Five-Twenty by Patrick White

Five-Twenty - Patrick WhiteIn Five-Twenty by Patrick White we have the theme of confidence, freedom, guilt, identity, control, isolation and escape. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator it becomes clear to the reader after reading the story that White may be exploring the theme of confidence. Ella lacks any sort of confidence. Her life appears to be revolved around every whim that Royal has. She does everything for Royal even though he is ungrateful to her. So low is Ella’s confidence that she seems to be controlled by Royal. It is as though she lives her life at Royal’s beck and call. Doing as he tells her to do without thinking about herself. It is only after Royal dies that there is a sense of freedom in Ella’s life. She allows the dust to gather in the house and she is not as bothered about having to do things as she had previously been. Though some critics might suggest that Ella’s lack of concern for the world around her is a sign of depression after Royal’s death. It is more likely that Ella feels free of Royal. Though she may not like to admit this to herself. Ella has committed her whole life to Royal and appears to have suffered as a consequence.

If anything Royal has spent his life belittling Ella and she has only too readily accepted that she may not be as clever as Royal. Something that the reader is aware of through Royal correcting Ella’s word use. Though at the same time he has an inability to pronounce the word cineraria. If anything Royal has dominated Ella’s life. Which may be the point that White is attempting to make. He may be suggesting that at the time the story was written (1968) women played a lesser role to their husbands or men in general. It may have been the norm for a woman to be submissive to their husband. Which is very much the case when it comes to Ella. She doesn’t really have a voice and feels guilty that she may not be a good wife. Good being defined through Royal’s eyes. It is also interesting that Ella never questioned Royal about the possibility that they may never have had a child due to his infertility. Rather Ella bears the responsibility for being childless on her own shoulders. Even though the doctor has told her that the problem could be with Royal.

It may also be a case that White is exploring the theme of identity. There is a sense that Ella has lost her identity while married to Royal. She does everything for him and everything he asks her to do. Without questioning anything. She lacks any sort of identity or individualism. Her life is based entirely around Royal’s life and how he wants to shape life. She never questions any of his actions nor does she ever answer Royal back. If anything Ella is submissive to Royal’s will. Which again may be the point that White is attempting to make. Highlighting to the reader how a woman may be submissive throughout her life to her husband. Without having or being allowed the ability to think for herself. Throughout the story Ella is controlled by Royal. His every whim answered by Ella. It is also noticeable that Ella has no friends in the story. It is possible that White is suggesting or again highlighting to the reader how immersed Ella might be in her marriage. There are no outside influences or friends that Ella speaks to. She lives her life isolated from others.

The end of the story is also interesting as Ella appears to find her voice. Not only is Ella no longer answerable to Royal but she also is afforded the opportunity to life her life with passion. A passion that takes control of Ella. Something that is noticeable by the fact that Ella buys herself some make-up. The reader aware that Ella wishes to look nice for the man who drives the Holden. The fact that Ella buys the make-up may be important as for the first time in the story she is doing something for herself. She is looking after herself rather than somebody else. It is also noticeable that Ella’s confidence is restored while she is waiting for the man who drives the Holden. It is as though Ella has rediscovered who she is. Despite her age she is a vibrant woman who feels free of her past. However it is noticeable that she does not move Royal’s teeth in the bathroom. Which may suggest that Ella is still a little unsure of herself despite having a new lease of life. Symbolically the man who drives the Holden is important as he represents not only escape for Ella but passion to. The reader sensing that there was previously no passion in Ella’s life while Royal was alive. The fact that the man who drives the Holden actually dies at the end of the story may also be of some significance. It may be a case that White is suggesting that Ella is to continue to live her life isolated from others. Which may leave many readers suspecting that Ella has never had the opportunity to express who she really is. A woman full of passion who has lived her life answerable to a bitter man (Royal). A man who at every stage of Ella’s life has controlled her.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Five-Twenty by Patrick White." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 14 Nov. 2017. Web.


  • I know there’s a lot of phallic and ironic symbols used in this story. Do you know the significance of them in the story besides them representing Ella’s hidden desperation on wanting to feel love which she once lacked from Royal? And also what other symbols are present in this story?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      The fact that the two main male characters died could be important as White may be suggesting that Ella is looking in the wrong place for love. Perhaps she needs to be independent in order to feel as though she is loved (by herself). As for symbolism the old cane chair may symbolise the fact that Ella like the chair has seen better days. Her attachment to it (or the past) is not required. With Ella possibly reflecting on happier times in her life. When she was younger. Similarly the front garden (though described as not really being a garden) is something that Ella is proud of. It might be a case that symbolically the garden represents a lost opportunity for Ella. The male admirer does after all die in the garden.

  • Thank you Dermot. The bit about the chair was very helpful. But the story is still rather confusing. I don’t understand the part where she sits on the chair waiting for the man and White personifies the chair in this section. I’m confused with this line in particular –

    She got up finally, and the chair escaped with a last squeal, writing its answer on the tiles

    This line appears on the second last page. Hope you can help.

  • Thanks, this was really helpful for my project. But I’m still confused about the climax. Can you please help?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I don’t really recall the climax of the story. What part of it has you confused?

      • Well, I think the rising action starts when Royal dies. Because there is a quote that she was enjoying her life as a widow and if it is then the climax should be when she realises that the man with the Holden still hasn’t come, long after 5:20. But I’m still confused that whether the conflict is when Royal died because Ella wanted to show him her affection but he won’t let her.
        And to be honest, I also think that neither of these are correct.

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          The conflict may be two-fold. Firstly Rise’s inability to allow Ella to express herself as she would like and secondly when the man in the Holden dies. The climax may well be the arrival of the man in the Holden. Ella looks forward to it and after he does arrive. Everything goes downhill (man in the Holden dies).

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