Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Wanderers is an autobiographical novel that recounts the author’s life (with minor changes) from the time of his escape to Nigeria in 1957 to his departure from Africa in 1966. Yet Mphahlele shapes this account of his life to emphasize certain themes.

His primary concern is the nature of exile, specifically the exile’s search for a free place. Mphahlele develops this theme through the intertwined lives of Tabane and Cartwright. The rootless wandering of this quest is emphasized by the book’s rambling structure and its frequent shifts of time, place, and narrative point of view. In part, Tabane chooses exile because he is afraid of being overwhelmed by hatred, but he discovers that a tremendous burden of guilt accompanies his departure from his native land. Perhaps more important is his realization that “even in one’s own country one’s an exile of a kind,” and that exile is a state of mind as well as a physical dislocation.

The novel also expresses Mphahlele’s belief in traditional African humanism, “the divine power that is in man.” It is a philosophy that teaches that “you are a person because of other people.” Thus, Mphahlele’s humanism emphasizes man’s communal responsibilities as well as underscoring each individual’s responsibility to be actively engaged in an attempt to control his own destiny. Unfortunately, such self-realization is thwarted by the oppressive system of apartheid in South Africa, but Felang’s active resistance and Naledi’s ability to survive cultural change and personal tragedy suggest faith in the human spirit and the hope that a better future can exist.