In A Fringe of Leaves, Patrick White presents a vision of a woman's struggle for self-knowledge and freedom as she experiences life from almost every stratum of society in the early Australian penal colony. Prompted by instinct and necessity, Ellen Roxburgh gradually explores the depths of her 'heart of darkness' when a shipwreck forces her to leave the company of the 'moral classes' and mix with Aborigines and convicts before returning to white civilization. Her journey is punctuated by images of baptism reflecting ritual initiations into new life; however, these images are often accompanied by reminders of the individual and societal forces which imprison humankind and restrict our freedom and understanding. By combining variations of metaphorical baptism with prison imagery. White suggests that our ability to experience symbolic rebirth is limited while our quest for the freedom it brings is difficult and ongoing.
Gilbert, Helen M., The Prison and the Font: An Essay on Patrick White's A Fringe of Leaves, Kunapipi, 11(2), 1989.