic, account of a family’s everyday struggles over a period of fifty years. White’s altogether original technique of embedding his ideas into character, narrative, and setting provides a rare, if demanding, reading experience.

Much has been said about the difficulty, at times the inaccessibility, of White’s writing style, one critic even dubbing it “illiterate verbal sludge.” It would be far more fitting to praise the density of the language, its near poetic qualities, and its appropriateness to the work’s purpose. Just as the visionaries yearn to make their realizations known, White, with what he called “the sticks and stones” of language, attempts to express the inexpressible. The structure of the prose generates a nervous energy. This energy strives toward the revelation of the truth, “the extraordinary behind the ordinary, the mystery and poetry.”

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