Places: Riders in the Chariot

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1961

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Parable

Time of work: After World War II

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedSarsaparilla

Sarsaparilla. Riders in the ChariotFictional suburb west of Sydney in which most of the action unfolds. It is probably based on Castle Hill, the actual Sydney suburb where White lived from 1946, when he returned to Australia after serving in World War II, until 1963, when he moved into the city. Although White had previously set plays in Sarsaparilla, this is the first time he used it in his fiction.

While inner Sydney offers spectacular views as it stretches gracefully around the magnificent harbor and along the ocean cliffs, the landscape changes dramatically once the harbor and sea disappear. Sarsaparilla is situated in this colorless, flat, and dusty expanse. Once a rural area of small farms, it gradually became more thickly settled as working-class families moved out of the city into housing developments in their search for a better life. Their cheap, poorly built houses, each with a well-tended yard, may represent security and happiness for their inhabitants, but White unmasks this supposedly ideal community. His version of Sarsaparilla is dominated by hypocrisy, ignorance, cruelty, rigid conformity, and just plain bad taste. Another suburb, Paradise East, may be more upscale, but underneath its pretentious exterior it resembles Sarsaparilla.

In spite of the physical ugliness and personal emptiness of these suburbs, four of the characters conquer the environs, discover their potential, and become “riders in the chariot.” Mrs. Godbold, a laundress; Himmelfarb, a Jewish immigrant from Germany; Alf Dubbo, an aboriginal artist; and the half-mad Mary Hare are the seekers who find truth even in their squalid surroundings. Others remain in the void of Sarsaparilla and Paradise East, altogether satisfied with their meaningless existence.


Xanadu (ZAN-ah-dew). Decaying estate near Sarsaparilla. The name Xanadu implies an idyllic, beautiful place and came into common use through Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan (1816). Marco Polo’s description of the actual Xanadu in China forever marked it as an exotic, luxurious, and magnificent setting. The Xanadu inhabited by Mary Hare, however, who inherited it from her dreamer of a father, subverts the romantic name and its ramifications. The once-great house has fallen into disrepair, and the formal gardens have grown into a jungle. While Mary feels ill at ease in the house itself, she finds refuge and peace in the tangled gardens, which provide the stimulus for her vision. At the novel’s end, Xanadu is destroyed and another shoddy suburb is built on its grounds.


*Sydney. Port city in southeastern Australia. While Australian literature usually celebrates what is often called the “Emerald City,” White represents Sydney as a kind of psychedelic hell when the characters venture into its depths: “The train was easing through the city which knives had sliced open to serve up with all the juices running–red, and green and purple.” Unlike its outlying communities, the city has a beautiful natural setting, sophistication, and fine buildings, yet in White’s hands it too suffers from the spiritual malaise that affects Sarsaparilla and Paradise East. In Sydney’s affluent neighborhoods, the characters confront the same vacuum that characterizes the suburbs. Neither the city nor its outlying areas need be set in Australia, for the smugness of most of the characters and the visionary quest of the chariot riders are universal, whatever the place.

BibliographyBliss, Carolyn. “Riders in the Chariot.” In Patrick White’s Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Argues that the four protagonists, the “riders in the chariot,” represent qualities, if they were combined, that “would produce a complete human being or society.” Concludes that they reach wholeness through their “acceptance of failure.”Chapman, Edgar L. “The Mandala Design of Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot.” In Critical Essays on Patrick White, edited by Peter Wolfe. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. Examines the novel in the light of its mythological sources, including William Blake’s visionary poetry, the biblical prophets, the apocalypse, the Jewish cabbalistic tradition, Jungian thought, and the mandala symbol. A complex but readable and illuminating essay.Dutton, Geoffrey. “White’s Triumphal Chariot.” In Critical Essays on Patrick White, edited by Peter Wolfe. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. Admires all aspects of the work–its scope, vision, characterization, and language. An excellent general introduction to the novel.Edgecombe, Rodney S. “Riders in the Chariot.” In Vision and Style in Patrick White: A Study of Four Novels. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989. Analyzes each of the chariot’s riders in detail, showing their roles in the elaborate allegory and their relationships with one another. Combines this discussion with an examination of the work’s complex structure.Morley, Patricia. The Mystery of Unity: Theme and Technique in the Novels of Patrick White. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1972. Remains an important and standard study. Places White’s work in the mainstream of European writing and investigates how it employs the Western tradition along with archetypes that dominate Western literature. Helpful as a background for Riders in the Chariot.
Categories: Places