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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 2: Maps/Mapping. Historicizing geography


← 50 | 51 →

Chapter 2:  Maps/Mapping. Historicizing geography

2.1  The “geographical problem”: the safety of “recorded names”, the dread of blank spaces

A phenomenon connected with the expansion of explorations was the development of cartography. Maps became both a result of and an instrument used in expeditions. Sailors and explorers who embarked on journeys of discovery used to sketch maps of the territories they entered. Explorers setting off on later expeditions often made use of maps drawn by earlier travellers. Any new journey was ultimately an opportunity to make ever more precise maps.98

Maps thus became fundamental sources of knowledge of the world that was being discovered and surveyed. Analogously, studying the map was a necessary task before embarking on an expedition. Maps became important records of the ”geographical problem”;99 that is, they helped the explorer to know the country better, and thus to overcome the feeling of embarrassment often caused by the lack of knowledge of what lay “at the heart of the continent”.

Given the contents of his “chronicle”, White could not avoid making allusions to maps. In the course of the conversation with the explorer, the merchant shows the German a map:

“ ‘I expect you will consider it imprudent, Mr Voss, if I ask whether you have studied the map?’ Here, indeed was a map of a kind, presumptuous where it was not a blank. ‘The map?’ said Voss. ← 51 | 52 → It was...

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