Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The author’s abhorrence of racism determines the overriding theme of the novel. (It is the existence of racism that determines nearly every aspect of the lives of South Africans—Gordimer’s characters.) Gordimer is all the more effective for her tendency to dramatize her convictions rather than preach them. She demonstrates the honesty of her convictions by portraying black Africans as they are, with understanding and without condescension. Furthermore, she refuses to be utopian in her expectations—as in her treatment of Baasie, Rosa’s childhood “brother,” and in Rosa’s witnessing a brutal beating of a donkey by an old, drunk, black peasant. She sees the man’s guilt in an obvious way but understands also that she and other whites are responsible for his brutalized condition. She drives on without interfering but remembers the donkey as “the sum of suffering” for her. It persuades her (at this point in the novel) that she is unable to live in the country of her father. The beating of the animal, incidentally, recalls Raskolnikov’s dream of the horse whipped to death by a peasant in Fyodor Dostoevski’s Crime and Punishment (1866). Earlier, Rosa had seen a black man die on a park bench—an ex-miner out of work and living on the streets, old at forty-six. He remains for Rosa a primary symbol of racial oppression. He is the donkey that the white man beats without ceasing.

It is possible that Gordimer’s insistence on a...

(The entire section is 550 words.)