Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Through Hurtle, White makes a devastating commentary on the Australian artistic scene. The fact that Hurtle is bought at a young age by materialistic, hollow people rankles in him all of his long life and defines most of his later relationships, especially with women: He exploits them for his own pleasure and in order to further his art. Except for Rhoda, the women in the novel are portrayed as devouring and possessive: Alfreda, Olivia, and Hero represent one aspect of a society which consumes Hurtle as soon as it deems him worthy of recognition. As his fame and collectibility grow, Hurtle once again becomes an object to be bought: Duffields hang in some of the best homes in Australia (such as Olivia Davenport’s). The novel’s central paradox remains that Hurtle uses people—women in particular—in order to produce an iconoclastic art which reveals the bourgeois tendency in Australian life, only to find himself and his work lauded as symbols of that same attitude. Inevitably, ironically, Hurtle is himself used and then rejected by another female artist less than half his age and just as egotistical. Hurtle is doomed to a sort of aesthetic prostitution—to buying and selling and to being bought and sold—throughout his life.

White applauds the gritty and the filthy in this novel. Except for his sanitized life with the Courtneys, Hurtle deliberately cultivates the grimy, seedy side of living. The hovel he builds represents in itself a forceful artistic statement: Devoid of almost any furniture and all modern conveniences, it is the place where Hurtle articulates his disgust...

(The entire section is 652 words.)