Waiting for the Barbarians Essay - Critical Evaluation

J. M. Coetzee

Critical Evaluation

J. M. Coetzee was born and raised in South Africa, a descendent of the Dutch colonists called Afrikaners. A linguist and literary scholar, he is one of the most highly honored contemporary writers. Among his many awards, Coetzee has twice received the prestigious Man Booker Prize. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.

Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee’s third novel, explores themes such as self-knowledge, the causes of inhumanity, and the difference between historical time and natural time. The Magistrate comes to understand his own role in the oppression of the native people as “the lie that Empire tells itself when times are easy.” He also muses that the Empire, which is obsessed with its own preservation, forces people to live by historical time rather than by the seasonal rhythms of natural time. Children symbolize the ability to live in natural time. The novel’s final image of the town’s children building a snowman represents a return to life in harmony with nature.

The image of the children working on the snowman evokes another major theme: the body as a site of power. The Magistrate at first believes that Colonel Joll’s torture techniques are intended to uncover the truth. After he himself is tortured, he realizes that the torturer’s main goal is not to elicit a confession, truthful or otherwise, but simply to reduce the subject to a hurt body that can no longer resist through reasoning or language. While the body is vulnerable, however, it also resists in its own way, as the Magistrate learns when his sex drive and appetite reassert themselves as he recovers from his injuries.

Much of the critical discussion of Waiting for the Barbarians has focused on its historical and political context. Specifically, critics have...

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