Voss: Overview

Citation metadata

Author: Carolyn Bliss
Editor: D. L. Kirkpatrick
Date: 1991
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview; Critical essay
Length: 1,534 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

In the ``Prologue in Heaven'' which precedes part 1 of Goethe's Faust, the Lord grants Mephistopheles's plea for permission to bedevil Faust and remarks that in this undertaking, evil will be pressed into His service. Paradoxically, Mephistopheles's attentions will serve to deepen the ``divine discontent'' with which Faust knows himself blessed and afflicted. Faust's spirit, already ``restless and profound,'' will now wander farther and look even deeper, but in the process, it will be ``[led] into clarity.'' Faust will never stop sinning until he stops striving, but such a sinking into sloth or satisfaction is here viewed as the only really mortal sin. Since life both is and mandates process, stasis reflects a succumbing to death.

A similar paradox and a similar paradigm of spiritual growth inform Patrick White's novel Voss. The fifth of his 12 novels, it is central to his oeuvre in this and in several other ways. Not only is it a work of White's mid-career, but like most of his major fictions, it is structured as a quest of the spirit. Again like these, it defines that quest in ambiguous and inconclusive terms. The holy grail is nothing less than the meaning of life, but it is always to be sought, never found. In fact, the failure to reach it is precisely what fuels the ongoing search. Thus, in the words of Frank Le Mesurier, one of the novel's characters and in many ways a double for Voss, ``The mystery of life is not solved by success, which is an end in itself, but in failure, in perpetual struggle, in becoming.''

Voss's expedition into the heart of Australia is therefore, as Walter Slatoff has said in another context, a ``quest for failure.'' The protagonist, however, must learn how to name this goal before he can seek it. He starts with a very different programme in mind, one which projects success on a very grand scale.

The novel is set in mid-19th-century Australia and opens in Sydney where Voss is collecting supplies and reluctantly enlisting men to accompany him into central Australia. Subsequent plot incidents are drawn in part from the journals of Ludwig Leichhardt, Edward Eyre, and other actual explorers of the period, but the novel uses these in the service of allegory rather than history. In other words,...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420008580