"White's canonization is part of a larger cultural shift, which saw the development of many kinds of institutions and critiques aimed at making Australia culturally richer and more autonomous" (During, 1996). Therefore, the changing way that he portrayed women in his work may have signaled an awareness of the fact that women's roles were changing in Australian society as whole. Therefore, in the Tree of Man, White's approach to Thelma, which, but because he is showing disgust for what Thelma symbolizes. Interestingly enough, this symbolization goes far beyond her gender. "Thelma is the character who most embodies the values of Australians in the fifties as White described them: she is conventional, insipid, dishonest, and single-minded in pursuit of material security" (McKeman, 1989). Therefore, when examining White's treatment of women in his work, it is always critical to recall the historical context.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that Eleanor Dark's treatment of women is at least superficially more respectful than that of the other authors, given that she is a woman. She describes Marty, one of her characters, who happens to be a female author, as having a "quick and volatile" brain and "tirelessly scribbling fingers" (Dark, 1985). This clearly indicates a belief that women are smart and capable of art and creativity, a suggestion that is lacking in Casey's portfolio of work. However, it would be wrong to suggest that Dark's female characters are all positive or even that they are all the same in any way. She does not ever go so far as to suggest that her female characters are inherently superior to the males in her works or even, necessarily, to promote a particular type of female. Furthermore, she does not seem to suggest that the man's world vision of Australia that is explored in Casey's work, and assumed, to a lesser degree, as a backdrop in White's work, has been transformed into a feminist environment. Instead, she portrays women, and their struggles, in an honest manner that allows the reader to respond to the entire character, not simply a gendered rendition of that character.
In fact, Dark's female characters are noted for their complexity. Moreover, their differences are oftentimes more startling than their similarities. The women in Prelude to Christopher reveal the complexity of women in Dark's world. The story seems to focus on Nigel Hendon, a young doctor. However, the story is not as much about Nigel as it is about the women in Nigel's life. He initially marries Linda Hamlin, "who is eccentric, mysterious, beautiful, and intelligent. She refuses to behave conventionally, and everybody thinks she's odd. Even she wonders if she is crazy" (Brooks & Clarke, 1998). When Nigel is hospitalized after a car wreck, Linda begins to experience a breakdown. At the same time, Nigel is introduced to another critical woman in his life, Kay. "Kay is a young blonde nurse who falls in love with Nigel when he's lying in bed, vulnerable, brave and feverish" (Brooks & Clarke, 1998). Rather than sympathizing with Linda, who is distraught over Nigel's accident, Kay begins to actively work against Linda. She suggests to Nigel that Linda is dangerous and needs to be hospitalized. However, whether this indicates that Kay is simply trying to win Nigel from Linda or demonstrates that Kay is actually a keen observer of the human condition is difficult to discern, as Linda does commit suicide. Therefore, while both women have their strengths and weaknesses, it is difficult to cast either of them as victim or heroine in the novel, a complexity that is surprising given that Kay goes on to marry Nigel after Linda's suicide. In addition, Nigel's mother plays a role in the story. She is concerned about Nigel's marriage to Linda, not because she seems to have any personal animosity towards Linda, but because she is worried about the implications of such a marriage on Nigel's prospects for happiness. As a result, she comes across as conservative and stifled, but that portrayal may ignore the compulsion of motherly protection.
Casey, White, and Dark are considered three major Australian authors, and each are noted for their social commentary as well as their literary style. As one might expect, the way that they portray women in their works not only reveals their personal opinion of the role of women, but also reflects greater societal norms and attitudes about women during their time. All three of the authors seemed very cognizant of the fact that women faced discrimination in Australian society as a whole. However, while Casey simultaneously noted this marginalization and participated in it in his novels, both White and Dark were determined to make female characters more central to their stories. White seemed to find the notion of female sexuality somewhat intimidating, which is apparent in his work, but did not prevent him from making females major characters. However, Dark did not relegate women to stereotypes, but wrote about female characters with a wide array of personalities and characteristics. By reading the works of all three authors, one not only gains a greater understanding of how Australia's male dominated society impacted gender roles, but also how it may have impacted individuals of both genders.
Brooks, B. & Clarke, J. (1998). Eleanor Dark: a writer's life. Sydney: McMillan.
Casey, G. (1958). Snowball. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
Clancy, L. (2004). Culture and customs of Australia. Westpord, CT: Greenwood Publishing
Dark, E. (1985). The little company. London: Virago Press.
During, S. (1996). Patrick White. Melbourne: Oxford Australian Writer's Series.,
Ferguson, a. (1993). Casey, Gavin Stodart (1907-1964). Retrieved January 16, 2013 from Australian Dictionary of Biography website: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/casey-gavin-stodart-9705
McKeman, S. (1989). A new kind of novel: the work of Patrick White in a question of commitment: Australian literature in the twenty years after the war (p.166-169, 172-188). Sydney: Allen & Unwin.
White, P. (1957). The prodigal son. Australian letters, 1(3), 37-40.
Wilson, R.B.J. (1976). The rhetoric of Patrick White's "Down at the…