PATRICK WHITE'S RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT

John Bulman, Member, on 19 February 2002

The title of this long and complex book invites us to discover which of its characters are intended by the author to be seen as the Riders, and to what kind of fulfilment or exaltation they are being carried.

The speaker read a synopsis of the central narrative, which introduces them all, living in the outskirts of Sydney after World War II. Four of those present read passages from the book, each illustrating a particular episode in the life of one of them, and also the somewhat high-flown style often used by White to describe the crucial experiences of his characters.

The first we meet is an eccentric woman in late middle age, still living in the now decaying mansion of her long-dead parents. In her childhood they had openly despised her ugliness, clumsiness and social ineptitude, and she had long ago retreated into a carefree, simple-minded contemplation of the natural world in the wilderness of her estate, known locally as a `madwoman'.

A scholarly German Jew wanders in there. He has lost his wife in the holocaust, because, he feels, of his own failure to watch over her. He has himself only survived by a hair's breadth. Hermit-like, he nurses his guilt and his faith, doing a menial job in a local factory, praying for redemption.

His neighbour takes in his washing as a kindness. A placid English country girl, she has raised her young siblings after her mother's death, come to Australia to work as a maid, made a bad marriage, and now runs a home laundry to support herself and her many lively children, a simple Christian.

Finally we meet through her an Aborigine, who by chance has been educated by an English missionary and revealed a passionate talent for painting. He works in the same factory as the Jew, and they mutely recognise each other as fellow outcasts.

The lives of these unhappy people come together in a tragic climax. As Easter and Passover approach, the yobbish factory hands hoist the Jew up a tree in a mock crucifixion, and later burn his wooden house. Fatally injured he is nursed by the washerwoman and her family, comforted by the `madwoman', while the `abo' observes the evocative scene and portrays the death in his own last painting.

We may see all four characters as seeking redemption from their sorrows in their individual ways: in observing the intricate wonders of the universe, in the profound rituals of the Jewish faith, in acts of Christian kindness or in the glorious depiction in paint of the Christian stories. Like the four strange creatures in Ezekiel's great vision, lightly alluded to by White and only vaguely linked to a chariot, they seem to rise to some transcendent revelation.

John Bulman

Discussion

All agreed this was a difficult book to discuss, with its savagery and heavy, descriptive biblical style.

Who were the riders? And what did the Chariot represent in Patrick White's mind?

The Chariot in Ezekiel was difficult to define but it had four people - cherub, man, lion, eagle. And each had four faces. Wheels were also featured, with other wheels inside them, and many eyes. The word `chariot' did not appear. But there were four characters in Patrick White's novel - Miss Hare, Mordecai Himmelfarb, Mrs Godbold, Alf Dubbo. It was suggested the significance of `chariots' could be, as in "Swing Lo, Sweet Chariot", the only relieving factor, or a vehicle of redemption. The `Chariots of Fire', on the other hand, were a metaphor for war. Ezekiel was apocryphal and purposely vague.

One member suggested the book was a Re-enactment of the Gospel. Dubbo manifests his God in his paintings. Another made comparison with Bulgakov's, The Master and Margarita, but much more modern in style.

There was discussion on evil and good in all levels of society. It was noted the book was dominated by reference to the Holocaust. And this was compared with the treatment of Aboriginals in Australia as subhuman.

The speaker considered the comparison between Christianity and Judaism permeated the narrative. The necessity for a religion in both the complex and the simple characters was mentioned. Humble acceptance of life as with Mordecai, but guilt about his wife left behind, and the simple beliefs of Mrs Godbold.

Emphasis on Australian colours blue, yellow, red was mentioned, and Patrick White's friendship with Sydney Nolan the painter.

The bitterness and morbidness of his writing, it was suggested, was related to Patrick White's position. He was born in England but with a childhood in Australia and educated in England because he needed the English cultural background. He was persecuted in Australia as a homosexual, and unpopular in England as an Australian.

Peter Valentine