Waiting for the Barbarians Questions and Answers
by J. M. Coetzee

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What does the Magistrate think of his cultural identity?

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One of the most notable features of Waiting for the Barbarians is the troubled nature of the Magistrate’s reflections on his moral identity (and the moral identity of his culture).

In his private thoughts, the novel’s narrator is mired in history — his own history and the histories of others — yet he is unable to get outside of a certain, delimiting sense of life that he has adopted over time in the outpost town.

After he has lost his belief in the validity of imperial morality, the magistrate reflects on the failure of his efforts to escape the limits placed on him by history. Very late in the novel, he makes an admission with characteristic honesty, “I wanted to live outside history. I wanted to live outside the history that the Empire imposes on its subjects, even its lost subjects.” Having failed to connect with the barbarian girl and having failed to persuade Joll about the folly of his imperial orders, the magistrate has also fallen again into a nostalgia for life at the outpost and taken up his old position.

Despite a very real attempt to achieve an honest understanding of his values, his desires and his loyalties, the Magistrate fails to overcome the limitations of identity that history has created for him. Instead, the protagonist remains engaged in a spiritual dilemma wherein he ponders his intractable connection to his culture and to his cultural history.

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