Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Open House” deliberately underplays its criticism of apartheid by not focusing on sensational outrages—the arrest, imprisonment, and torture of blacks—but by describing a seemingly benign luncheon given by a white South African woman for a foreign visitor. By revealing that ordinary discourse is false in a country where open houses are actually closed, the story suggests that hospitality has no place in South Africa.

The dialogue between Frances and Robert seems increasingly false and sinister. This false note begins when Frances agrees to invite Robert to meet black Africans at her house. As though trying to ignore her misgivings, she sets out “to cook a good lunch, just as good as she had ever cooked.” To look her best, she has her hair dyed in a manner she believes to be “pleasingly artificial,” a description that foreshadows the tone of the luncheon itself. When she greets Robert like any suburban hostess seeking to put her guest at ease—“mix the Martinis, there’s a dear”—the reader further senses that something is amiss.

Robert’s response to Frances’s hospitality seems to be similarly strained. Throughout the luncheon, he plays the part of the grateful, diffident guest, at one point looking at Frances with “the trusting grin of some intelligent small pet.” When he leaves at the end of the afternoon, his effusive thanks—“I certainly enjoyed myself. . . . I hope we haven’t put you out”—is altogether too conventional, just as is his gushing farewell—“Everyone’s been marvellous . . . really marvellous.” South African reality demands something more.

The seemingly commonplace note of Frances’s ANC friend—“Hope your party went well”—serves to alert the reader as it does Frances. Like the other expressions of goodwill, the note might simply be taken at face value, expressing in conventional words a friend’s good wishes. Unlike the others, however, her friend’s words seem to Frances to contain “reproach” or “contempt.” She recognizes that even a friendly note resonates with political overtones, and that an open house can also serve to mask oppression. Robert may not grasp this fact at the story’s end, but the reader does.