Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The narrator, the Magistrate, administrates a town on the frontier of an unnamed empire. He looks forward to a quiet retirement and spends some of his free time excavating the site of an old town buried in the dunes, where he has found a cache of wooden slips covered with mysterious writing. Colonel Joll travels to the Magistrate’s town from the imperial capital to investigate attacks by indigenous people whom the empire calls “barbarians.” Joll interrogates and tortures two prisoners captured on the road, a boy and his grandfather. After killing the grandfather, he continues the torture until the boy confesses that his people, the barbarians, are preparing an attack against the empire. Troubled by these acts of torture and skeptical about the barbarian threat, the Magistrate gives Joll supplies, men, and horses to conduct a raid on the nomadic barbarians.

Joll returns with more prisoners, whom he interrogates over five days. The Magistrate spends his nights with a prostitute, but he is troubled by dreams. Joll eventually returns to the capital, and the Magistrate releases and feeds the brutalized captives.

The Magistrate takes in a young barbarian woman who was maimed and partially blinded by the interrogators, then left behind by the surviving barbarians. He initiates a nightly ritual in which he rubs her body with oil until he falls asleep. The girl works as a kitchen maid in the Magistrate’s house during the day and comes to his rooms every night. The Magistrate is fascinated by the scars left by the torturers.

The Magistrate begins to have a dream that recurs later, in which he approaches a group of children playing in the snow. He associates one of the children with the barbarian girl. In waking life, he finds the barbarian girl impenetrable—a blank surface—and wonders if that is what the torturers felt as well. Through the girl, he begins to discover his complicity with the torturers. Failing to find the desire to have intercourse with the barbarian girl, he resumes his...

(The entire section is 828 words.)

Waiting for the Barbarians Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Waiting for the Barbarians is narrated by a man known only as the Magistrate, who administers an outpost of an unnamed empire. The time and place of the novel’s plot are also unspecified, and these indeterminacies allow the reader to perceive the events as universal. The novel begins with the arrival of Colonel Joll from the Third Empire, which has declared war against the “barbarians,” the natives indigenous to the area. Among the captives, the Magistrate witnesses the killing of an old man and the torture of a young boy. Later, he encounters a young woman whose body bears the visible cruelties of the empire.

It is in his relationship with the young woman that the Magistrate begins to reexamine the goals of the empire. Before Joll’s arrival, the Magistrate had lived without incident among the natives; some of his leisure time was spent excavating and deciphering the artifacts of those who had lived there before him. In the young “barbarian” woman, the Magistrate begins to understand that he, along with those in the service of the empire, helped to destroy an innocent and peaceful civilization. After the Magistrate embarks on a journey to return the woman to her people, he is perceived as an enemy of the state, and, upon his return, is tortured, humiliated, and imprisoned. This process allows the Magistrate to recognize his body’s vulnerability; the honesty and authority of his body’s pain expresses essential realities ignored by...

(The entire section is 421 words.)

Waiting for the Barbarians Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Waiting for the Barbarians is the meditative and melancholy tale of an aging colonial magistrate’s futile struggle against the stupidity, brutality, and racism of a government which he has served complacently all of his life. The unnamed magistrate is reluctant to take any action which would disrupt the pleasant and secure course of his life; he wishes to serve out his days “on this lazy frontier, waiting to retire,” spending his time engaged in “hunting and hawking and placid concupiscence.” Yet he goes gradually from being the reluctant associate of Colonel Joll, one of the Empire’s “new men,” to being an enemy and then a victim of Joll and the Empire. Waiting for the Barbarians charts the course of the magistrate’s curious rebellion and records his emotional and philosophical struggles with his changing role.

The novel opens with the arrival of Colonel Joll at the border town where the magistrate is the chief administrator. Joll has come under “emergency powers” to investigate reports that the barbarian tribes are preparing for war. Joll, a specialist in interrogation, investigates the rumors by torturing first an old man and his grandson (the man dies) and then a pitiful group of nomadic peoples and aborigines whom he has captured on an expedition into the frontier wilderness.

When Joll completes his inquiries into the “truth” and departs for the capital, the magistrate attempts to repair the damage done by Joll and to revive the old, peaceful ways of life. One barbarian woman, whose ankles Joll broke and whose eyes he punctured in his search for the truth, is left behind when the prisoners are released and return to the barbarian lands. The magistrate takes her into his household and concentrates on this abandoned young woman his compulsive efforts both to dissociate himself from the Third Bureau and to atone for the sins of the Bureau and his complicity in those sins. Furthermore, he is, at his age, increasingly concerned about what makes life worth living, about how and if one can resist torture or evil or complicity with evil. As a member of a civilized, patriarchal society, he has been led to believe that value is associated with reason, power, and material comfort. He is desperate to understand how this barbarian girl could have lived through the pain and humiliation of torture; how she, in her crippled state, is able to laugh, to smile, to accept her fate, and to live in a positive way. His ritualistic care for the girl (every night he bathes and dries her, massages her feet and ankles, and anoints her naked body with almond oil) is on the surface the opposite of Joll’s brutalization of her, but the magistrate comes to recognize that the reality of the...

(The entire section is 1116 words.)