Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Something Out There” is, above all else, a harsh indictment of the South African government’s policy of apartheid, under which the races were rigidly segregated and Africans were forced to live in slumlike black “homelands,” made to carry identification papers at all times, and subjected to various other indignities. This story explores the tensions of apartheid at the personal, everyday level; the government policy is viewed here, as in much of Nadine Gordimer’s work, as a direct result of individual will.

While Vusi and Eddie and their white supporters are treated sympathetically, the white suburbanites are often the subject of bitter satire. Representative of this group is Mrs. Naas Klopper, a woman so taken with the comfortable lifestyle that her husband’s prosperity affords her that she has for years neglected her own given name, always referring to herself as “Mrs.” An essentially well-meaning woman, she is nevertheless bigoted and shortsighted in the extreme, offering to find the Rossers a new black “boy” to replace the one who had worked for Mr. Kleynhans and taking a generally maternal attitude toward the young white couple. She is a woman unable to connect the political and the personal, incapable of appreciating either the inhumanity of apartheid or her own role in its maintenance. On a symbolic level, her share of responsibility for the violence threatening her society is brought home to her near the end of the story: While searching the Kleynhans place, the police discover that a cookie box in which Charles and Joy have stored munitions is the very box that Mrs. Klopper brought them earlier, filled with her own homemade sweetbreads. It is characteristic, however, of Mrs. Klopper and her kind that this irony escapes her.

This inability to connect also characterizes the whites who figure in the parallel story of the ape attacks. Concerned with the creature only insofar as it threatens their own lives and homes (“so long as it attacked other people’s cats and dogs, frightened other people’s maids—that was other people’s affair,” says the narrator), they are unable to band together to find a solution to their common problem. Thus, the ape becomes an appropriately ominous symbol of apartheid itself, “something out there” that serves to expose the amorality of an entire nation.