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Patrick White’s “A Fringe of Leaves” Essay

Social interactions and relationships are often used in novels to establish and develop thematic concerns within the text. Within A Fringe of Leaves, Patrick White constructs characters and their relationships to expose the constraints of social expectations and simultaneously illustrate the metaphysical journey to self-realisation that the protagonist, Ellen undergoes. It is through Ellen’s complex and often confusing relationships with other characters that her journey may be traced and the extent of change at each level may be realised. The text remains, throughout such a journey, concerned with the contrast between appearances and reality, revealed though all levels of interaction, but poignantly exemplified in the upper class. Such contrasts are juxtaposed to the relatively natural, however none the less complex, relationships appearing deep within the Australian bush. Social relationships are vital in establishing themes, however Ellen’s inner struggle remains the focus of the novel. Relationships are therefor presented as complex and confusing in order to shape a deeper understanding of both the tribulations and personal conflicts Ellen must face and the complex product of her journey.

Ellen Gluyas is of working class origins and it is only through her relationship with Austin that she comes to be the ‘Mrs. Roxburg’ of class and social stature. This transcending of class, although provides her with stoic and expedience, valuable in her journey, is the cause of much confusion for Ellen and she is constantly reassessing her situations in able to assume her appropriate role. White clearly expresses that Ellen and Austin’s marriage is for reasons other then romantic love. Austin’s selection of Ellen as his wife enables him to fulfill his Pygmalion fantasies, however the prospect of marrying would not have come about at all without the instruction of his mother. The marriage may thus be seen as, as equally fulfilling for ‘old’ Mrs. Roxburg as it is for Austin. Ellen, in complying with the Pygmalion concept, marries as it is her only means by which to achieve social mobility. Her acceptance of Austin’s ‘extraordinary’ proposal is prompted by her father’s death (a complex relationship in itself) as her resulting social position leaves her with little alternative choice. Their relationship is thus grounded on a precarious combination of unequal power, gratitude, unfamiliarity, duty and ‘a bungling attempt to prove their love’.

It is in the initial stage of the novel that the impacts of such a relationship are introduced. Ellen constantly struggles to camouflage her working class roots and beneath that, her spiritual and instinctual self. This creates conflict and confusion in her understanding of her self and her relationships with other characters. Ellen plays a ‘many faceted role’, which is made possible through the layers of social practices imposed during her initiation into the upper class. Although Austin provides her with the opportunity, it is her relationship with ‘old’ Mrs. Roxburg that begins the construction of the new young Mrs. Roxburg. Ellen becomes Austin and his mother’s molded and manipulated ‘work of art’ and it is during this time that she realises the importance of appearances within the upper class. Ellen also becomes aware of the innocence and ignorance of her working class self, and hence White foregrounds the notion of the class system as divided by a thin veneer of respectability. This notion of a superficial ‘fringe’ as the determinant of position within society is further criticised through the construction of Austin’s brother Garnet.

White’s portrayal of Garnet and the insights Ellen gains from her relationship with him, reveal the potential for corruption and immorality within the upper class. Garnet, although banished from respectable society in Britain, is able to resume his authoritarian role, transposing his familiar existence of privilege and power to an Australian society. White’s ironic portrayal of Garnet as a stereotype of the upper class is critical in its exposure of the double standards apparent in a stratified social structure. Garnet is expected to uphold social ideals by setting moral examples for those ‘lesser’ than him, yet he, in every respect, defies the concept of ‘Christian morality’ through his advantageous and corrupt nature. White’s depiction of Garnet’s relationship with the servant girl Holly reveals how a man of his position is able to manipulate the lives of those around him, with little concern for the consequences. The character of Holly is marginalised within the text however this may be read as furthering White’s ironic portrayal of the upper class, as the minimal description of the girl’s fate is representative of just how little Garnet’s actions effect his life.

Although the portrayal of Holly also criticises dominant ideologies on gender, the extent of double standards towards male and female sexuality is fully exposed in the construction of the relationship between Ellen and Garnet. Their relationship is strongly contrasted to the sterile and repressive nature of Ellen and Austin’s relationship. Within her marriage Ellen is unable to explore her sexuality as when she ‘had…once responded with a natural ardour…discovered on her husband’s face an expression of having tasted something bitter’. Her relationship with Garnet thus proves to be complex in its meaning. It first represents Ellen and Garnet as parallel characters in their sensualist desires that must be censured in light of social morality. Whilst simultaneously juxtaposing the perception of sexuality in males and females within phallocentrically informed societies.

Garnet’s sexuality is defined as a source of virile power. It is condoned and somewhat celebrated within the text. In strong contrast, Ellen’s sexuality is represented as dangerous and immoral. She suffers guilt after the experience, and in resuming her relations with Austin, continues to ‘refrain…from tearing…off…the mask which evidently she was expected to wear.” In the Roxburg’s confusing relationship of supposed love and stifled interactions, Ellen must repress her sensual desires in order to conform to social expectations of a ‘lady’, and thoughtful wife. Thus Garnet is the ‘tool which she used to measure the depths she was tempted to explore’. Their encounter unleashes Ellen’s repressed sensual nature and sexual desire, which prompts and foreshadows her journey to self-realisation.

White depicts Ellen as a complex character whose complexity is enhanced by her experiences within the upper class of society. By focusing on Ellen’s social relationships, White is able to construct her character to the point where her descent may be as interesting and many leveled as her ascent. As a working class girl, Ellen existed with a few layers of constructed self. As she is initiated into the upper class she is constructed by external forces (‘old’ Mrs Roxburg and Austin) and internal forces (her new ‘knowledgable’ self, exemplified within her journal). This construction of self, imposes layers upon layers of ‘culture’ and false or rendered identity. In ellen’s journey to self realisation she is stripped of her constructed or social self. The initial stages of the novel develop these layers so that the second part may remove them. Social relationships are thus used to develop and measure both her ascent and her descent.

Parallels are thus drawn between the Roxbourg’s and the Aborigines, as they are characters whose relationships with Ellen denote periods of marked and rapid change. This notion of allining the two experiences is introduced when Ellen is ‘dragged to her feet’ by the group of Aboriginal women. Omniscient narration allows the parallel to be drawn through the line, ‘Ellen Gluyas had not encountered a more unlikely situation since forced as a bride to face the drawing rooms at Cheltenham.’ This line is significant also in the use of naming. It is the first of an interchanging of identity, which represents both the confusion Ellen undergoes and also the shedding of her ‘cultivated’ layers. Within the Aboriginal society Ellen is pushed and pulled to suit those around her.

This may be read as representative of her treatment by civilised society, on a more basic and primitive level, symbolising manipulation through social relationships. Ellen’s relationship with the aborigines mark the beginning of her descent, as she is returned to the most basic and subsistence level of humanity. However to exist within the community she still must assume certain roles, such as slave and nurturer, savage and ‘work of art’. Ellen becomes the Aborigines ‘work of art’, just the way she did for Austin. And the ordeal she suffers exemplifies physically, the psychological effects of her ‘work of art’ rolein her marriage. Her role as nurturer and savage, reveal her instinctual and primitive self . Ellen is allowed to explore this side of her nature as she is freed from the constraints of civilised society.

White constructs relationships between Ellen and the Aboriginal children, through Ellen’s role as nurturer. These relationships are important in revealing the contrasts of good and bad within human nature, and White explores the notion that good and bad exist collectively within people, and that nothing is truly good or truly bad. This is first introduced through the portrayal of Garnet who, despite being vilified within the text, encompasses vital characteristics in the development of Ellen’s journey. The first relationship Ellen has with an aboriginal child, blatantly exposes her evil side, whilst nurses the sickly child. There is stark contrast of good and bad in Ellen’s thoughts and speech. She first refers to it as disgusting an then wishes it to ‘sleep, sleep…sleep-my darling’. Later she wishes the child dead. Her relationship with other Aboriginal children, within the text are equally confusing. There are moments of idyllic contentment with the children, and then they become solemn and determined or even violent. They become for Ellen a means by which she may be comforted, however there there is never any developed example of love. In the context of Ellen’s journey, the children are also ‘tool’s, by which she may explore her nurturer side, denied through her fruitless marriage with Austin.

White’s construction of the character Jack Chance, Ellen’s convict hero, provides a heightened example of good shrouded in evil. Jack is a murderer, and a criminal, whilst he is Ellen’s protector. In contrast to Garnet, Jack is unable to escape the consequences of his actions, and has suffered the brutalities of the upper classes’ corruption. His character thus evokes sympathy despite his immoral past. The union of Ellen and Jack is complex as it reveals the contradiction and multiplicity within the individuals’ true self. Jack is presented as both a murderer and protector, whilst Ellen’s heightened awareness of self, is only made possible through the darker and more primitive side of her nature. The positive portrayal of their Eden-like existence valorises the multiplicity and contradictions within themselves and their relationship.

It is both a spiritual and sexual union in which Ellen appears her most natural self. It is with Jack that she makes the final transition to full enlightenment and self-realisation, symbolized by the sheding of her fringe of leaves. Their relationship remains confusing though. Ellen replaces the fringe of leaves to distance herself from Jack. Although ‘she loved him’, social relationships remain complex for Ellen, and Jack is of course another tool in Ellen’s journey. Through him she may rekindle her sensuality and extend her self knowledge. He is her means to return to civilization, and thus their idyllic relationship is temporary. White implies that their union is not possible within civilised society. Their natural existence of unrepressed desires and sensuality may not be transposed onto a world of appearances and constructed social fronts, such that Ellen returns to civilization alone.

Throughout the novel Ellen’s social relationships trace and reflect the stages of her journey. On returning to civilisation there surfaces a new confusion as Ellen realizes that ‘self-knowledge might remain a source of embarrassment even danger.’ She is forced to repress all of her new knowledge to fit back into a society of superficiality and unjustified stratification. White constructs Ellen’s journey to criticise the nature of society and to expose the tribulations of those ‘less’ than the upper class white male. Through the construction of confusing and complex relationships, White is able to delve deeper into the multitude of perceptions and understandings of his characters. Few characters reflect a one sided and purely good or bad person, thus White reveals that morality and ‘goodness’ is often blurred.

In the context of class, by employing omniscient narration, social relationships are constructed to reveal the superficialities and uneven power distributions within society. Through his critical depiction of class White enforces that such divisions are but thin veneers, and criticizes them as a false basis to build social relationships. Through Ellen’s journey, more heightened experiences take precedence over her somewhat tedious social existence. Juxtaposed to her inner thoughts and spiritual awareness, her social front is predominantly a piteous reflection of her true self. White explores such contrasts in order to invoke a critical reflection of society in all contexts.

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