The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Hurtle represents a triumph of characterization. Patrick White presents him from the inside, the style of that presentation changing according to Hurtle’s age and state of mind. As the novel opens, White records Hurtle’s impressions of life around him by using a child’s diction; he reveals Hurtle’s parents by assigning them colloquial idioms and unsophisticated patterns of speech. Syntax changes as soon as Hurtle enters the Courtneys’ world: theirs is an affected style which apes British forms and also employs French phrases for added effect. Language represents power: the better the vocabulary, the wealthier the speaker. Yet White also demonstrates that the more cultured the words, the less connected they are to the things of the world. Hurtle is forced to give up the vulgarity of his mother tongue (Australian) for the refined accents of an imported language (British) when he becomes a Courtney. His ultimate rejection of elegant speech returns him to his origins and to a rich, imaginative fund of ideas.

Once Hurtle returns to Australia and to art as a way of life, White uses the process of painting as a metaphor for Hurtle’s emerging sensibility and for his quest for perfection. Hurtle is ruthless and strangely unemotional yet also sensitive and attractive in a gruff sort of way. His honesty, brutal though it is, is what draws women to him. Neither introspective nor intellectual, Hurtle is a sensualist who relies on the smell and texture of paint to express all that there is inside...

(The entire section is 616 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Hurtle Duffield Courtney

Hurtle Duffield Courtney, a renowned Australian artist. He is sold at a young age to the wealthy Courtney family by his impoverished, prolific parents, the Duffields. This commerce in a human being provides the novel’s main metaphor: Hurtle will be bought and sold many times more as an accomplished artist. Hurtle brings great hope to the Courtneys, who have one handicapped daughter; they throw all their energies into making Hurtle a suitable heir. Even while he is young, however, the selfish, egotistical qualities surface that will later contribute to his artistic genius. Hurtle ruthlessly uses people for his own artistic purposes: His family, friends, and lovers all provide fodder for his vision. Ironically, his quest is for purity and simplicity, a search for the color of God. As an artist, Hurtle is an iconoclast, tearing away at the pretensions and hypocrisy of the art world. To that end, he turns to the gritty, seamy, and even grotesque side of life to produce his paintings. Hurtle has many affairs with women, all of which end badly because he uses and emotionally abuses them. Still, Hurtle is never entirely despicable: His honesty, although brutal at times, is admirable.

Alfreda Courtney

Alfreda Courtney and

Harry Courtney

Harry Courtney, the wealthy couple who adopt Hurtle. Alfreda is a pretentious, selfish woman who insists on Hurtle calling her Maman and who exhibits incestuous tendencies toward him. Harry is a decent man and would dearly love to get close to his son but, in his blundering, male way, cannot.

Rhoda Courtney

Rhoda Courtney, the hunchbacked daughter of Alfreda and Harry, Hurtle’s adoptive sister. Rhoda is intelligent and sensitive; as a child, she both resents and adores Hurtle. Her brother is repulsed by her, even though she fascinates him: Her...

(The entire section is 782 words.)