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...
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