Study Guide

Age of Iron

by J. M. Coetzee

Age of Iron Summary

Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 (Pages 3-18)

Mrs. Curren is a widow and former Classics professor living in Cape Town, South Africa, and the book opens with her revealing that she has just received a terminal diagnosis. The words of the book are a long letter she is writing to her estranged daughter, who has lived in the United States since 1976. It is now 1986, and Mrs. Curren is obviously trying to impart something about her last days to her daughter, but does not know for certain what it is. Mrs. Curren’s house backs up to an alley, and upon returning from her diagnosis, she finds a homeless man and his dog sleeping in the alley by her house. The man is disheveled, underweight, and always to some degree under the influence. He has a potent smell of body odor, urine, and a life lived out of doors. Mrs. Curren is curt with the homeless man and threatens to alert the police but later offers him some food and tries to find out more about him; unfortunately, the man speaks very little.

One morning, Mrs. Curren is overcome with pain while she is in the garage. The homeless man happens to be nearby, so he helps her into the house to lie down. She explains that she has bone cancer that is situated in her hip. When she attempts to learn more about the man, he withdraws from the house. Later that night, she can feel his presence outside the window when she watches television; she turns up the sound so he can hear. During one of her bad spells, she takes her pain medication and slips in and out of consciousness. At one point, she becomes aware of the distinctive smell of the homeless man and discerns that he must be in the room with her.

When she is feeling better, Mrs. Curren decides to head into town; however, the car has a hard time starting. She enlists the help of the homeless man, who successfully pushes the car to help start it and then joins Mrs. Curren (along with his dog) for the ride into town. As they drive in, Mrs. Curren reflects on a story her mother used tell of her own childhood, long before Mrs. Curren was born. When her mother was a little girl, she took a trip to the mountains in a covered wagon. As they slept at night, her mother became convinced that the wagon was moving when she saw the movement of the stars overhead; she remained paralyzed, convinced the wagon would roll off the side of the mountain. Mrs. Curren’s mother was frightened by what seemed the impending arrival of her own mortality, and her worries only subsided in the morning when she realized the wagon had not moved at all.

Chapter 1 (Pages 19-33)

When Mrs. Curren and the homeless man prepare to return to her house, Mrs. Curren’s eyes fill with tears. Before long, she is weeping uncontrollably, much to her embarrassment. The homeless man says nothing, and she apologizes for losing control of her emotions. Eventually, the man helps her move the car down a hill to get it in gear and begin the drive home. When they arrive, Mrs. Curren tries to insist on some structure to the man’s comings and goings. She tells him that she will pay him if he does work around her house. She tries to engage him in mowing the lawn and pruning the hedges, but the man appears to be apathetic to these and any tasks. When she asks him why, he expresses his disinterest. She lectures him about her dislike of charity and her belief that he should work for whatever he gets. He challenges her by suggesting that she could turn her home into a kind of shelter, but Mrs. Curren balks at the idea. She throws money at him, and the man leaves. When he returns later, he has bought liquor, and Mrs. Curren demands the rest of her money returned to her.

Nighttime is one of the hardest times for Mrs. Curren, as she so often finds her thoughts drawn to her impending death. She wonders about the possibilities of the afterlife, including one scenario in which she envisions the afterlife as one large hotel lobby. Music is often a comfort to her during these times, so she frequently listens to a short-wave radio. One day, she decides to soothe herself by playing the piano. She sits at the piano and plays a combination of spiritual and classical music, sometimes singing along. At some point, she becomes peripherally aware that the homeless man is outside listening. She continues her concert for him without acknowledging his presence.

One day, Mrs. Curren asks the homeless man in to talk about her family. She talks about her daughter, for whom she is writing her final thoughts. She eventually gets around to asking a favor of the man. She wants to ensure that all of her writing gets delivered to her daughter after she dies. Mrs. Curren acknowledges her frustration with her inability to control whether her wishes will actually be carried out after she dies. The man at first seems uncomfortable with the responsibility, but ultimately agrees to mail the papers.

Chapter 2 (Pages 34-50)

Mrs. Curren’s household changes again with the return of her housekeeper, Florence. With her, Florence brings her two daughters and a teenage son named Bheki. When he was younger, Mrs. Curren used to know Bheki by the name Digby and is puzzled by the change. Florence takes an immediate dislike to the homeless man, whom Mrs. Curren introduces as Mr. Vercueil. Florence explains that there is a lot of unrest in her hometown of Guguletu, and the schools have been closed because of the ongoing strife. Mrs. Curren is unhappy having so many people in her house while she is feeling so sick. She also questions Florence about Bheki's not being in school, wondering if he will become involved in the violence in Guguletu and the neighboring areas. Florence firmly believes that her son’s generation is part of a different breed who cannot be told what to do and resist all attempts.

One afternoon, Mrs. Curren observes Mr. Vercueil trying to fix the lawn mower while Florence’s children amuse themselves in the yard. Beauty, the toddler, keeps trying to run to the lawn mower, with all of its sharp parts. Mrs. Curren is surprised by Vercueil’s gentleness in repeatedly rerouting the child to a safer path. Things take a negative turn later in the week when Vercueil increases his drinking (funded in a large part by the money Mrs. Curren gave him). Bheki also brings another teenage boy to stay with them. When a drunken Vercueil demands water, they instead dump out his liquor bottle. Bheki’s friend likens Vercueil’s drunkenness to a compliance with the powers that seek to subordinate him. Vercueil becomes enraged and a fight breaks out that subsides only with Florence’s assistance. Florence criticizes Vercueil as a “rubbish person,” but Mrs. Curren demands that he be treated with respect.

After the fight, Vercueil leaves, and Mrs. Curren ponders whether or not he will ever come back. In response to the attack on Vercueil, Mrs. Curren criticizes the children for their behavior and Florence for encouraging their defiance. She points out that it is up to the parents to teach the fundamentals of kindness and responsibility. Florence remains intractable and insists that Mrs. Curren does not understand their lives. Mrs. Curren thinks of the hardened youths as a generation of people made of iron. Furthermore, she wonders if the period in which they live, which breeds so many hardened young people, is a kind of age of iron.

Chapter 2 (Pages 51-64)

Bheki’s friend returns, riding in on a bicycle. Mrs. Curren notices him hanging around with Bheki, but they disappear at nighttime. Mrs. Curren deduces that they are sleeping in the garage, most likely in her car. When she confronts Florence about it the next day, the housekeeper says very little. She tells Florence that Bheki’s friend is not allowed to stay here. When Florence protests, Mrs. Curren insists that her home is not a refuge. Florence pointedly asks her why not, and the conversation is not unlike one she had with Mr. Vercueil. Later, Mrs. Curren notices a police car parked in front of her house and goes out to ask the officers what their purpose is. Mrs. Curren assumes the officers are tailing Bheki and his friend, but they claim to know nothing about it and brush her off. Mrs. Curren again warns Florence not to let Bheki hang around with this friend.

When Mrs. Curren retires to a hot bath, she finds herself reflecting on the ravages the cancer has done to her body (and continues to do). In pain, she calls out to Florence for assistance but gets no response. As she lies, cold and shivering, she thinks of her mother as an old woman, how she last remembered her. Mrs. Curren even calls out to her in a faint whisper, longing for the maternal comfort she can no longer have. In the middle of the night, Mrs. Curren awakens to pouring rain. Concerned about Mr. Vercueil, she calls out into the night for him to come in to sleep and is surprised to find him accompanied by an equally foul-smelling female companion. Against her better judgment, Mrs. Curren lets them sleep in her living room.

In the morning, Mrs. Curren must dodge the judgmental looks of Florence as she tries to get Mr. Vercueil to remove the increasingly difficult and unpleasant homeless woman. Mrs. Curren also lectures Bheki about sleeping in her car without asking her permission first. The distasteful homeless woman is finally removed, and Bheki and his friend...

(The entire section is 503 words.)

Chapter 2 (Pages 65-86)

Inside the house, Florence tends to Bheki’s wounds, which are less severe than those of his friend. Mrs. Curren tells them that she saw what the policemen did, but neither Bheki nor Florence wants Mrs. Curren to put in a complaint. They decide to go to the hospital to check on the boy, and Mrs. Curren insists that Mr. Vercueil accompany them to help deal with the unreliable car. The go to the hospital where the paramedics said they were taking the boy only to find that the hospital has no record of him. Florence and Bheki are less surprised than Mrs. Curren, believing that the ambulances are like the police cars in dealing with the black population.

Eventually, they get a tip that Bheki’s friend might be at a...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Chapter 3 (Pages 87-101)

Mrs. Curren is awoken in the middle of the night by the phone ringing. A woman asks for Florence, insisting it is an urgent matter. After her phone call, Florence comes to see Mrs. Curren and explains that she needs to go to Guguletu and then to a place called Site C, which Mrs. Curren has never heard of. Mrs. Curren agrees, and Florence insists that they bring her daughters with her as she cannot leave them alone. Mrs. Curren attempts to rouse Mr. Vercueil to help with the car, but he remains in a drunken stupor. Florence pushes the car after Mrs. Curren and the children pile in. They drive to Guguletu and stop outside a house into which Florence takes the children. She later returns in the company of a man and a young boy of no...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

Chapter 3 (Pages 102-114)

Outside of the shantytown, Mrs. Curren, the boy, and Mr. Thabane come across a series of permanent buildings—run-down stores, but not shanties. In the distance, Mr. Thabane spots Florence, who wearily informs them that she has found Bheki. Mr. Thabane goes into one of the buildings and returns quickly. He tells Mrs. Curren that she should go in and see too. She steps into the building and finds several people milling about. As she moves closer, she sees five bodies lying on the floor; the middle one is Bheki, Florence’s son. He has been shot, most likely at some other location, and his sand-covered body has been laid here with the others. Mrs. Curren is haunted by the open-mouth expression on Bheki’s face. A little girl...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

Chapter 3 (Pages 115-130)

In the days that follow, Mrs. Curren asks Mr. Vercueil to drive her back up to the shanties to survey the damage. She does not linger there long, but merely confirms that the fires have ended. Florence’s sister comes to the house to collect Florence’s things. Mrs. Curren asks Florence’s sister to share her condolences. The sister finds Mrs. Curren’s attempts at sympathy almost quaint, and accepts a check that Mrs. Curren sends with her for Florence. After they leave, Mrs. Curren tells Mr. Vercueil that she plans to commit suicide rather than face the long, slow end of her disease. She is surprised by how excited Mr. Vercueil seems to be by the idea—his response to this revelation is almost akin to sexual excitement....

(The entire section is 416 words.)

Chapter 3 (Pages 131-146)

Mrs. Curren develops a cold, which quickly settles into her lungs and does not subside. Simple tasks are quickly becoming more difficult as the cancer and the accompanying respiratory difficulties are rendering her increasingly weak and out of breath. When she walks to get some groceries, she struggles with the bags on the way home. When she drops her groceries all over the sidewalk, she is annoyed by the indifference of people who walk or drive by. She eventually makes it home and settles into a drug-induced sleep; she is slowly starting to rely more and more on her pain pills.

She is awoken from her sleep by Mr. Vercueil’s dog. Mr. Vercueil himself has been absent for a number of days, so there is no one to quiet...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Chapter 3 (Pages 147-161)

Later, Mrs. Curren peeks into Florence’s room and sees John examining something in his hands. She also notices that part of the floorboards have been pried up. When she enters the room, demanding to know what he has, John hides the object under the bed sheets. Mrs. Curren knows it is a weapon of some sort, but John refuses to give her any information. Mrs. Curren finds the number for Florence’s home and calls. When she is informed that Florence is no longer there, Mrs. Curren asks for Mr. Thabane. After a moment, Mr. Thabane answers the phone and Mrs. Curren reminds him of their acquaintance. She tells him of John and his weapon, and demands that he come and get the boy before he brings more trouble to her house. Mr. Thabane is...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Chapter 3 (Pages 162-176)

The dog is Mr. Vercueil’s mutt, and Mrs. Curren is relieved to find that the owner is with his dog. Mr. Vercueil is surprised to find Mrs. Curren lying in the street and even more shocked that she does not want to go home. With surprising ease, Mr. Vercueil picks up Mrs. Curren and carries her to an overpass. He sets up camp for them on some boxes and they huddle together with the dog. She explains the odd incident of the boys putting a stick in her mouth, and Vercueil explains that they were searching her mouth to see if any of her teeth had gold in them. They sleep some, and when they wake, Mrs. Curren finds herself in a confessional mood. She admits that she has been blind to the troubles of the many people who are oppressed...

(The entire section is 437 words.)

Chapter 4

Mrs. Curren’s condition is rapidly deteriorating, and she acknowledges that her writing will soon be done. She tells her daughter of Mr. Vercueil staying in her room with his dog to help care for her and keep her company. Mrs. Curren is taking her pain pills more frequently now, and some of them give her disturbing hallucinations. She calls her doctor to ask if she can switch prescriptions, but he will do it only if she comes into the doctor’s office with an appointment. Mrs. Curren recognizes that she is too weak for this, but is surprised when a package of new pills arrives from the doctor’s office.

Vercueil again brings up suicide, but Mrs. Curren feels that she cannot do it for the same reason that she refuses...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear