Summary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1086

Author: Geraldine McCaughrean (b. 1951)

First published: 2005

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure

Time of plot: Early 2000s

Locales: England, Paris, and Antarctica

Principal characters

Symone "Sym" Wates, the narrator, a lonely fourteen-year-old girl

Lillian Jennifer Wates, her mother

Larry Wates, her father

Lawrence...

(The entire section contains 1086 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this White Darkness, The study guide. You'll get access to all of the White Darkness, The content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Summary
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Author: Geraldine McCaughrean (b. 1951)

First published: 2005

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure

Time of plot: Early 2000s

Locales: England, Paris, and Antarctica

Principal characters

Symone "Sym" Wates, the narrator, a lonely fourteen-year-old girl

Lillian Jennifer Wates, her mother

Larry Wates, her father

Lawrence "Titus" Oates, her imaginary friend who is based on a historical explorer

Victor Briggs, a family friend who is obsessed with finding Symme's Hole in Antarctica

Manfred Bruch, a con man who pretends to be a film director from Norway

Sigurd Bruch, a sixteen-year-old con man who wants to be an actor and poses as Manfred's son

The Story

Unlike her peers, fourteen-year-old Symone "Sym" Wates spends most of her time learning about Antarctica—an obsession that she has had since childhood. Shy and hearing impaired, she does not fit in at school. Her closest friend is a "pretend friend" based on Lawrence "Titus" Oates, an actual Arctic explorer who died in 1912. Although she recognizes that having an imaginary friend is strange, she feels Titus is the only person she can talk to.

Sym's fascination with Antarctica was fostered over the years by Victor Briggs, a family friend whom Sym refers to as Uncle Victor. A self-proclaimed genius, Victor is a fervent believer in the hollow earth hypothesis, a theory that posits that there is a tunnel to the center of the world in Antarctica. After tricking Sym's mother, Lillian, into believing that he is taking Sym to Paris, Victor reveals to the teenager that they are actually going to fly to the South Pole. Sym is excited for the adventure.

Below the equator, Sym and Victor join an Antarctic travel group called the Pengwings, which includes a Norwegian filmmaker named Manfred Bruch and his sixteen-year-old-son, Sigurd. After setting up camp in the Arctic, Sym learns that Victor already knows Manfred; the two have been communicating over the Internet. She also discovers that Victor intends to use this trip to find Symme's Hole, an entryway into the Inner World. Manfred, whose job it is to document the experience, asks Victor for money to fly his film crew in. The crew never comes.

Sym is worried about Victor's obsessive behavior but trusts that he will take care of her. She also does not worry too much because she is distracted by her budding romance with Sigurd. When the other Pengwings get food poisoning and decide to return to civilization, their plane explodes and no one can leave. That night, when everyone is sleeping, Victor steals Sym, Manfred, and Sigurd away in the Pengwing's arctic vehicle claiming that it is time to find Symme's Hole. Although Victor shows his true colors by putting everyone's lives at risk for his obsession, Sym has trouble believing that he is bad. A frightened Manfred admits that he is not a filmmaker but a con man and that Sigurd is an actor. Victor leaves him to die in the frozen tundra.

After they almost fall into an ice crevasse, Sigurd steals the arctic vehicle. With she and Victor now alone and on foot, Sym learns several painful truths. For one, her father was once Victor's research partner. When he decided that he no longer wanted to look for the Inner World, Victor murdered him with poison. Secondly, Victor's experimentation with dangerous substances led to Sym's hearing loss as a child. Finally, Titus helps Sym accept the disturbing truth: Victor is an abuser who has been grooming her for this trip her entire life.

When Victor descends down an ice chimney that appears to be a portal into the Inner World, Sym decides to make her way back to civilization without him. After some time, the barren landscape starts to chip away at her resolve. She considers giving up and just letting herself die. However, Titus gives her the strength to continue onward. Eventually she stumbles upon Sigurd and the arctic vehicle, which has broken down. Sym uses her hair as a fuse to light the fuel tank on fire. The subsequent explosion and fire attracts rescuers. Now aware of her own strength and intelligence, she returns to England a more confident young woman.

Critical Evaluation

The White Darkness is a coming-of-age adventure narrative that explores themes of isolation, mortality, and delusion. These motifs are primarily evident in the novel's setting. Ultimately, the Antarctic is representative of how Sym is feeling. Sym is an extremely lonely individual and the white, desolate landscape reflects the fact that she believes she has nothing meaningful in her life. Furthermore, the icy tundra is intended to illustrate her emotional state. She says that after her father's death, "I sealed myself up inside. Laced up the tent, so to speak. Filled the locks with water so they would freeze." Her journey across the Antarctic, therefore, is an existential one. The more she endures and fights for survival, the more her emotions thaw and she comes alive.

Told in first person past tense from Sym's point of view, The White Darkness utilizes the literary tool of an unreliable narrator. McCaughrean crafts Sym's inner dialogue to demonstrate that what she thinks is true is often not—especially when it comes to Victor. Although Sym claims Victor is brilliant, his actions prove that he is actually dangerous and abusive. Meanwhile, the character of Titus is intended to act as an antidote to Sym's delusion. A figment of her imagination, he is often willing to admit things that Sym is too afraid to say out loud. At one point, Sym states, "Titus never says anything that I don't, in my heart of hearts, already know." Titus is in touch with reality because he is essentially another version of Sym—her braver alter ego whom she turns to when she needs to process difficult emotional situations. Despite not being real, he is arguably the most important secondary character in the novel; in addition to convincing her that Victor cannot be trusted, Titus helps Sym believe that she is a person whose life is worth fighting for.

Further Reading

  • Falconer, Rachel. "Crossover Literature and Abjection: Geraldine McCaughrean's The White Darkness." Children's Literature in Education, vol. 38, no. 1, 2007, pp. 35–44. Literary Reference Center, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=23591178&site=lrc-live. Accessed 28 Feb. 2017.
  • Geras, Adele. "Snow Fun." Review of The White Darkness, by Geraldine McCaughrean. The Guardian, 10 Sept. 2005, www.theguardian.com/books/2005/sep/10/featuresreviews.guardianreview31. Accessed 26 Feb 2017.
  • Review of The White Darkness, by Geraldine McCaughrean. Kirkus, 20 May 2010, www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/geraldine-mccaughrean/the-white-darkness. Accessed 26 Feb 2017.
Illustration of PDF document

Download White Darkness, The Study Guide

Subscribe Now