Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A dominant theme throughout Nadine Gordimer’s fiction is the unusual complexity of life and politics in South Africa before it abolished apartheid. In her stories there are no easy solutions to the problems that history created in South Africa. Even though it is clear that the system of apartheid is wrong, there are often no clear moral choices for the whites living under the system.

Collins is in many ways a typical Gordimer protagonist. He tries, in his own way, to offer respect and human kindness to the African boys under his care. He tries to give them more freedom, to teach them discipline and hard work, and to help them become productive. Nevertheless, he cannot escape his own racism. He offers them the best that he knows, but does it in a patronizing way. Once, for example, he stumbles over the brick edging of a pathway and reflects that the boys laid the edging “with all their race’s peasant pleasure in simple repetitive patterns.” He smiles at their simpleness. Wanting to teach them good values, he turns to his own religion, Christianity, and makes his charges attend weekly church services. He cannot imagine that developing a spiritual life within their own systems of belief would strengthen them and is puzzled every time that a boy runs away. Why should anyone choose to live by a paraffin-tin fire instead of a warm reformatory?

Collins truly wants to help Africans. He mentions no friends, no colleagues, no pleasures or...

(The entire section is 553 words.)