Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 577

It has been observed that in Voss , the desert, or the Continent, becomes a major character. Certainly it is a major theme. The conquest of the land is seen not as a “manifest destiny” or as a search for wealth and power but as an arena for self-discovery, suffering,...

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It has been observed that in Voss, the desert, or the Continent, becomes a major character. Certainly it is a major theme. The conquest of the land is seen not as a “manifest destiny” or as a search for wealth and power but as an arena for self-discovery, suffering, and mystical experience. Laura several times expresses variations of the novel’s central theme: “Human relationships are as vast as deserts”; “a country does not develop through the prosperity of a few landowners and merchants, but out of the suffering of the humble”; and “perhaps true knowledge only comes of death by torture in the country of the mind.” Certainly, Voss suffers as much in the country of the mind as he does in the desert and at the hands of the aborigines.

White often uses Christian symbolism and imagery to express the concepts of redemption through suffering and humility. Laura and Voss pledge their fate to each other and achieve a mystical union of souls in the Bonners’ garden, at night, a garden which has biblical overtones both of Eden and of Gethsemane. Shortly after the expedition sets out, Judd realizes that it is Christmas Day and insists on a celebration, killing a sheep for the meal. Palfreyman, his very name suggesting medieval quests, dies of a spear wound in his side.

The contrasts between the comfortable mid-Victorian merchants, fashionable and not-so-fashionable professionals, the military stationed in Sydney, and the impenetrable and mysterious land reaching into the interior, are secondary themes, illuminating and contrasting Voss’s and Laura’s unworldliness and spiritual concerns and their position as outsiders in this society. Voss encounters other elements of Australian society: the Sandersons on their pastorally idyllic farm are a Rousseauistic island, the name of their estate, Rhine Towers, significantly reminiscent of the romantic side of the Germany on which Voss has turned his back; and the brutish state of natural man is seen in the last forlorn outpost, Jildra, and epitomized in the drunken and debased Boyle. In comparison to Boyle, the aborigines have a savage purity.

Counterpointing the Christian imagery is the religion of the aborigines. There is a sense that in crossing into the desert the expedition is going beyond Christian territory and into forbidden territory, a land in which the Great Snake of the aborigines is mingled with the Southern Cross. Out in the extreme reaches of the desert, the aborigines’ interpretation of experience, their awe and fear of the great comet that appears when they encounter the remnant of the expedition, the mystical union of Voss and Laura, and the Christian drama of salvation blur into one fated experience. Voss must not only achieve Christian humility but also realize that the blacks see him not as a god, but as an alien element to be purged from the land.

At the end, Voss recedes into legend, and the unperceiving residents of Sydney think of Australia as a land in which “we are every way provided for.” Yet Laura observes, with irony, “Oh, yes, a country with a future. But when does the future become present? That is what always puzzles me.” Perhaps she recalls her words to Voss, “this great country, which we have been presumptuous enough to call ours.” Shining and elusive in the distance, the ultimate meaning of the continent eludes even those who are able to perceive its mystery, its spiritual dimension, its hardships, and the suffering and humility these qualities demand.

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