Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Toby is a stranger to the apartheid way of life. Yet precisely because he is a stranger, he can objectively observe South Africa’s two distinct and nearly mutually exclusive worlds. He comes to realize that black and white South Africans are strangers to each other. Indeed, Toby sees that for most white South Africans, blacks are something less than human. For example, the authorities abruptly evict an entire African village when miners find uranium on the villagers’ land; a white woman, Stella Turgell, becomes ill from simply thinking about returning to Africa, the continent of savages; and Guy Patterson, Toby’s miner friend, tells Steven that blacks are limited, that they do not have much brain power, and that they are actually “not more than one jump out of the trees.” Furthermore, Cecil is appalled upon learning that Toby’s closest friends in Johannesburg are black men and that Toby actually dines with these blacks: “You know, I can’t imagine it—I mean, a black man next to me at table, talking to me like anyone else. The idea of touching their hands.” Cecil, without thinking, but in a revealing remark, labels her maid “a pet.”

Gordimer uses vivid descriptions to add simultaneously to the theme of separateness and to protest the squalor in which South Africa’s blacks live. Accordingly, in the townships, Toby watches as “filthy black children, ragged and snot-encrusted” scuttle about “like cockroaches.” Moreover, Toby...

(The entire section is 494 words.)