Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This is one of those stories that is so slight in plot that the reader is left with a feeling that it is not a story at all. It manifests a technique of inconclusiveness that Gordimer learned from the great modern, Anton Chekhov, for the story does not present its theme by means of plot or character dialogue but rather by implication and understatement. Carl Church is the central character, but he is less a character than a convention: the convention of the bored and jaded newspaperman who remains objective, aloof, and uninvolved with the lives of others, one who is usually not really “there,” but who, because of the influence of the lake, now seems actually “here,” who seems most alive when he is under the influence of the lake itself. Although he does not have any interest in Dick’s dilemma, nor any sympathy for Dick’s mother, he still somehow sees a relationship (though he never explicitly mentions it) between the experience of Livingstone and his own experience.

Thus, ironically, he does not write his newspaper story about following in the footsteps of Livingstone, and yet in a strange way he does, for this very story entitled “Livingstone’s Companions” is an artistic version of that story he was assigned. Church somehow believes that he is following in the footsteps of Livingstone, exploring the mysteries of Africa; here, the mysteries of Africa are those of the proprietorial and paternalistic attitude of the white toward the black, reflected by the fact that Dick is an employee of his mother, who believes that neither her son nor the blacks can take care of anything. Thus, the story is really about the fact that all whites in Africa are Livingstone’s companions, following in his footsteps, leaving graves in their wake. However, none of this is made explicit; all is suggested indirectly.