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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 5: From the imperial romance to the quixotic tragedy – the “chronicle” of the anti-epic in the southern hemisphere


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Chapter 5:  From the imperial romance to the quixotic tragedy – the “chronicle” of the anti-epic in the southern hemisphere

5.1  Departure: the “epic” of the “wandering few”

Besides giving rise to specific literary genres such as travel literature and récits de voyage,248 travelling has been the underlying theme of a variety of literary forms throughout the ages. Whatever the genre, the agents implied or the aims of travelling, a journey has usually been structured into three, almost archetypal, phases: departure, transit and arrival. Each of them is characterised by diverse and sometimes contradictory clichés, which turn each stage into a rich semantic and symbolic field.

Voss adopts the theme of travelling on several levels. As a novel narrating the exploration into the desert, it draws upon the chronicles of historical expeditions; as a literary form accommodating a rich intertextual web of references, it appropriates the varied symbolic patterns and meaning of this motif.

The expedition, as a form of journey, represents the core of White’s work. The three stages of departure, transit, and return (associated with arrival), which structurally build up any journey and White’s novel, demonstrate well the way in which the narrator interprets and re-interprets tropes pertaining to the theme of travelling in the assortment of genres which underlie White’s “chronicle”.

When Voss’s party leaves Jildra, the adventurous journey starts. The narrator records: “Next morning, in a tunnel of red light...

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