In the novel, what kind of examples show bodies, looks, or vanity as a theme?

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e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The opening line of the novel presents the idea of appearance as an important thematic notion.

"The first thing the midwife noticed about Michael K when she helped him out of his mother was that he had a hare lip. The lip curled like a snail's foot, the left nostril gaped."

As an adult, Michael K "did not have women friends" except for his mother, who also begins to suffer bodily. Anna K is afflicted with a swelling of the limbs that eventually worsens. The family is not exactly bonded in suffering, but their bodies function as a means of division and social isolation to some extent. Anna K finally has to stop working because her condition becomes too extreme.

(In the context of Apartheid, one is tempted to suggest a metaphorical meaning behind Coetzee's depictions of the K family. This is a social-political scenario where the Ks, a black family, are unable to fully enjoy the social infrastructure of schools and hospitals that may have helped to make whole a family of a different genetic background. Instead of being made whole, the family is made dependent on the state in various ways and is under-served in times of need.)

The importance of the body as the locus of experience and the frail vehicle of life is, arguably, the more central intention and meaning behind Coetzee's fixations here. When, for Anna K, the "needs of body became a source of torment" we see a strong foreshadowing of Michael K's eventual plight as he starves in the out-lands.

Hunger and physical need shape and inform the narrative. These forces make Michael K the person he is. Reflecting on his childhood, Michael K thinks about hunger and how it turned him and his friends into "animals who stole from one another's plates and climbed into the kitchen enclosure to rifle the garbage cans for bones and peelings." He grows up and learns to stop wanting.

"Whatever the nature of the beast that had howled inside him, it was starved into stillness."

Throughout the narration of his tale, Michael K is presented in his physical state in ways that suggest this level of experience is at least as real for him as any internal reality might be.

Although this notion seems beyond contention, Michael K is not concerned with his physical appearance as much as others are. The gaunt, tall man is focused on satisfying a profoundly physical need, but only on his own terms. He is not worried about looking skeletal. He also refuses to eat in the hospital, preferring to chance death. He needs, at a physical level, it would seem, to plant seeds and watch them grow.

Read the study guide:
Life and Times of Michael K

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