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Patrick White: The Tree of Man

This novel is about Stan Parker and his wife, Amy. It starts out with Stan clearing a piece of land to build a farm and continues with their life together over fifty years. At first they are more or less alone, having to deal with the various problems that nature throws at them (floods, fires, etc.). But, gradually, the area is settled by others. First there is Mrs O’Dowd and her husband who is, as Amy succinctly puts it, on the bottle and then the Quigleys, a family poor in both money and spirit, which starts out with mother, father, three sons (including the simple Bub) and the daughter Doll, whom White describes as unfinished. The parents die and the two healthy sons go off to work in a road gang, leaving only Doll and Bub. Others follow. A store is opened by Mr. Denyer, a post office by Mrs. Gage, whose husband paints pictures and finally hangs himself, and a butcher’s by Mr. Armstrong.

Stan and Amy try to have children but cannot do so at first. Eventually, they have a son, Ray, a vicious boy, who torments the immigrant farmhands and later becomes a petty criminal and a daughter, Thelma, a shy child. We follow the family through World War I and the changes that take place after the War. Stan turns in on himself more than before. Amy has an affair which Stan discovers. Ray is killed in a brawl but not till after he has married and had a son with his wife and another one with a showgirl. Thelma marries her boss. Doll kills her brother and is institutionalised. The book takes us down to the death of Stan but not before he has a vision after meeting a fundamentalist religious preacher.

What White does so well, as he does in most of his novels, is show us a whole life and all the parts that go to make it up, particularly how that life relates to the natural environment but also the spiritual (in the broader meaning of that term) sense of that life. He shows how life (as opposed to a life) goes on (Stan’s grandson picks up on his grandfather’s vision and tries to put into poetry). People come and go but life just goes on.

This is a religious novel, for there is no doubt that we are meant to see Stan and Amy as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Stan is trying to discover what life is all about in this mystifying Garden of Eden, even naming things, like Adam, to try and help him make sense of it all. The analogy to humans as ants is made on more than one occasion, particularly by Stan. But Stan is not Adam and, though he sees God in a gob of spittle, at the end, he is not expelled from the Garden but dies in it, with his grandson ready to take his place.

Publishing history

First published 1955 by Eyre & Spottiswoode