The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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,...

(The entire section is 715 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

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 entire section is 969 words.)