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Voss: An Australian Geographical and Literary Exploration

History and Travelling in the Fiction of Patrick White


Elena Ungari

This study of Voss by the Anglo-Australian Patrick White analyses the historical novel, set in the 1850s and concerning Voss’s exploration of the interior of Australia, as a parable of the writer’s exploration of the Australian historical, social and cultural context of the 1950s. The study employs a variety of critical apparatus including a post-structuralist and postcolonial approach, which also encompasses linguistics, sociolinguistics and comparative studies. This multi-level critical aid allows the examination of four levels of exploration utilised by the author.

Following an analysis of the protagonist’s geographical movement into the desert and his personal transformation, the study moves on to an exploration of the narrative itself. It explores how the novel becomes subject to change, absorbing and contesting a variety of literary genres ranging from the ‘chronicle’ to the parable. Through this multi-level approach, the study demonstrates the variety of readings the novel stimulates and displays its rich intertextual and subtextual elements and links.

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Chapter 1: From “chronicle” to novel


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Chapter 1:  From “chronicle” to novel

1.1  Fictionalizing/ Fictionalized History: The Europeanization of Australia

Soon after World War Two, White started considering writing a book about an exploration into Australia set in the mid-nineteenth century. Some years later he set to writing what was to become Voss. After he had finished the second version, the writer commented that its prose “at its most turgid [was] supposed to suggest the mid-19th Century Australian chronicle”.22 In defining his book as a “chronicle”, White was apparently placing it in the category of a genre characterised by a detailed historical record of important events, arranged chronologically, but without any attempt at literary style or any philosophical principle.23

In the first pages of his “chronicle”, however, White outlines both the characters and part of the Ort, the setting, where the events are going to take place. The “chronicle” is set in mid-nineteenth century Sydney, at that time a colonial, dusty, sultry and still provincial small city on the Australian Pacific.

Presentation and descriptions of the actors follow. The German explorer Voss, Mr Bonner, one of the patrons of the expedition, and his ← 23 | 24 → niece, Miss Laura Trevelyan, are the main characters of the narration. Voss is presented as a “scraggy man”, a “shabby stranger”, “[a] distressed German […] rubbing the pocket of his jacket with one hand”.24

Mr Bonner looks completely different. The narrator describes him as “a merchant...

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