Study Guide

A Walk in the Night

by Alex La Guma

A Walk in the Night Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

As A Walk in the Night begins, Michael Adonis jumps down from a truck into the chaos of traffic occasioned by workers returning home at the end of the day. He nurses a growing anger, having been fired from his job at a sheet-metal factory for swearing at a white foreman who accused him of being lazy when he requested permission to go to the bathroom. Moving through a ghetto world of prostitutes, gangsters, and thugs, Michael stops at a Portuguese cafe, where he meets Willieboy, an acquaintance, and shares with him resentful anger at having lost his job. As Willieboy boasts of not even trying to find legitimate work, Foxy’s gang enters the cafe, looking for Sockies, a member of the gang, in order to do a burglary that night. Foxy teases Michael for being “a good boy,” and Michael leaves the cafe shortly after the gang does. He wanders the streets, noting foreign investments in businesses and giving Joe, a young boy who lives on the beach and in the streets, money for a meal. While trying to walk off his anger, Michael is stopped by the police and is searched for marijuana. Before going home, he stops in a pub where he swaps stories about tough-guy film heroes, compares American and South African racism, and discusses black crimes against blacks in the ghetto.

Throughout these early, brief chapters, Alex La Guma’s third-person omniscient narrator creates a harshly detailed world of nightmare existence. Life is marginal at best; Michael’s gesture of compassion toward Joe is the exception rather than the rule. When Michael reaches his gloomy tenement, which appears to be “left-overs of a bombed area,” he exchanges a few words with Hazel, a prostitute, and encounters Uncle Doughty, an alcoholic who also lives in the tenement. Doughty insists that Michael join him in his room for a drink; Michael, still seething with anger at the foreman Scofield and enraged by the police harassment, taunts Doughty by withholding his bottle of cheap wine from him. When Doughty begins to mumble lines from Hamlet, “I am thy father’s spirit, doomed . . . to walk the night . . . for the day confined to fast in fires,” and says to him, “That’s us, us, Michael.... Just ghosts, doomed to walk the night,” Michael becomes enraged at what he takes as an insult, drunkenly blurring Doughty’s quotation with the remarks of the foreman. Senselessly and blindly, Michael strikes out at Doughty’s skull, killing him. Immediately, Michael realizes what he has done and retreats to his own room in self-disgust but rationalizing that the old man had “no right living here with us Coloreds.”

Willieboy, meanwhile, decides to try to borrow money from Michael, but when Michael does not answer his door, Willieboy decides to try to borrow from Doughty....

(The entire section is 1130 words.)

A Walk in the Night Bibliography (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Gakwandi, S. A. The Novel and Contemporary Experience in Africa, 1977.

JanMohamed, Abdul R. Alex La Guma: The Literary and Political Functions of Marginality in the Colonial Situation, 1982.

Rabkin, D. “La Guma and Reality in South Africa,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature. VII, no. 1 (1973), pp. 54-62.

Wade, Michael. “Art and Mortality in Alex La Guma’s A Walk in the Night,” in The South African Novel in English: Essays in Criticism and Society, 1979. Edited by Kenneth Parker.

Wanjala, Chris L., ed. Standpoints on African Literature: A Critical Anthology, 1973.