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Discuss the plurality of the various discourses which White explores in ?A Fringe of Leaves?, signaling clearly your readings of the various contexts he explores through the central character of Ellen Roxbourgh.
Patrick White explores many issues in his novel ?A Fringe of Leaves?
through the central character of Ellen. Not only does White explore these issues
he leaves flexibility for the reader to respond according to their own beliefs and
experience, it is this plurality of the discourse that allows a reader to take the
same event in her journey and interpret as, Ellen breaking free from the
constraints of society or a symbol of her entrapment. I believe her journey to be a
motif of her development and growth.
In order to survive Ellen adjusts her emotions, morals and appearance to
suit her environment. As her environment changes so does her personality. As
White introduces more and more, challenges and environments for Ellen, Ellen
greatly changing her character by creating a whole new personality with a new
set of emotions, morals and a new appearance. Minor changes, to these
drastically different personalities, are made within the environment when ever a
new issue is raised. These personalities not only help Ellen to survive in her new
environment but also serve to develop the spiritual values, morals and emotions
of the central Ellen. Some of Ellen?s dominant personalities have names, such as
Ellen Gluyas and Ellen Roxbourgh.
Ellen Gluyas is represented as a daughter figure. She was raised on a
farm near Tintagel. She is from the ?lower-class? represented by her clothes being
?well worn? and the amount of physical labor she was expected to carry out. She
is physically strong from her work, this is shown as Ellen supports her father and
Austin when they are unable to support themselves. She is also not horrified by
graphic violent death, but is deeply moved by the death of loved ones, showing
how Ellen Gluyas is not afraid of expressing her emotions. Ellen Gluyas is unable
to cross the social barrier between Tintagel and Cornwell. So Ellen creates, with
the help of Austin?s mother, Mrs. Roxbourgh. The type of personality Ellen
creates depends upon the type of barrier that Ellen needs to cross, be it social,
moral, physical, emotional or even racial.
Mrs. Roxbourgh is represented as a wife and a lady, She is submissive
and self sacrificing. Her constant aim is to ?please and protect?. She ?numbs
herself against suffering? by repressing her emotions. Mrs. Roxbourgh can also
be manipulative. Austin?s mother plays a large role in developing Mrs. Roxbourgh
and the central Ellen by teaching Ellen the ?entirely different culture? of the
Upper-class. This also prepares Ellen to develop further because Ellen Gluyas
would not have been able to adapt without help, it is the personality of Mrs.
Roxbourgh that is adaptable. Austin also helps Ellen develop by being
?ashamed? of her emotional outbursts and encouraging her to be submissive.
Ellen relies on all of her personalities for survival, each excels in the others
shortcomings. By the time Ellen?s journey is over she needs only to take on one
of her personalities to deal with any situation. Before she returns, if there was a
situation that Ellen could not deal with, she would use Mrs. Roxbourgh to create
a new personality appropriate for the situation. For example both Mrs. Roxbourgh
and Austin were taught to repress their emotions by Austin?s mother.
?Austin was taught as a boy to suppress emotion, and soon
preferred it thus, for fear that his preceptor might diagnose feeling as yet another
Ellen was also taught to suppress her emotion but Ellen Gluyas did not let her
prefer it, allowing her to move on and continue to develop.
In an ?upper-class? environment or when Ellen wants to distance herself
from someone, Mrs. Roxbourgh dominates Ellen?s personality. In a more rural or
when Ellen is emotional, it is Ellen Gluyas who dominates, both of these major
personalities are used for any situation . Ellen continually adds more traits to
their personality, such as manipulative, and seductive for Mrs. Roxbourgh and
nursing and sensual for Ellen Gluyas. Both of these personalities serve in
developing the central Ellen?s ability in coping with any environment physical or
As readers we can distinguish between her personalities based upon
Ellen?s name, actions or feelings. For example it is easy to distinguish between
Ellen Gluyas and Mrs. Roxbourgh, often her name alone can be used to
distinguish between them. If not by her name then her actions and feelings can
be used to distinguish between them, Ellen Gluyas is ungrammatical and uses
her physical strength, Mrs. Roxbourgh keeps a journal as an ?instrument of self-
correction? and uses moral strength. Mrs. Roxbourgh says ?There are those who
are able to rise, at any rate, morally, above their physical condition?.
The transitions in personality are not always in Ellen?s control. Mrs.
Roxbourgh has occasional lapses where Ellen Gluyas dominates, this is usually
when Mrs. Roxbourgh has an emotional outburst such as at the death of Austin?s
mother and other people close to her. There are those who wish to destroy parts
of Ellen?s character, such as Austin who wants only for Ellen Gluyas to be
replaced by Mrs. Roxbourgh and then dominate her. Instead of replacing Ellen
Gluyas, White allows Ellen to accommodate both Ellen Gluyas and Mrs.
Roxbourgh. It is because of the accommodation that Ellen?s personalities are not
changing the central Ellen but adding to her.
It is the plurality in White?s novel ?A Fringe of Leaves? that allows readers
the flexibility to take the same events that I have chosen and apply a totally
I read the transformation of Ellen Gluyas to Mrs. Roxbourgh as a means
for Ellen to change, and without it she would have never fully developed as a
character. Another reading is that the transformation is symbolic of the rejection
of lower-classes and the ridged upper-class. It could also be read to represent
the oppression of women in the nineteenth century, symbolized by Austin?s need
to transform Ellen and not accept her for who she is.
I read the return of Ellen to Cornwell, at the end of the novel, as White?s
way of showing the reader how no one in Cornwell has changed. Contrasting
Ellen with them, to give the reader an idea of how much Ellen has developed.
Reinforced by her willingness to embark on another journey, Ellen is eager to
develop herself where as other characters are happy remaining as they are.
Another reading of the same return can be read that although Ellen is ?free? from
the constraints of society for a while she returns, and is again imprisoned.
I read Ellen?s interactions with the male characters in the novel as a
necessary step in developing Ellen?s character, using her relationships with them
to learn to deal with the situations and learn more about herself. Another reading,
is that Ellen like all other females in the text are incomplete without a man at her
side and that White constructs her to be dependant, in a sarcastic portrayal of
women?s expected role in the society of the time.
Patrick White?s novel ?A Fringe of Leaves? is particularly remarkable
because whatever reading the reader adopts, the plurality of the discourse allows
them to evidence their reading at every event in Ellen?s journey. In this novel
Patrick White only subtlety suggests his own standing on the matter allowing for
more flexibility in reading than most novels.
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