Elaborate on the way Patrick White structures time in Voss.

Elaborate on the way Patrick White structures time in Voss.

Voss (1957) is the fifth published novel by Patrick White. It is based upon the life of the 19th-century Prussian explorer and naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt, who disappeared while on an expedition into the Australian outback.

The novel centres on two characters: Voss, a German, and Laura, a young woman, orphaned and new to the colony of New South Wales. It opens as they meet for the first time in the house of Laura’s uncle and the patron of Voss’s expedition, Mr Bonner.

Johann Ulrich Voss sets out to cross the Australian continent in 1845. After collecting a party of settlers and two Aboriginal men, his party heads inland from the coast only to meet endless adversity. The explorers cross drought-plagued desert, then waterlogged lands until they retreat to a cave where they lie for weeks waiting for the rain to stop. Voss and Laura retain a connection despite Voss’s absence and the story intersperses developments in each of their lives. Laura adopts an orphaned child and attends a ball during Voss’s absence.

The travelling party splits in two and nearly all members eventually perish. The story ends some 20 years later at a garden party hosted by Laura’s cousin Belle Radclyffe (née Bonner) on the day of the unveiling of a statue of Voss. The party is also attended by Laura Trevelyan and the one remaining member of Voss’s expeditionary party, Mr Judd.

The strength of the novel comes not from the physical description of the events in the story but from the explorers’ passion, insight and doom. The novel draws heavily on the complex character of Voss.

The novel Voss continues the theme of personal quest for life meaning, first explored by White in The Tree of Man. Although its setting in the Australian landscape, is similar to the earlier novel, Voss is on a much greater scale and a larger dimension. The description of the continent’s interior landscape is one of the triumphs of the novel. The themes of personal quest and of expedition in Voss are juxtaposed, with the investigations now displayed of the literal landscape and the metaphysical search of the desert of the mind. In Voss, more of the characters are granted epiphanies, as if White is more confident of his universal theme and its impact upon several of his characters. Certainly, in Voss it is clear that White feels that personal salvation through the expression of love is possible, and that love itself is the consequence of moments of insight and illumination. Additionally, it is in this novel that White introduces for the first time the idea of great suffering as a necessary prerequisite with love of another/others for one’s evolving enlightenment and so understanding of divine purpose. The novel Voss, is a fictional account of the final journey of a similacrum of the colonial explorer, Ludwig Leichhard. Like Leichhardt, Johann Ulrich Voss, the reader of the expedition, is a German and he is to disappear from human ken. His exploits will become mythologised and search parties are to be organized to determine the truth about his failure to return. In the novel, Voss’s journey takes him on an allegorical journey through the wilderness of the Australian landscape and, finally, to the desert where he finds his ultimate enlightenment. Paralleling this search is the journey of his lover and later fiance, Laura Trevelyan, whose own emotional and spiritual quest takes place entirely within her mind. Laura, a rationalist who has lost her faith, comes ultimately to regain her belief through her love for Voss. He in turn, initially an unbeliever, acknowledgin only his own abilities, comes to a form of belief through his love for Laura. Both receive personal epiphanies in which further self-knowledge is revealed. Understanding and human and spiritual love are thus able to be established.

The historical Ludwig Leichhardt was, like the fictional Voss, born in Prussia and studied philosophy, languages, natural science and medicine in Germany, England and France before coming to Australia in 1842. Leichhardt’s final journey began in March 1848 from the Condamine River (near Roma, Queensland), and he disappeared without trace. 60 The party departs from Sydney by boat. After enjoying the hospitality of two properties in the area, the group leaves the then boundary of known civilization in the Hunter Valley. Their journey is marked by increasing physical hardship until Voss’s apparent intransigence and megalomania divides the party into two, with Voss and two companions persisting with the journey, only to die as a result of Aboriginal entrapment. Of the other party, only one of three members, Judd, survives to tell the story. Whilst in Sydney, Voss had met laura Trevelyan, the adopted daughter of the expedition’s main financial backer, Edward Bonner. The two are able to communicate on an intellectual level, and later this communication is maintained by telepathic means whilst Voss is in the hinterland; ultimately Voss requests and is granted Laura’s hand in what proves to be a mystical ‘marriage’. There is a strong underlying historical narrative behind the novel, but this is not its main focus. Rather, White explores quite explicitly the psychological and metaphysical aspects of his characters, the whole set against the colonial constructs of ‘the bush’ and the interior of Australia. Whilst White deals with the society of early Sydney in colonial New South Wales with both satire and wit, the search for self-realisation and redemption by the expedition members is central to an understanding of the novel and is most important for critical investigation of the text. Patricia Morley, in The Mystery of Unity: Theme and Technique in the novels of Patrick White, writes of the novel as ‘a comedy’ and of the character Voss himself as a ‘comic character’.61 Presumably the word ‘comedy’ is used by Morley to encompass the awful sense of disparity between the elevated ideals of the protagonist Voss and his less-than-heroic performance as a leader of the expedition. For his human weakness and shortcomings are largely responsible for the expedition’s failure and for his men’s deaths. Morley also sees a religious paraller with Dante’s Divine Comedy in the structure of Voss.

Read more:

  • Discuss Gig Ryan’s work in the context of the notion of Australian ‘mateship’.
  • What does the depiction of the Bush in stories/poems tell you about Australians’ attitudes towards their country.
  • What do you understand by the term ‘aborigine’. How is their point of view represented in Australian literature.
  • The issues that Australian writers had to grapple with before they could forge a literature of their own.

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