Patrick Victor Martindale White (1912-1990) was the first Australian to win the Nobel Prize for literature. He used religious experience and symbolism to show man's struggle to transcend the "dreary, every day life."
Patrick White was born in London on May 28, 1912, of Australian parents. His early education was at Tudor House, Moss Vale, New South Wales (an Anglican school). He went to England to attend Cheltenham College, then returned to Australia, where he gained experience as a jackeroo, or "gentleman stockman, " on sheep- and cattle-grazing properties in New South Wales. At 22 he returned to England to study at King's College, Cambridge. Subsequently, he traveled extensively in Europe and the United States.
White's first novel, Happy Valley (1939), a somewhat ironic story of a doctor in a mountain township of New South Wales, uses the stream-of-consciousness method and shows White's attention to suffering and solitude as essential elements of the human condition. Concern for unfulfilled lives is central to The Living and the Dead (1941). Set in Bloomsbury in the 1930s, the novel explores especially the problems of a Londoner who has tried to "build a cocoon of experience away from the noises of the street, " while other characters represent acceptance of life at any level. The theme is repeated in The Ham Funeral, a play written in the late 1940s but not performed until 1960.
During the war years White served in the Middle East and Greece in the Royal Air Force's intelligence section. He returned to Australia in 1948, settling in Sydney. Thereafter he showed a surer touch in his writing.
The Aunt's Story (1948) reflects an underlying concern with resistance to the conformity that other lives impose. The main character is seen first as a thin, sallow child leading a solitary life in an Australian country town, then in Sydney, where she becomes subordinated to her mother. Next she is seen as a spinster struggling to reconcile opposing aspects of her experience abroad. Later, during a journey across America, she decides to leave the train and cast aside her identity. Finally she is confronted by a hallucinatory figure who foretells her end in a mental hospital.
The Tree of Man (1955) was the next in a succession of novels in which White attempted, in his words, "to discover the extraordinary behind the ordinary, [to uncover] the mystery and poetry." It traces the lives of a settler and his wife who establish a holding in the Australian wilderness and see their homestead absorbed within a settlement, then a wider community. Eventually, their old fulfilling world is threatened with submergence in soulless suburbia. The central character's final vision suggests that fulfillment lies in liberation from the ordinariness of living: in transcendence.
A way to transcend is examined in Voss (1957), a story enshrining the theme of eclipse of self in the natural world. Recreating the challenge of 19th-century exploration in Australia, it is primarily a book about spiritual need. A German explorer who places a high value on his soul, Voss welcomes the privations of the desert and insists on blotting out all emotion of camaraderie. The expedition's total disappearance is a natural outcome.
In Riders in the Chariot (1961), White organized his story around four withdrawn or misfit characters in Sydney's suburbia through whom he tells of the alienated, tortured consciousness. Similar distorted personalities are seen in the play The Season at Sarsaparilla (1962) and in the short-story collection The Burnt Ones (1964). In showing the rejection of the "illuminates" by the society in which they are placed, White presents a condemnation of life as it is commonly lived. The play Night on Bald Mountain (1964) also scarifies those who might claim most need of compassion.
In The Solid Mandala (1966) White draws upon a body of mystical and visionary material derived from the observations and writing of the psychiatrist Carl Jung to set forth the mandala as a symbol of divine perfection and transcendence. The choice of characters, especially twin brothers who are strongly contrasted as a warmhearted halfwit and an arid intellectual, heightens the intensity of the symbolism. The dolt, as a cause of humiliation, breeds such hatred in his twin that the latter dies of it, while through the perfection he finds in four glass marbles treasured from his childhood the simpleton comes painfully to articulate his vision.
With the publication of The Vivisector (1970), critics began taking note of an increasing bleakness in White's vision and an implied darkening of the novelist's view of his own efforts. (Vivisection is the practice of cutting into, or dissecting, the body of a living organism.) This work, however, clinched White's status as a major figure in contemporary literature, and in 1973 he was awarded the Nobel Prize.
The central purpose of White's works was to explore the underlying problems of humanity, the impossibility of building a bridge from one life to another, and the individual's relationship with God. He developed a striking and distinctive style, sometimes with surrealist overtones, to match his increasingly powerful and emotional themes.
White consistently used religious experience and a high degree of symbolism in exploring man's relationship with the unknown and in adumbrating means whereby the individual might achieve a totality of serenity and insight. Throughout, his work shows a preoccupation with emotional incapacity and a predilection for investing emotions very heavily on the analysis of social pretensions. He creates figures whom middle-class society finds worthless or repellent and explains through them the mysticism he wishes to convey. Overall, his writing suggests an aversion to the comfortable urban life and dwells upon ways in which transcendence might be achieved. His most moving characters, often questing, eccentric, and sometimes bizarre personalities, manifest a high degree of "psychic isolation" and include some cases of extreme alienation.
White acknowledged his books to be outgrowths of his interest in religion. His preoccupation was "the relationship between the blundering human being and God." Although disclaiming affiliation with any Church, he said in 1969 that he had a religious faith and that his work was "an attempt to express that, among other things." He saw mankind as having got out of hand ("a kind of Frankenstein monster"); as the world became pagan, it was still desirable to lead people in the direction of religion, even though in a different way.
Before dying September 20, 1990, in Sydney after a long illness. White wrote 12 novels, three books of poetry, three collections of short stories, nine plays, and a number of pieces of non-fiction, including his autobiography, Flaws in the Glass: A Self-Portrait (1981).
A chapter on White by Vincent Buckley in Geoffrey Dutton, ed., The Literature of Australia (1964), contains a penetrating analysis of White's method and content, particularly emphasizing White's mythmaking propensity. A close consideration and generally sympathetic appreciation of White is in G. A. Wilkes, Australian Literature: A Conspectus (1969), focusing on the characters to explain the method by which White's central theme and ethic are evolved. John McLaren's essay "The Image of Reality in Our Writings, with Special Reference to the Work of Patrick White, " collected in Clement Semmler, ed., Twentieth Century Australian Literary Criticism (1967), provides a thorough but less favorable assessment of White's novels. □