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Mysteries in A Fringe of Leaves

the unresolved mysteries and problems in Patrick White's novel A Fringe of Leaves

White?s novel A Fringe of Leaves presents to us a mystery that affects almost every person?s life. It is the mystery that we do not allow ourselves to act freely. We always seem to put some sense of order and structure into our lives. The mystery in this case, is presented to us through the travails of Ellen, who generally leads a structured life until her experiences after the shipwreck of the Bristol Maid. It is at the end of the novel where we see that Ellen has become a person who is free from the structures of life, who accepts the inevitability of disorder, while the rest of the characters, with the exception of the Aborigines, are viewed as those who keep trying to bring order to their lives. The mystery however, remains unsolved. White does not give a reason as to why people try to bring structure to their lives, not allowing themselves to be ?free? and not accepting the inevitability of chaos.

The mystery is first introduced to us in the first chapter, where the narrator states, ?it was Miss Scrimshaw?s duty to agree, which was why her voice sounded only on some occasions her own.? We are basically told that Miss Scrimshaw is restricting her thoughts ? not allowing herself to speak freely. It does however hint at a reason that Miss Scrimshaw is restricting herself because of her duty to society. This is saying that society is the one who imposes the restrictions on people so that they do not act freely ? particularly in 19th Century Sydney, whose dominant cultural identity is that of Victorian England. This is because one of the ideologies informing this cultural identity is that of the absolute separation of gender roles. There are things that men and women are allowed to talk about and do, and they are usually totally different. The reason which it hints at seems at first acceptable, but it was man who created these ideologies which people restrict themselves by, and once again we a broached with the mystery of why people create these restrictions which disallow people doing what they wish to do and deny the inevitability of disorder.

Further expanding on this mystery is the feel some people have to bring structure to the lives of other people of lower standards than them. Most notably represented in the novel by Austin Roxburgh and the elder Mrs Roxburgh, when teaching Ellen in the ways of a ?lady?. As Ellen is a Cornish country girl she was of different class to Austin and the elder Mrs Roxburgh, and they taught her so that she would fit in with the others of their class. When Ellen Gluyas speaks ?they was there this mornin? Mr Roxburgh.? Austin was quick to correct her ? ?They were, were they?? Mrs Roxburgh herself tells Ellen ?Whenever in doubt, ask, and I shall advise you, my dear, to the best of my ability,? referring to when Ellen had doubts about how she was supposed to act ? imposing structure onto the lives of people different to them. ?It was decided by Mr Roxburgh and his mother to defer the honeymoon, that the bride might be initiated without delay into the customs she was expected to adopt.? White presents Ellen?s change between Ellen?s two initial ?identities?, Ellen Gluyas and Ellen Roxburgh through speech. Ellen Gluyas country brogue changes after the Roxburghs impose their order on her to the speech of an English lady, the speech of Ellen Roxburgh. Also, by referring to Ellen before she was influenced by the Roxburghs as Ellen Gluyas and by referring to her as Ellen Roxburgh after, White, as narrator helps us to easier see the change that has taken place after Ellen has tried to accept the restrictions of the Victorian English society.

It is after the crash of the Bristol Maid that Ellen starts to leave the ordered and structured life behind her. When she is taken by the Aborigines and is stripped of her clothes, she is essentially stripped of all the structure and order of the Victorian English society, and yet she still tries to cling to some of the structure and order by making and wearing the fringe of leaves. The Aborigines are less ordered and structured than the people that Ellen had lived with before. They are more in touch with the earth, and as Ellen was originally a farm girl ? an ?earthy? girl, she probably fits in better with them than with the people of English and English-influenced society. Because they are closer to the earth, they are in a sense more free. They do not try to bring order to a single spot of land by building homes like the colonialists and English, their nomadic way of living is more free than the English way of living. Though they are freer than those of English-influenced society, they are still ordered in some ways. The gender-roles in society are still present and there are still spiritual rites to be observed. In fact she has spiritual experiences with the Aboriginals that she never had with her English family.

When she goes with Jack Chance, she is liberated even more. Ellen returns to using her Cornish dialect reverting to her earthiness and losing completely the restraints of English society. They run through the bush talking about Jack?s convict days, imitating birdcalls and doing assorted other things, and their lovemaking is aggressive and natural. When Ellen loses her wedding ring and the fringe of leaves it is symbolic of her completely losing the structure and order of her life. She does not know how to deal with this, and at first is frantic to find the ring and the fringe, to get back the structure ? ?We must go back! D?you supawse I left ?n at the water hole? Or Hut? Could only be one place or t?other. My ring!? With the help of Jack she calms down and accepts her loss ? accepts the inevitability of disorder. It is however shortly after this that they once again reach civilisation, and Jack and Ellen separate.

The core of the mystery is at this point. Ellen has experienced freedom, doing what she wants without worrying about the restraints of society. She however chooses to return to civilisation, and to return to the structures and orders of the English life. We are not exactly sure why she does this, and here she represents human society. We are not exactly sure why we bring order and structure to our lives. Though it takes her some time to readjust to the structured life, Mrs Oakes first describes her as delirious and she forgets to put on her stays at one point. She is definitely different from when she was when the Bristol Maid was wrecked, but for some reason has chosen to once again return to the structures and orders of society. Miss Scrimshaw describes the idea of freedom best when she says ?but would you not say, life is a series of blunders rather than a clear design, from which we may out whole, if we are lucky?? Miss Scrimshaw in fact recognises the fact that Ellen has experienced the freedoms from structured and ordered society and in way wishes to experience what Ellen has ? describing Ellen as an eagle when she says, ?How I wish I were an eagle?. She wants to leave behind the structures and orders of society and be free, but for some reason, she can?t.

White constructs the novel to represent the mystery of how people choose to lead an ordered and structured life, they do not allow themselves to be free. He does this mainly through the character of Ellen Gluyas or Ellen Roxburgh, and shows us how she develops from the country girl to the more structured life of the English lady, and then to lose many of the orders and restraints she had in her life when she is with the Aborigines and Jack Chance. But what truly shows us that it is a mystery, is that even after Ellen experienced freedom, she chose to return to the structured and ordered life of the English people. He doesn?t at all try to explain why we do this; he introduces the mystery and explores it, for us to make a decision ourselves. The other character that helps explore this mystery is Miss Scrimshaw who seems to recognise the fact that she is not free, but for some reason remains in this structured and ordered world. White does explores the mystery of how people do not allow themselves to be free in his novel A Fringe of Leaves but he does not solve the mystery which he introduced at all.

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