The Characters

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In Voss , White has two distinct styles. A poetic, elliptical, allusive, and somewhat cryptic style is associated with the expedition, the landscape, and Voss and Laura’s relationship. The style in which White portrays Sydney society is more conventional, though with a similar accuracy and originality of description and a...

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In Voss, White has two distinct styles. A poetic, elliptical, allusive, and somewhat cryptic style is associated with the expedition, the landscape, and Voss and Laura’s relationship. The style in which White portrays Sydney society is more conventional, though with a similar accuracy and originality of description and a sardonic and illuminating wit, both mirroring and satirizing the limited perspectives, worldliness, lack of imagination, and conventionality of that society. In his treatment of the many minor characters, White has been compared to both Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevski.

In depicting Voss and Laura, White uses this range of style to great effect. Voss is first shown as Sydney society perceives him: an ugly, ill-mannered, ungainly foreigner who does not fit in at all. Language is part of the barrier between Voss and others. Demonstrating this lack of communication, White gives him some dialogue in German, even at key points. The blacks’ incomprehension of any of the white man’s languages is emphasized when Voss speaks to them in German.

Voss’s arrogance extends to God; a Moravian missionary at Moreton Bay has told him, “You have a contempt for God, because He is not in your own image.” Though aware of his egoism and the way it has estranged him from people and from worldly comfort, Voss sees religion as “an occupation for women” and finds Laura’s condition for accepting him difficult. He knows that he must have humility for salvation. As the party ventures deeper into the desert, into the aborigines’ territory, discovering burial places and cave paintings, Voss’s God-defying assurance weakens, as he senses a spiritual force of which he has previously been unaware. In the end, because of Laura’s influence and his own acceptance of humility, he admits his own fears and inadequacies, and “reduced to the bones of manhood,” he realizes that even at the height of his self-confidence and contempt for others, he has been “a frail god upon a rickety throne.” Between Laura and the desert, Voss achieves a muted salvation.

Laura at the outset seems much more assured, self-possessed, and cool than Voss. She, however, needs the strength his love gives her to persist in her own destiny without being engulfed in and obliterated by conventional Sydney society. Their four meetings, for the most part surrounded by that society, seem scarcely to prepare for the intensity of the relationship which follows. Laura, however, not only understands Voss but also is quite unconventionally outspoken to him. “Everyone is offended by truth, and you will not be an exception,” she tells him. Voss, even though he laughs, agrees with Laura’s observation that his expedition is “pure will.” He accepts her comparison of him to a desert which is “vast and ugly” with “rocks of prejudice. . . even hatred,” a person “isolated . . . fascinated by. . . desert places,” which reflect or even exalt his own condition. Voss asks only if this means that she hates him. No, she responds, she is fascinated by him: “You are my desert.” Only Laura can see Voss both as a heroic, Christlike figure and as a fallible, ugly, and in many ways unlovable, human being. As Voss explores the continent, himself, and Laura, she reflects his experience, even though confined to Sydney. Both are seekers, and it is in part the intensity of their search for spiritual redemption that leaves a vague sense of incompleteness at the novel’s end. White himself much later observed, “the ultimate spiritual union is probably as impossible to achieve as the perfect work of art or the unflawed human relationship.”

Perhaps the most striking characterizations, after those of Voss and Laura, are those of the aborigines, both the groups in the desert and Dugald and Jackie. Described in their relationship to the land and to one another and as the whites perceive them, the “blackfellows,” as they are called, must give themselves completely to their desert in order to survive. To do so, Dugald must surrender “the conscience he had worn in the days of the whites” as well as his swallowtail coat. Though he voluntarily destroys the white man’s letters for his fellows, he is “sad and still” as the torn pieces “fluttered round him and settled on the grass, like a mob of cockatoos.”

Characters Discussed

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Johann Ulrich Voss

Johann Ulrich Voss, a German immigrant to Australia, a botanist with a desire to become famous as an explorer during the golden age of nineteenth century exploration. Voss possesses the will of a Nietzschean superman, and he has settled on the goal of being the first to cross the Australian continent. The character of Voss is inspired by a historical figure, Ludwig Leichardt, whose obsession with crossing the Australian desert led to his death. Voss is a humorless and passionate idealist who sees the conquest of the Australian territory as both a personal triumph and a victory for the human spirit. Despite a natural arrogance and the fanatical dedication of the truly obsessed, Voss, a slender man with enormous capacities for planning and endurance, captures the imagination of many who meet him, including the Bonner family. Laura Trevelyan, Bonner’s niece, finds him fascinating while resenting his pride and self-sufficiency. He wins her respect and undeclared love, and on his expedition, he believes he communicates with her telepathically. In the desert, Voss is betrayed by some of the members of his expedition and dies a tragic death, but not before learning a humility that softens his indomitable will. After Voss’s death, his tragic enterprise is gradually transformed into a heroic legend, which Laura helps to create and perpetuate in her work as a teacher.

Edward Bonner

Edward Bonner, a Sydney merchant who has made a small fortune, mainly through the sale of cloth. He is a stolid middle-class businessman who helps to finance Voss’s expedition, though he does not fully understand why he is attracted by Voss’s vision. Bonner enjoys being a patron and hopes that fame as well as financial advantage will result from Voss’s venture.

Laura Trevelyan

Laura Trevelyan, Bonner’s niece, who lives with the Bonners but is the family nonconformist. A beautiful young woman who is somewhat intellectual and contemptuous of conventional men, she has chosen to reject her childhood Christianity and considers herself a rationalist when she meets Voss; he perceives that she is in reality a believer with a concern for humility and compassion. Fascinated by his vision and drive, she falls in love with him, though neither she nor Voss will openly avow this passion. During his absence on the expedition, she writes long letters to him expressing her love. Like Voss, she imagines that they communicate telepathically. After Voss’s death and the failure of his quest, she chooses to remain unmarried and gains fame as a schoolmistress, while helping to create the legend of his heroism.

Harry Robarts

Harry Robarts, a simple young man who follows Voss out of an inarticulate devotion and out of gratitude, because Voss treats him as a person of importance. At twenty years of age, Robarts is physically strong but rather quiet and without intellect. He is willing to follow Voss to the end, and he dies with Voss in the interior desert of Australia.

Frank Le Mesurier

Frank Le Mesurier, another of Voss’s faithful followers on the expedition, though he has seldom stuck to any purpose before he met Voss. A relatively young man, he has worked at several jobs in Australia without staying long at any, and he has even published a volume of indifferent verse. Although he has artistic ambitions, or pretensions, he has been a dilettante, lacking commitment to work or vision. Attracted to Voss because the German has an assurance of the significance of his vocation that Le Mesurier lacks, he hopes to find himself on the wilderness trek. Although he refuses to desert Voss, he is unable to sustain his courage when captured by a tribe of aborigines, and he commits suicide.

Albert Judd

Albert Judd, a former convict, now emancipated and a respectable farmer. He is a responsible and steadying influence on the expedition. A strong and sensible middle-aged man, Judd has been tempered and humbled by his harsh years of penal servitude. Essentially, Judd is a man of material reality and common sense. Despite his kindness toward Voss, he finally mutinies after the death of Palfreyman, considering the expedition to be hopeless.

Palfreyman

Palfreyman, a kindly but boring ornithologist who goes on Voss’s expedition out of scientific curiosity. Constantly abstracted and devoid of egotism, Palfreyman practices a kind of benign Christian charity until he is murdered by an aboriginal tribesman.

Ralph Angus

Ralph Angus, the son of a wealthy landowner. He goes on the expedition seeking adventure and self-respect. Angus finds that he is ultimately a practical man and becomes a friend of Turner, a former alcoholic and the least dedicated member of the expedition. Somewhat reluctantly, Angus follows Judd when the latter rebels against Voss.

Turner

Turner, supposedly a reformed alcoholic, primarily a man of the senses who experiences life in the simplest epicurean terms. Turner joins the expedition somewhat reluctantly, hoping to find his fortune, but his gross and vulgar views often annoy the others, even when they find them entertaining. Turner readily joins Judd’s mutiny and abandons Voss to his fate.

Dugald

Dugald, an elderly aboriginal guide who barely understands English. Entrusted by Voss with some important letters, including a love letter to Laura, Dugald sets off for the outpost of Jildra. After meeting some other tribesmen, he is persuaded to tear the letters to pieces and scatter them to the winds.

Jackie

Jackie, a young aboriginal guide who accompanies Voss and his two remaining companions to their final encounter with a tribe of cannibals. Although Jackie feels bound to Voss by some inexplicable magic, he readily allows himself to be adopted by the tribe. To show his loyalty to the tribe, he finally works up the nerve to murder Voss. Somewhat sullenly, Jackie cuts off Voss’s head while the latter is sleeping.

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