Study Guide

The Conservationist

by Nadine Gordimer

The Conservationist Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In The Conservationist, Nadine Gordimer abandons the conventional narrative style in an effort to unravel the personality of her protagonist, Mehring. The story is a character study of a successful South African industrial executive and, by extension, a critique of South Africa. Gordimer uses searching monologues to probe deeply into Mehring’s character, permitting Mehring to reveal himself by invoking flashbacks, memories, and the stream of consciousness.

Geographically, the point of reference is Mehring’s four-hundred-acre farm, where most of the action takes place. There Mehring is observed by the reader in relation to the human and physical landscape. Psychologically, the reference point is Mehring himself. His varied relationships with lovers, friends, and family establish the basis and define the scope of the story.

The novel begins with the discovery by black workers of a dead man on the farm. He is anonymous; no one knows anything of the details of his death, and no one disturbs the body. There he lies, abandoned, yet never entirely forgotten. Gordimer then uses the narrative to expose the shallowness and, what is more, the rootlessness of Mehring’s life. There is little sustained action. What holds the story together is the life of the farm, where the reader slowly comes to know Mehring. Mehring’s black laborers go about their work whether he is there or not. His Boer neighbors remain aloof, suspicious of a rich, amateur “city” farmer, and his lover provokes him with her idealistic, liberal views. The Conservationist, therefore, is a psychological novel, and, as such, it is an expression of the consciousness of Mehring.

Meanwhile, the recurring image of the dead man in a remote corner of the farm remains a symbol, a portent of Mehring’s future and, possibly, that of South Africa.

The Conservationist Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

South African pig-iron industrialist Mehring returns for a weekend visit to his farm on the Transvaal to find, to his dismay, a group of children playing with a clutch of guinea eggs. Suddenly, his foreman, Jacobus, rushes up to tell him that the body of a black man has been discovered on the farm.

Mehring bought his farm because owning land is something a person of his race and class should do; the farm would be an investment, and it also could be a place for amorous escapades. Mehring would rather not be bothered with the problem of a dead body, which is simply covered and placed in a shallow, unmarked grave by white police. The police tell Mehring they will deal with the matter later.

With an image of the dead body always in the back of his mind, Mehring begins to reflect on his relationship with his former lover, Antonia, the leftist he had to spirit out of the country when her life had become endangered. He is haughty about the misdirected energies of her liberalism, yet he continues to ruminate about her. Though he dismisses her honest evaluations of his society—for whom money and industrial development are the only gods—his recalling her evaluations so vividly seems to imply a growing inability to obliterate the truth.

Mehring encounters his Afrikaner neighbors, the DeBeers, who borrow his truck for a trip into town. During their visit, he grudgingly contrasts their solidity and good-naturedness with his own solitude.

Mehring begins to reflect on the farmworkers’ homes and the “illegal” Indian shanty store. The store is illegal because it is on land set aside for whites. In one of these stores a farmworker named Solomon is attacked by two men and left for dead in Mehring’s third pasture, the same place the dead body lies buried, thus establishing a frightening mythology for the third pasture. Then a fire erupts on the farm, devastating everything from the store to the DeBeers’s land. Mehring returns to the farm after the fire and finds himself morbidly curious about what happened to the dead body...

(The entire section is 843 words.)

The Conservationist Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Conservationist was held by the South African Censorship Board for ten weeks before it was finally released to the public. The novel, which tells the story of a white landowner named Mehring whose farm is run by black natives, begins with the discovery of a dead African found on Mehring’s land. At the end, after a careless burial by white policemen exposes the body, the native is given a proper burial by the blacks who work Mehring’s farm. The story’s final sentences summarize the spirit of the novel: “They had put him away to rest, at last; he had come back. He took possession of this earth, theirs; one of them.” In an interview in the Paris Review in 1983, Gordimer explained that the African battle cry, mayibuye, means “Africa, come back”; it is also the slogan of the ANC. The “coming back” refers to the return of the dead in the novel as well as to the theme that blacks will someday reclaim Africa as their own.

In combining the resurrection theme with a political one, Gordimer conveys a larger message that deals with life and death under apartheid. The image of the dead African permeates the other events in the novel and serves as a constant reminder of the shallowness of Mehring, who owns and rules a piece of Africa without understanding the land or the natives who inhabit it. In this respect, Mehring is like the living dead who unnaturally impose their values on those who are forced to exist under apartheid.

Mehring’s actions are completely detached from those of the Africans in the novel. His activities include driving his Mercedes into town to attend parties or other social gatherings, where he is seen in a variety of situations that reveal his dissatisfaction with his life. By contrast, the Africans are represented in ritual events that strengthen their tie to the land: dances, the community’s slaughter of a calf, a kind of Christmas party, and, most important, the burial of the dead African at the novel’s end. While Mehring appears bored...

(The entire section is 827 words.)

The Conservationist Bibliography (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Clingman, Stephen. The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside, 1986.

Cooke, John. The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: Private Lives, Public Landscapes, 1985.

Haugh, Robert F. Nadine Gordimer, 1974.

Jones, Norman C. “Acculturation and Character Portrayal in Southern African Novels,” in African Literature Today, Vol. 13, 1983. Edited by Eldred D. Jones.