Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Nadine Gordimer has devoted her career as a writer to exposing what she has called “the great South African lie.” In this story, the lie begins in the title, which suggests an image of the country the government seeks to foster—namely, that South Africa is an open house where people are free to come and go as they please. The government does not deny that blacks are not welcome everywhere. However, through tours of “model black townships, universities and beer halls,” it seeks to convince foreign visitors that within their own areas, blacks are as free and content as are their white counterparts. Robert’s conversation with the three black Africans easily explodes that official claim. Gordimer’s title makes a more subtle point: that all South Africans, whites as well as blacks, are victimized by the ruthless separation of races. Frances Taver’s interracial luncheon may impress Robert Ceretti, but as the story reveals, even Frances’s house is not as open as Ceretti believes it to be.

Frances and her guests act out an unwitting charade of good fellowship. Frances and Madela (the one she knows the best) “both knew they had seen each other only across various rooms perhaps a dozen times in five years, and got into conversation perhaps half as often.” They behave toward each other as equals when, in fact, as Frances acknowledges, she is as “culpable” as the rich industrialists Madela envies. Like them, she is “white, and free to go where she please[s].” She expresses her gratitude to Madela for excluding her from his criticism silently, “like a promissory note [passed] beneath the table.” The arrest of their friend is also not openly discussed; Frances and Madela express their concern for him and his family only in an aside.

The most dramatic sign that Frances’s house is not open appears when Frances discovers the note left by her ANC friend. His absence reminds her how apartheid has compromised her luncheon, for not only was she unable to invite the friend she respected, but also she inadvertently barred his entry to her home. Her thoughts of this uninvited guest frustrates Frances’s final conversation with Robert. Because she cannot openly name this friend, she cannot explain to Robert why the blacks he met are “phony.”