In the Heart of the Country Essay - Critical Essays

J. M. Coetzee

Special Commissioned Essay on In the Heart of the Country by J. M. Coetzee, Margaret Lenta


Special Commissioned Essay on In the Heart of the Country by J. M. Coetzee Margaret Lenta

The following special entry, written by noted scholar Margaret Lenta, represents analysis of J. M. Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country (1977). For more information on Coetzee's life and career, see CLC, Volumes 23, 33, 66, 117, and 161.

In the Heart of the Country was Coetzee's second work of fiction. Before it appeared in its entirety in 1977, sections 85 through 94 of the novel had appeared in the South African academic journal Standpunte in 1976. The critic Josephine Dodd claimed in World Literature Written in English (vol. 27, no. 2, 1987: 153-161) that in the same year the South African novelist Nadine Gordimer “tried to interest her British publishers in accepting it, but they declined.” The complete novel was first published in 1977 in an “English language edition” by Secker and Warburg in London. It appeared simultaneously in the United States as From the Heart of Country, published by Harper and Row. In 1978 a significantly different edition was published in South Africa by Ravan Press, Johannesburg. Ravan was a small but important publishing house, committed to the publication of works which promoted social justice in South Africa and which might contribute to political change. Ravan in fact had been the publishers of Coetzee's first novel, Dusklands (1974), in which he invites his readers to compare an official propagandist in America during the Vietnam War with an eighteenth-century Cape Dutch traveler in his dealings with the indigenous peoples of the Cape hinterland. Only in 1982, after the publication in 1980 of Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee's third novel, which won three major prizes, did In the Heart of the Country appear in a Penguin edition.

Essay: Introduction

Margaret Lenta (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Lenta, Margaret. “An Analysis of In the Heart of the Country, by J. M. Coetzee.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 162, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2002.

[In the following essay, Lenta examines In the Heart of the Country on a number of levels, assessing the plot, characters, evolution of the work, the novel's historical significance, and how the work has been studied since its publication]


The English edition of In the Heart of the Country of 1977 and subsequent Penguin editions differ from that which appeared in South Africa in 1978 in that all the editions published outside South Africa are written entirely in English, whereas the South African version contains a considerable amount of dialogue in Afrikaans. Afrikaans is the language of the Cape Dutch (nowadays known as Afrikaners) and of the “colored”1 people of the Cape. The inclusion of dialogue in a particular form of Afrikaans, used between a white master/mistress and “colored” employees, is an important part of the depiction of the relationship between them. The language indicates the curt and functional kind of exchanges which take place between master and employee, and mistress and employee, and the vain efforts which Magda makes to change this. In the discussion of the novel it will be indicated whenever desirable what constituted the original Afrikaans of a conversation and what its implications are. It should nevertheless be noted that the all-English version of the text, in which such dialogues are translated, was prepared by Coetzee himself and therefore has some authority.

The title In the Heart of the Country has reverberations of more than one kind. Magda's situation, on a remote and at times beautiful Karoo farm, is the archetypal Cape Dutch/Afrikaans position. At the same time, the word “heart” implies a focus on feeling; Magda reveals what might be the emotional experiences of an isolated rural woman. And because the phrase “in the heart of the country” is often used to sentimentalize rural life, it becomes ironic in the context of the novel: In the Heart of the Country is far from sentimental.

Afrikaans, the language spoken by the characters in this book, is a descendant of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Dutch. The Cape of Good Hope (later the Cape Colony, from 1910 the Union of South Africa and from 1961 the Republic of South Africa) was first colonized by the Dutch, under the authority of the Dutch East India Company. Afrikaans seems to have evolved as a medium of communication between the Cape Dutch and their slaves, some of whom came from Dutch colonies in the Far East. Others came from the east African coast. Maputo, now the capital of Mozambique, was a collecting point for slavers. Because Afrikaans was, at least at first, a much simplified form of Dutch, it was often used as a lingua franca on the inland farms of the Cape Colony, and it remains, in its twentieth-century form, the commonest medium of communication between white and black in the Cape Province.


Prefatory Notes: Since In the Heart of the Country consists entirely of numbered paragraphs, references (e.g. #3) are to these paragraphs. Coetzee has commented that the novel “is constructed out of quite brief sequences, which are numbered as a way of pointing to what is not there between them.”2 The plot summary which follows does not therefore try to supply the matter which is or may be missing between the numbered paragraphs.

The term “colored” is used within quotation marks because in the period in which the novel was published, as well as for many decades before 1977, it was used by all sections of the South African community to describe people of mixed racial origins. Since 1990, when Apartheid ended, and more particularly since the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994, the term is becoming obsolete and is often regarded as insulting, and it is for this reason that quotation marks are used.

The novel is not set in any identifiable period. Perhaps the only clear indicators of the time are the flying machines which Magda sees at the end of the novel at regular intervals and the child who comes to bring the request for taxes. These suggest that the time period is somewhere in the first half of the twentieth century. The term “Cape Dutch,” used for people of predominantly Dutch descent mixed with French Huguenot and German (see “The Work in History”), was gradually replaced in the first three decades of the twentieth century by “Afrikaners” to describe the same people and Afrikaans for their language. Since the time period of the novel is not made clear, it has occasionally been necessary to use the terms together to suggest that either might be an appropriate term.

From the beginning of In the Heart of the Country the reader is made aware that the text consists of the fantasies of Magda, a lonely Afrikaans woman living on a remote farm in the Karoo, a semidesert area of South Africa where the main activity is sheep farming. There are many indications, beginning in the first paragraph where Magda offers two versions of her father's return to the farm with his second wife and where she refers to the account she will give as “embroidery,” that her text is simply what she imagines, and the reader has no way of knowing what, if anything, actually happens. The book is, therefore, an account of the ways in which she imaginatively constructs herself and the people on the farm, not of events. For the reader, this produces two strands of “plot”: one is Magda's preoccupation with herself, and the other is the fantasies of action in which she attempts to reconstruct this self and the people who surround her. She is almost completely isolated since her father hardly speaks to her, and his employees simply agree to her instructions. She spins an identity and a world out of herself.

Magda's fantasies of action tend to be dreams of rebellion against the conventions of rural Afrikaans life, which is patriarchal (the father's authority is absolute) and racist (the brown people employed on the farm have few rights and are allowed none but necessary communications with the whites). Her fantasies have three main focuses: herself, her father and the people who are employed on the farm, and Hendrik and Klein-Anna (little Anna). Two other servants, Jakob and Ou-Anna (old Anna), are less important and are imagined as being sent away by Magda's father when he wishes to seduce Klein-Anna.


#1. The narrator says her father has brought a new bride home to the farm. The narrator (the reader learns later that she is called Magda), though she describes the appearance of the couple, later says she was in her room, reading, writing, or perhaps suffering from a headache.

#2. The new wife is a sensuous creature, with whom Magda feels uncomfortable.

#3. The presence of the new wife makes Magda reflect on her dead mother, who apparently died when Magda was an infant.

#4-5. Magda constructs “memories” of her mother as frail and gentle, dying in childbirth.

#6. Magda did not watch her father return with his new bride, because she knew her father would not want her; he has never wanted her.

#7. She imagines her father and stepmother's sexual union.

#8. Life on the farm: Magda and her father eat and sleep in silence, suppressing their desires.

#9. Magda contrasts two kinds of time, that of the clock, and that of the heart, which is subjective and related to the individual's moods. She reflects that she is one of many unmarried women in the colonies whose lives have been ruined by excessive attachment to their fathers.

#10. She asserts her will to live.

#11. Magda rejects friendly advances made by her stepmother.

#12. She asks herself whether she does not enjoy her rage and blames her father and stepmother for her unhappiness. Nevertheless she rejects the idea of a conventional marriage, which might offer her escape.

#13. She also rejects the role of “ministering angel” to the “brown folk.”

#14. Her father has never needed her, which has made her unhappy, but she feels that there must be other reasons for her state.

#15. Magda talks of her love for insects, which began when she was a child.

#16. She reminisces about her childhood intimacy with the “colored” servants on the farm and remembers how she listened to stories of their historical past as nomadic pastoralists.

#17. The servants feel uncomfortable in the farmhouse, where there are now two mistresses, Magda, and her stepmother.

#18. Magda reflects that she does not really communicate with the servants, nor they with her, and that she is obliged to create herself in isolation.

#19. She contrasts her lonely celibacy with her stepmother's sexual activity.

#20. Magda imagines her stepmother as watching her from the bedroom where she lies with her husband.

#21. Magda remembers that it used to be her task to prepare her father's bath.

#22. She once again remembers the arrival of the newly married couple at the farm.

#23. As night falls Magda watches from the window: she sees Hendrik (a “colored” farm laborer) and various small nocturnal animals and birds and reflects on what her own meaning may be.

#24. While imagining the married couple's sex and asking whether her stepmother is yet pregnant, Magda imagines herself bearing a child, who would lead the “colored” people in rebellion, and be shot down with them.

#25. She goes into the couple's bedroom with a hatchet.

#26. She imagines herself killing them.

#27. Magda asks why she did not make friends with the stepmother.

#28. She asks why she is drawn to violent and deviant acts.

#29. Why does she not think of life in the city?

#30. How will she dispose of the bodies?

#31. A fantasy of unsuccessful suicide by drowning.

#32. Magda feels that such a dramatic end is unsuited to her. She asks herself how she will explain the dead bodies of her father and his wife to the servants.

#33. She looks at the two dead bodies.

#34. The bodies must be disposed of before anything new can begin. She considers the problems of disposal.

#35. Magda asserts her capability but wonders if she needs an accomplice, as she has now no one but the servants. She doubts the reality of what she has done.

#36. The father is not dead; he returns to the house at sunset.

#37. He refuses his food in silence, and they go to bed.

#38. Memories of Hendrik's return to the farm with his bride six months previous. Magda imagines the village from which he brought her.

#39. Hendrik's young bride. Magda imagines the way in which Hendrik's ancestors married.

#40. Magda reconstructs the process by which Hendrik's Khoi ancestors became subject to the Cape Dutch. She imagines the arrival of merino sheep, which have made possible Karoo farms like hers.

#41. Magda remembers (or constructs) the conversation between her father and the sixteen-year-old Hendrik when he was first employed on the farm.

#42. She wishes that she could be satisfied with such formulaic exchanges and cease to question and desire real contact with people.

#43. She sees her own ugliness in the mirror and wonders if she could improve her appearance.

#44. She considers marriage with some passing man, childbearing, and an ordinary life but cannot give up her individuality, which isolates her.

#45. She reflects on Hendrik's conditions of employment and imagines his expectations of life.

#46-47. His motives for marriage, and what he hopes from it.

#48. Magda admits that she knows nothing of Hendrik but his appearance.

#49. Tradition prevents her from communicating with the servants. She imagines that her father desires Hendrik's young wife.

#50. She observes the girl, and reimagines her arrival at the farm.

#51-52. Magda imagines Hendrik and his wife waking and getting up. She claims that her reading has made her able to imagine what she has not experienced.

#53. She imagines Hendrik, herself, and her father emerging from bed.

#54. Her father has not mentioned Hendrik's marriage; she has briefly congratulated him.

#55. Hendrik's song in the night.

#56. Hendrik's wife and her new life.

#57. Hendrik and his wife visit the other farmworkers.

#58. Hendrik brings his wife to ask for work at the farmhouse. Magda agrees to employ her and decides to call her Klein-Anna (little Anna) to distinguish between her and another servant, also Anna.

#59. Rain on the farm.

#60-63. Magda reflects, admiringly but possessively, on her father and her role in his life.

#64. She thinks of their cycles of excretion.

#65-66. Her father begins to stay at home in the mornings.

#67-69. The father begins to visit Klein-Anna when he knows her husband to be absent. Magda offers two versions of their courtship.

#70. She observes that her father is guilty and preoccupied.

#71. How will Klein-Anna conceal the courtship?

#72. Magda imagines that her father longs for her to be elsewhere so that he can consummate the liaison.

#73. She feigns—or really suffers—migraine and stays in her room. She imagines the world outside.

#74. The father speaks of his feelings to Klein-Anna. Magda is offended by this intimacy.

#75. She imagines the consummation of the affair.

#76. She pities Hendrik.

#77-81. The elder Anna does not come to work. Magda offers three versions of the reason for her absence: (i) her father has given Anna and her husband permission to leave; (ii) he has given them a holiday; and (iii) she is simply absent without explanation.

#82. Magda tries unsuccessfully to remember her past.

#83-84. She asks herself whether she could not recreate a past by finding mementos and old photographs in the loft. Would she have found images of her mother and a dead brother? If her father were to die, she might discover evidence of his emotional life.

#85. Magda tries not to feel indignation at her father's affair with Klein-Anna, and wishes she were an insect without consciousness. She nevertheless cannot refrain from anger.

#86. Magda speculates on her childhood: was she always unhappy?

#87. She sees herself in terms of what she is not: “the uses I was not put to.”

#88. At times she can abandon belief in her special destiny, and imagine a commonplace, even degrading marriage.

#89. She admits that she loves the farmhouse and that her anger with her father may be because he has defied convention.

#90. She compares herself to a hermit crab, which can migrate from one shell to another. She imagines a trip to the seaside and then thinks of herself alone on the farm, burning it down.

#91. The schoolhouse, which has been lived in by the farmworkers Jakob and Anna, has been deserted by them.

#92. Magda thinks of the days when the schoolhouse was used for its proper purpose and when children came there to be taught. She asks if her father or grandfather expelled the schoolmistress. Did she attend classes there? Did she have brothers and sisters?

#93. Perhaps they were stepbrothers and left to join their maternal relatives. She imagines a favorite sibling, Arthur, who, however, cared nothing for her.

#94. Magda sits in the schoolroom and wishes that she had not learnt to read and was not compelled to think and create.

#95. Who is “the beast”—the principle of evil in this household? The father? Hendrik? Klein-Anna? Magda imagines her father and Klein-Anna in bed while the farm collapses into chaos.

#96. Magda asks if evil is present in her, and fears what she may do.

#97. She hears her father enter and is full of fear.

#98. The father knocks on her door, then leaves. He joins Klein-Anna for a meal in the kitchen, which Magda resents.

#99. Magda speculates on the thoughts of her father and Klein-Anna and wonders if Klein-Anna's “promotion” to concubine will mean her own downgrading to servant.

#100. Magda thinks that once she would have had the authority to compel Klein-Anna to leave, but she is now too tired.

#101-104. She tries to talk to her father, who sends her away.

#105-106. He obliges her to go to bed.

#107. She searches in her mind for something she can do.

#108-111. She rings the dinner bell, and the sound gives her some relief.

#112. Someone, presumably the father, has struck her.

#113-116. She takes a gun from the hat-rack but is uneasy about taking action.

#117. Outside the farmhouse, carrying the gun, she meets Hendrik, who is drunk on brandy given him by the father.

#118. Magda shoots through her father's bedroom window.

#119. Screams. She shoots again.

#120-121. She sends Hendrik, who has revived, to bed.

#122. Magda asks herself why she needs conflict with her father. Does she want freedom? For what? To travel the world? How will people look at her, hideous as she is?

#123-126. The father sits, wounded, in his room. He asks her to call Hendrik.

#127. Magda runs in the riverbed.

#128. Hendrik is too drunk to come.

#129. Magda struggles unavailingly to run away in the riverbed.

#130-132. She tells her father that Hendrik cannot come and gives him a drink. He is in agony.

#133. She insists that Hendrik come to her father, and together they get him to bed. She bandages his wound and reflects that he is no longer sexually powerful.

#135. She wonders what will be the result of her shooting of her father for her relationship with Hendrik and Klein-Anna.

#136. Has the pastoral story of her life turned into a Gothic novel? Magda longs to be reborn as a happy child rather than a monster. She longs for her father to revive and love her.

#137. The father's condition is unchanged. Magda resents the fact that she is the only active person on the farm; her creative imagination keeps everything in being.

#138-139. Magda has a waking dream of a burning bush. She refuses Hendrik permission to take her father to town.

#140. Magda bitterly reproaches Klein-Anna for her loose behavior.

#141-144. She tells Hendrik to forgive Klein-Anna, and he beats her. They are reconciled in sex, in Magda's presence.

#145-146. The sick father begs for water.

#147-148. Magda reflects on the happy, because mindless, lives of flies. She swats as many of them as she can, determined to keep the house clean, afraid to allow them a victory.

#149. A day seems to have passed without her noticing. Her father has died; Hendrik and Klein-Anna are reconciled.

#150. Magda feels that she is losing her grip on time.

#151-152. Hendrik and Anna wait for directions.

#153-155. Henrik shows Magda how to remove the window and brick up the aperture. They seal the ceiling from the loft above and brick up the door-frame.

#156. Magda imagines them sawing off the father's bedroom from the rest of the house and its floating away.

#157. They carry the body to the bathroom, wash it, and prepare it for burial.

#158-161. They burn the mattress and the stained clothes, and Magda cleans the bedroom. They take the bed to the stable and pack away the dead man's belongings.

#162. Magda makes new curtains.

#163. Hendrik and Klein-Anna wait for instructions, but Magda cannot give them. She is exhausted.

#164. She orders Hendrik to open up a locked room. It is furnished but windowless.

#165-166. In a wardrobe they find clothes which Hendrik and Klein-Anna try on.

#167. Magda imagines Hendrik and Klein-Anna discussing her and speculating about whether she could become “a woman.”

#168. Magda envies Klein-Anna for her femininity.

#169-170. Magda asks Hendrik and Klein-Anna to sleep in the farmhouse. They come there.

#171-172. Magda is restless but wakes early to find that all is as it should be.

#173. She goes to the farm graveyard and chooses a suitable grave.

#174-175. Hendrik widens the porcupine hole in the grave so that the father's body can be inserted.

#176. Magda gets into the grave to see if there is sufficient room for the body.

#177-179. She instructs Hendrik to help her to take the body to the grave. Between them, and with some reluctance on Hendrik's side, they take it there in a wheelbarrow.

#180. Despite Magda's anger, Hendrik will not help her to insert the body into the grave.

#181-185. With much struggle, Magda manages to get the body into the grave. She returns home.

#186. Hendrik and Klein-Anna demand their wages; Magda has no money.

#187-193. Magda keeps the house immaculate and imagines having to take over men's work on the farm. Hendrik is still doing some work. Gradually both he and Klein-Anna cease to work.

#194-195. Hendrik reports that the food supplies are exhausted. He and Klein-Anna cease to show Magda the respect due to an employer.

#196. Hendrik dresses in the father's clothes; he threatens Magda.

#197-198. Magda shoots at Hendrik; both he and Klein-Anna hide.

#199. Hendrik asks for tobacco.

#200-201. Magda thinks that Hendrik is looking in drawers inside the house for tobacco. Later she watches him smoking outside with Klein-Anna.

#202. Magda sends Hendrik to the post office to draw money. She tells him to say that her father is sick.

#203. In his absence Magda approaches Klein-Anna. She asks her about her marriage and her relationship with the father. She asks her to call her Magda, but Klein-Anna is unable to do so.

#204. Hendrik cannot draw money without the father's signature. He is angry.

#205-210. Magda offers five versions of her rape by Hendrik.

#211. Lying beside Hendrik, she reflects that despite what has happened, nothing in the world outside has changed. She longs for death or to climb into Klein-Anna's body where she could be quiet.

#212. Hendrik leaves her.

#213. Magda goes to the cottage and asks Hendrik and Klein-Anna to sleep in the house from then onwards. Hendrik agrees.

#214-216. The three eat together, and Magda arranges for Hendrik and Klein-Anna to sleep in the spare room.

#217-222. Hendrik comes to Magda's room most nights to have sex with her. The experience is humiliating; she believes that he finds her repulsive, and she feels inadequate.

#223-225. Magda does not know what her new relationship with Klein-Anna should be. She feels that Klein-Anna too is uncomfortable.

#226. Magda reflects that to desire something has usually meant to want to own it: objects, land, people.

#227. Two (white) neighbors arrive at the farm to ask after the father. Magda tells them that he left that morning.

#228. Hendrik says that he and Klein-Anna are leaving; the men will come back and will believe that he is responsible for the disappearance of Magda's father.

#229. Magda asks how, other than by housework, she can fill her days alone.

#230. She finds that she needs other people.

#231-232. The farm declines into a waste, and Magda lives on what remains of the food stores.

#233-234. Visitors have searched the farm for the father, but no remains are discovered. The horse has left.

#235. The other farm employees, Ou-Anna and Jakob, return to visit; they speak courteously of Magda's father.

#236. Magda considers Hendrik's fate: was he caught by the white farmers who came to search? Did they kill him and Klein-Anna? Did they bring them to “justice”? Did they confront Magda with them? Or is her father still alive? Hendrik is gone, and she is alone.

#237. Magda, who has lost her sense of time, wonders what period has elapsed.

#238. She remembers that a child came to the farm to deliver a tax bill and that she frightened him away by making a sexual gesture at him.

#239. She begins to hear voices because she needs others to affirm her existence.

#240-246. The voices come from machines which fly in the sky, and speak “Spanish” (in fact a Latin-derived, man-made language). They seem to keep to regular schedules and resemble airplanes. Messages come—but not obviously from them.

#247-250. Magda believes she receives a series of messages, enigmatically reflecting on her past and present state.

#251-257. She tries to send messages, in white pebbles, to the...

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In The Heart Of The Country In History


The first white colonizers arrived at the Cape of Good Hope, close to the southernmost point of Africa, in 1652, to establish a refreshment station which might supply fresh food and water to the Dutch East India Company's ships when they stopped there on their way to Dutch colonies in the East Indies. The Company tried to control and limit its employees' contacts with the indigenous peoples, the Khoikhoi (known to the Dutch as the Hottentots) and the San (Bushmen), and to prevent their employees and former employees from expanding white settlements northwards, inland from Cape Town and the lands immediately surrounding it. Nevertheless, as the population...

(The entire section is 3797 words.)

Critical Response To In The Heart Of The Country


In the Heart of the Country was Coetzee's second novel, the first, Dusklands, having already appeared in 1974. Contemporary reviewers outside South Africa were generally positive in their assessment of the work, at least to the extent of finding it compelling in its subject matter and formally challenging. Moreover, it was clearly opposed to white dominance in South Africa and was prepared to show that such dominance began in households and continued in the rural areas where the traditions of the past persisted. Strikingly missing from these early reviews was commentary on the fact that Coetzee was as interested in gender-related oppression as he was in racial...

(The entire section is 13619 words.)

Resources For The Study Of In The Heart Of The Country


In the Heart of the Country is most frequently compared with three works of the past, in which Coetzee's own critical writing, especially his collection of essays White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa,1 has demonstrated his interest. These are Olive Schreiner's novel, The Story of an African Farm,2 and Pauline Smith's two works of fiction, The Little Karoo3 and The Beadle.4

All three works are set in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa, as is In the Heart of the Country, and all three have an allegorical dimension in that they can be seen as...

(The entire section is 4821 words.)

Further Reading

Additional coverage of Coetzee's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African Writers; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 37; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 6; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 77-80; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 41, 54, 74; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 225; DISCovering Authors Modules: Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; and World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 2.

(The entire section is 69 words.)