Comment on the relationship between a barbarian girl and the magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians.

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e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The magistrate's relationship with the barbarian girl is complex, symbolic and troubling. This relationship also provides the magistrate with an opportunity for catharsis and expiation.

In his reflections in the narrative, the magistrate recognizes the complexity of his relationship to the young woman:

The girl lies in my bed, but there is no good reason why it should be a bed. I behave in some ways like a lover—I undress her, I bathe her, I stroke her, I sleep beside her—but I might equally well tie her to a chair and beat her, it would be no less intimate.

Much older than the barbarian girl, the magistrate relates to the girl in some ways as a father would. He cares for her and comforts her. Yet he is also her lover. She has been left behind and is effectively orphaned, though she is no longer a child.  She is a representative of her people, but she is effectively silent and does not speak the magistrate's language.  

By taking possession of the young woman, who is injured and orphaned, the magistrate has a chance to undo some of the damage that his society has inflicted on the barbarians. Relatedly, she figures into his contemplations on his relationship to his society, its evils, and its indifference. 

...he is, at his age, increasingly concerned about what makes life worth living, about how and if one can resist torture or evil or complicity with evil.

In an act that becomes a self-sacrifice, the magistrate returns the woman to her people. This leads to his own punishment, torture and ostracism. The penance he had already paid in comforting and caring for the barbarian woman proves too little. 

The woman becomes an even more complicated symbol when the magistrate is punished for actions taken to return her to her people. She is no longer a puzzling sufferer but is part of the machinery of his own punishment. Despite his efforts to understand the barbarian woman, the magistrate fails, even after his own incarceration. 

She resists both the torturer’s and the lover’s efforts to know her “secret,” perhaps because she has no secret.

The insight that the magistrate seeks, finally, can only come from himself in a realization of humility; a realization that he cannot remove the aura of enigma even from himself. He ends as he begins, with the same unanswered questions. 

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Waiting for the Barbarians

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