A Cheery Soul by Patrick White, 1962

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by Patrick White, 1962

Patrick White's short story "A Cheery Soul," an anatomy of what one character calls "the sin of goodness," began as a short piece that appeared in London Magazine in September 1962. But White's biographer David Marr reports that even as he wrote the story, White was visualizing it as a play and hearing the voice of actress Nita Pannell in the lead role of Miss Docker. With some misgivings Pannell accepted the enormous challenge of playing a woman who, because she wields love as a weapon, is herself what Pannell termed "completely unloved." Plans went forward, and the three-act play A Cheery Soul premiered in Melbourne in November 1963.

This was the third of White's plays to be staged in his native Australia and the one he thought his best to date. Thus he was confident of a warm reception. Instead, audiences and critics were surprisingly hostile. White offered this summary of the response: "Almost all the Melbourne critics condemned it (one of them in one line) saying that I am without wit, humour, love, or even liking for human beings…. [On its opening night] there were people stamping up and down in the intervals saying the theatre should be locked to keep such stuff out of it."

The offense taken by the play's audience can probably be traced to the difficulties they encountered in recognizing Miss Docker's peculiar brand of villainy. This is because Miss Docker is a conventionally "good" person: she is charitable even when she can't afford to be, responsive to the sufferings of others, and always ready to offer her services. According to White the character was based on an actual person, a woman called "Scottie" who came to help out with the gardening when White lived in Castle Hill, a suburb of Sydney. Although many spoke of her with apparent affection, Scottie was a nonstop talker and colossal bore who considered herself an authority on everything and would buttonhole people with anecdotes and photos from her youth. Still more annoying was her habit of confronting even casual acquaintances with home "truths" she felt they needed to hear. She once said to White, "I am praying that someday you will write something good"—this to the man who would soon become Australia's first Nobel laureate in literature.

All of what White knew of Scottie he transferred to the character of Miss Docker. Like Scottie, she converts to Christianity after reading the Bible cover to cover and then starts to manage and subsequently empty the neighborhood Anglican church. Again like her prototype, Miss Docker has a box of photographs to which she subjects anyone within range, and she radiates destructive candor in all directions. White masterfully captures the essence of her character in the first speech he gives her in the story. She has just arrived at the home of the Custances, a middle-aged and childless couple who have reluctantly decided that their Christian duty compels them to take her in. Mrs. Custance is meeting the taxi or "hire car" in which Miss Docker has arrived:

"Well, now," Miss Docker was saying, "isn't it lovely to be amongst friends? What would we do without them? I, for one, would be homeless in the world. Neat place they've got"—she was addressing the hire-car man—"only, as a matter of personal taste, I would have painted it cream and green."

We can see Miss Docker's entire modus operandi here. In a few short sentences she reminds her benefactors of the extremity of her need. Yet she refuses the role of grateful petitioner. Instead, she adopts the posture not merely of Mrs. Custance's equal but of one in a position to be critical, demanding, and judgmental of Mrs. Custance and her way of life.

Such a person would be apt to inspire guilt and resentment in those around her, as in fact Miss Docker has already done in the Custances. But White makes Miss Docker more than merely a nuisance or a source of guilty discomfort, and it is this added dimension that must account for the fact that the play's audience so recoiled from her and from acknowledgment that such people exist. Miss Docker is dangerous, all the more so because she doesn't know it. In her the laudable impulse to serve has assumed monstrous proportions, mutating into a means to manipulate, control, and destroy. As one of her victims observes, "Her goodness is a disease. She is sick with it." That disease worsens as the story progresses. But unlike the cancer White employs as its metaphorical equivalent, Miss Docker's disease consumes others rather than herself.

White structures his story in three sections, each built around the experience of a loving couple threatened by Miss Docker's version of love. In part one the effect of Miss Docker's advent upon the marital relationship of the Custances is imaged in the effect produced by the tallboy she insists on moving into her room. It dominates the space, blocks the light from the windows, and smashes a little bookshelf that Mr. Custance had put up for Miss Docker's things. The Custances' eventual decision to send Miss Docker to an old folks' home is clearly an act of last-ditch self-defense against the similar mayhem she inflicts upon their emotional lives.

The Custances are saved by ridding themselves of Miss Docker, but the Lillies are not so fortunate. In part two of the story Miss Docker arrives at the Sundown Home to find Millicent, Tom Lillie's widow, already in residence there. Through Millie's memories we learn that Miss Docker had attached herself to the Lillies after Tom's first stroke, ostensibly to help with the nursing chores. But as Tom weakened, the vampirelike Miss Docker grew in strength. Millie could not forgive her for coming between them at the moment of his death and managed to leave her behind when his funeral procession paused to check directions. But even this blatant act of rejection fails to deflect the "avalanche of kindness" with which Miss Docker bears down on people.

In part three it engulfs Mr. Wakeman, the young Anglican rector, whose lawn she cares for while lecturing him on his inadequacies as a preacher. Reverend Wakeman does manage one memorable sermon—on Miss Docker's "sin of goodness"—but collapses and dies in the midst of it. His bewildered wife accuses Miss Docker of having killed her "saint" and perhaps her God as well.

Ironically, White puts into Miss Docker's mouth the lesson the rector should have preached, one she should have learned: "Failure is not failure if it is sent to humble. The only failure is not to know." Wakeman understands the spiritual lesson inherent in his failure, while Miss Docker does not. White suggests that because she fails to grasp the meaning of her failures, she will never achieve the "illumination" in which Reverend Wakeman dies.

"A Cheery Soul" appeared in the 1964 collection of White's short fiction called The Burnt Ones. He has explained this title as a literal translation of the Greek lament oi kaymenoi, which is an "expression of formal pity" for "the poor unfortunates," people for whom "nothing can be done." Appropriately, the stories in this volume are filled with characters who seem irremediably maimed, people in whom some vital capacity for living and loving has atrophied or been amputated by events. Miss Docker is memorable, even among these emotional cripples. All three of the couples she menaces have aligned themselves with life. They express, cherish, and nurture their love for each other, even if circumspectly. But Miss Docker is an agent of sterility, death, and dissolution. White once said that in his view the greatest sin was to destroy in another the ability to love. This remark seems to describe Miss Docker's whole agenda, all the more insidious because it masks itself as selfless love and cheerful service.

—Carolyn Bliss

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A Cheery Soul by Patrick White, 1962

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