Saturday, December 22, 2012
Favourite literary characters
I am curious to know who are your favourite literary characters? If you are not that much of a reader, perhaps there are movie characters that stand out for you. And what is it about those characters that make them particularly interesting or attractive to you? They might be heroes or villains, major or minor: it doesn’t matter.
When I asked myself this question, one character in particular springs to mind. This is the character of Mary Hare in Patrick White’s novel, Riders in the Chariot. Many of you may not be familiar with this novel, or even with this author. He is, so far, the only Australian author to win the Nobel Prize for literature. I suspect he is not widely read these days, even in Australia. Nevertheless, Riders in the Chariot has been one of my favourite novels since I first read it in high school. And, of the four central characters in that novel, Mary Hare remains one that I love.
The novel tells of four very different people, with extraordinarily different backgrounds and cultures, who share a particular type of mystical experience, each in their own way, and whose paths converge to some degree. Many of the names White chooses for his characters in this novel are unashamedly symbolic and/or ironic: the Jewish holocaust survivor, Mordecai Himmelfarb, for example, whose last name means “heaven’s light”; and Ruth Godbold, who appears almost in the guise of motherhood and nurturing incarnate. Mary Hare is one of the four characters who share this experience. The Hare, like the rabbit, is associated with fecundity; but, with reference to Mary Hare, this is very different from the fecundity associated simply with giving birth. It has more to do with the wild, untamed growth of the natural world. Mary Hare is the reclusive, unpretty, eccentric daughter of Norbert Hare, who had built an extravagant, grand house called Xanadu, modelled on images from Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Khan, on the edge of an Australian town. Long after her parents have died, Mary lives on in the house, allowing it to decay around her, accompanied only by her housekeeper/tormentor , Mrs. Jolley (who most definitely is not). Mary rarely leaves the house, except to crawl through the overgrown gardens to some secret places that are special to her. She is wild, timid and very animal-like. Ultimately she seems to simply to dissolve into the natural background.
To me, not only does Mary Hare embody nature in “nature”, so to speak, but nature within the human being also. She is the timid, shy creature that lives within us, and peeps out from time to time, but is so often kept in check by our own internalised version of Mrs. Jolley. Mary Hare is the part of us that wants to play in the dirt, that wants to kick of our shoes and feel the sand between our toes, or perhaps even to take of our clothes and feel the sun and rain against our skin. She is that from which we emerge, and that to which we ultimately return.