Gordimer’s characters are often marred by personal weaknesses or political oppression. Most stories have external narrators who treat the characters with irony or sympathy or both, as if the flaws that merit criticism are also somehow out of the characters’ control. Arrests and deaths, repression and confusion are typical in these stories. Some characters are caught in the trap of political oppression; others, in social stereotypes. Several stories juxtapose white and black characters, illustrating the different types of damage that the social and political systems engender.
The difficulties of living under apartheid are obvious in stories such as “Ah, Woe Is Me,” in which Sarah works as a servant for the narrator; neither the hard work of Sarah nor the useless good intentions of the narrator are enough to help Sarah’s family. Sarah never questions the justness of her plight but only wants her children to recognize their position in society and do the best they can within it. Segregated living conditions and lack of quality schools in the location force Sarah to live separately from her children for long periods. The story revolves, though, around the view of the narrator, who is wholly ineffectual in dealing with the misfortunes of Sarah’s family. “Ah, Woe Is Me” is one of seven stories in the collection which are narrated in the first person. The voice of the woman of privilege telling the story of Sarah provides an ironic tension, an...
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