Essays and Criticism
Critical Essay on Dusklands
None other of J. M. Coetzee’s works except for his first novel, Dusklands, consist of two separate works combined to create a whole. One might argue that this was done haphazardly or with only a weak link connecting the pieces. The works, after all, take place in two separate countries, at two separate times. The protagonists live in very disparate circumstances and come to terms with their personal challenges in very dissimilar fashions. But the connections between the two separate parts of this book do take form. Similarities between the protagonists’ personalities and their situations are evident. Themes that appear in one story are reflected in the other. And the actions and motives of both protagonists can be defined in relatively parallel details. After exploring these traits of what at first appear to be two unrelated tales, it is difficult to see this novel as anything but a cohesive project.
The protagonist of the first novella, Eugene Dawn, is a rather meek person, living in a quiet environment. He spends most of his life in the library or in a lonely corner of his drab office. His work entails the intellect but little physical exertion and no travel. Immediate danger to his body is nonexistent. In opposition is the protagonist of the second novella, Jacobus Coetzee, the tamer of the wilds; the elephant hunter; the macho slave master—a man who lives in danger of physical harm almost every day of his life. The former lives in the twentieth century in a quiet, modern town, where he ponders war but has little to do with it. In contrast, Jacobus lives two hundred years earlier in a time of colonial expansion, which demands that in order to survive, one must live by one’s wits and superior physical conditioning. So how do these two men relate to one another? Where and how do their personalities connect? What could they possibly have in common?
One of the first and possibly most evident characteristics these protagonists share is their isolation. Eugene, although married and a father, demonstrates very slim, if any, emotional involvement with his family. He admits that he is addicted to his marriage, but he also states that he is not in love with his wife. She is an annoyance to him. The only time he is slightly attracted to her is when Eugene believes she is having an affair with her doctor. It excites him to think that another man might be enamored of his wife, or at least physically lustful of her. And Eugene’s relationship to his son is even more flimsy. The boy belongs to his wife, as far as Eugene is concerned. Although he kidnaps Martin, he spends very little time actually communicating with him and more often complains that the boy is a young child who craves attention. Away from home, Eugene has very little contact with the people around him. And when he does meet with fellow employees, it is more often in silence. He listens to his supervisor but has little to say to him, even though the dialogue in his head is enormous. Of all the people around him, it is the quiet, mouse-like figure of Harry, the clerk in the library that Eugene relates to the most. And this relationship is fleeting, at best. Eugene is so busy, and therefore so distracted, in analyzing everyone around him, trying to figure out how he either fits into the equation or second-guessing how others perceive him that he devotes little time to actually sharing anything with the people around him. He is isolated by his fear and his lack of confidence. He lives inside his head in a tiny room that becomes more and more distorted.
Although Jacobus, unlike Eugene, appears to have little fear and enough self-confidence to believe that no matter what life-threatening circumstances he might find himself in, he can turn it into a game of possibilities and become excited by the challenges, he too lives in a very isolated world. Not only does he live in a place that he refers to as having limitless boundaries, a place where one can walk for days and never see another human being, he also, like Eugene, lives inside of his head. The room he lives in is also very narrow and distorted. Because of the life-threatening challenges that Jacobus faces every day, he has come to believe that he is superior to those around him. He faces death on a continual basis and eludes it. He has survived because of his outstanding intellect, he concludes. Others perish in front of him, because of their stupidity or lack of perception. Like Eugene, Jacobus has no friends. The people around him are merely tools that he uses to get what he wants or needs. He has no one to talk to. The one time he attempts to talk to Klawer, one of his workers, Jacobus dismisses the man’s responses as trivial. No one understands him, or so Jacobus believes. If given a choice (which he is given,...
(The entire section is 1949 words.)