Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The two epigraphs of Gordimer’s novel provide not only the source of its title but also the two points of view from which one may assess its dual significance: “We have all become people according to the measure in which we have loved people and have had occasion for loving” (Boris Pasternak). “In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms” (Thomas Mann). The first observation applies generally to humanity, regardless of circumstances. It applies particularly to Jessica in this novel, and one sees that some of her many “occasions for loving” have not always led to love. Ann deserves the reader’s admiration for seizing upon an occasion for love that almost any other white woman would have let slide by.

Jessica’s loves are not obviously affected by Mann’s observation. Ann’s implicit commitment to Gideon, however, is made impossible by South African politics. Gideon’s personal destiny is almost wholly determined by these politics: His career is limited; travel is impossible; he is doomed to frustration. He might also be doomed to alcoholism but for Tom Stilwell’s faith in him: “He’ll be all right. He’ll go back and fight: there’s nothing else.” Essentially, this is a prediction of violent revolution, because no other solution in South Africa is possible. Of course, whites as well as blacks find their destiny in political terms. Those in South Africa may choose the side of the blacks or the side of the nationalist government. Tom Stilwell expresses at least his good intentions when he ponders, at the end of the novel, the possibility of blowing up a power station. In 1963, this is only a symbolic thought-gesture. Twenty-five years later, it will be a realistic choice. Gordimer insists in Occasion for Loving that, “so long as the law remained unchanged, nothing could bring integrity to personal relationships.” This applies to whites as well as blacks, interracially or not. It applies even to the quite decent marriage of Jessica and Tom Stilwell.