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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Still life : the life of things in the fiction of Patrick White Whaley, Susan Jane


"Still Life" argues that Patrick White's fiction reveals objects in surprising, unexpected attitudes so as to challenge the process by which the mind usually connects with the world around it. In particular, White's novels disrupt readers' tacit assumptions about the lethargic nature of substance; this thesis traces how his fiction reaches beyond familiar linguistic and stylistic forms in order to reinvent humanity's generally passive perception of reality. The first chapter outlines the historical context of ideas about the "object," tracing their development from the Bible through literary movements such as romanticism, symbolism, surrealism and modernism. Further, the chapter considers the nature of language and the relation of object to word in order to distinguish between the usual symbolic use made of objects in literature and White's treatment of things as discrete, palpable entities. The second chapter focuses on White's first three published novels—Happy Valley (1939), The Living and the Dead (1941) and The Aunt's Story (1948)--as steps in his novelistic growth. Chapters Three, Four and Five examine respectively The Tree of Man (1955), The Solid Mandala (1966) and The Eye of the Storm (1973); these novels represent successive stages of White's career and exemplify his different formal and stylistic techniques. White's innovations demand a new manner of reading; therefore, each novel is discussed in terms of objects which reflect the shapes of the works themselves: "tree" defines the structure and style of Tree of Man "house" inspires Solid Mandala and "body" shapes Eye of the Storm. Reading White's novels in terms of structural analogues not only illuminates his methodology, but also clarifies his distinction between objective and subjective ways of understanding the world. Further, these chapters also refute critics' arguments that White's objects are merely victims of his overambitious use of personification and pathetic fallacy, or that they are the result of his dabbling in mysticism. "Still Life" concludes by showing how Patrick White's novels sequentially break down assumptions about reality and appearance until the reality of language itself falters. The author restores mystery to things by relocating the possibility of the extraordinary within the narrow, prescribed confines of the ordinary. White succeeds in changing readers' notions about the nature of reality by disrupting the habitual process by which they apprehend the world of things.

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