Both in her works and in interviews, Nadine Gordimer has made it clear that she disapproves of apartheid; it was her sympathy with blacks that caused South Africa to ban three of her novels, A World of Strangers (1958), The Late Bourgeois World (1966), and Burger’s Daughter (1979). As some of her more perceptive critics have pointed out, however, Gordimer herself is in two ways an outsider in the movement with which she sympathizes: She is white and she is a woman. It may well be that it is this sense of alienation, or at least of difference, that enables Gordimer to write novels with such a sense of the complexity of life. In My Son’s Story, for example, she shows how difficult it is in a time of social change to choose wisely between conflicting duties, to understand the motives for making those choices, and to accept the negative effects from even those decisions that seemed most clearly right.
The title My Son’s Story suggests that there will be a single narrator in the novel, perhaps with an introductory passage by the father. In fact, the novel incorporates several points of view. Some of the story is told through the eyes of the father, a black schoolteacher who has been called Sonny since his own childhood. Some of it is told by his son, William (Will), a student. Some of it is told by Sonny’s white mistress, Hannah Plowman, a human-rights worker who first became acquainted with Sonny when he was jailed for opposing the white South African regime. The point is that the story involves all three of these characters, and in addition, Aila, Sonny’s wife, and Baby, their daughter, whose points of view, however, are not explored except through their comments and their actions.
At the beginning of the novel, Gordimer establishes the kind of life Sonny and Aila are leading before Sonny becomes committed to the black struggle: a happy, tranquil life to which Will and Aila later look back as being almost a lost paradise. Sonny is a respected schoolteacher, who loves his wife Aila very much, and whose greatest commitment, apart from his profession, is to ensure the social and intellectual development of his beloved children. Then there is a demonstration near his school; driven by an emotional necessity, Sonny leads the students who have been entrusted to him into the demonstration. Their parents are horrified. As a result, Sonny is fired from his job and, without ever really choosing to become an activist, is incorporated into the movement for black liberation.
Ironically, as Gordimer makes clear, what Sonny finds in the movement is the opposite of freedom. He is ordered to leave the home where he and his family have been so happy and to move into a neighborhood that is becoming increasingly racially mixed. Aila protests, but it does no good. Like the parents of his students, Sonny’s own family believe that they have been betrayed, that they have been used for the sake of the movement to which Sonny is now committed.
Dedicated mother that she is, Aila attempts to make the new home and the new life seem normal, to accept the new responsibilities her husband has, which take him away from home and even into prison, as merely another kind of job, not unlike that of a schoolteacher. What she cannot or will not realize is that the movement, unlike his previous profession, regards him as a pawn, who can be sent to danger and to death should such a course seem beneficial to the movement. The fact that she does not understand his new life creates a gulf between Aila and Sonny. Yet neither of them realizes how far apart they are until Sonny becomes involved with Hannah Plowman.
At first it appears that Hannah, though white, is synonymous with the cause of black freedom. A representative of an international human-rights organization, she gets to know Sonny when she visits him in prison, and soon he sees her as his contact with the real world outside, the world of the movement. Because of her experience, Hannah understands Sonny’s needs and his concerns as Aila can never do. Instead of news of the children’s doings, Hannah can bring Sonny coded news of the movement’s activities. Instead of a puzzled sympathy, Hannah can give him real support; she can discuss problems of organization with him, as well as empathizing with his fears and uncertainties. Unlike Aila, Hannah is Sonny’s comrade; it is not surprising when she becomes his mistress. To Sonny, the relationship is essential. He needs Hannah to talk to him of their common concerns; he also needs Hannah to give him strength and release from his fears. Indeed, he believes that only his relationship with her enables him to function effectively as a revolutionary.
Yet the relationship between Hannah and Sonny is more complex than it might appear, for it has elements of selfishness. At one point, Sonny is present when one of his comrades is shot in a riot. In such a situation, he is expected to remain with the man who fell. Unfortunately, Hannah is present, unguarded, and Sonny ignores his duty, leaves the fallen man, and gets her to safety. The incident troubles Sonny, for he now realizes that Hannah is more to him than a help in his work. He needs her for himself not merely as an aid to his work in the movement. In most situations, lovers recognize their own selfishness and forgive themselves because it is merely evidence that they are human. Unfortunately, the standards for revolutionaries are more exacting. Sonny’s leaders would see his action in saving...
(The entire section is 2252 words.)