Six Feet of the Country

by Nadine Gordimer
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What is the moral of the story, "Six Feet of the Country," by Nadine Gordimer?

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The moral of the story is that racial division promotes institutional inequalities and the subsequent dehumanization of society.

In the story, Petrus's brother is an illegal immigrant from Rhodesia. He dies after contracting (what is likely) pneumonia during his 700–800 mile journey to Johannesburg. Unfortunately, the health authorities "dispose" of the body after performing a postmortem. The text does not state why the officials neglected to inform the family of their actions. However, we can speculate that the prevailing racial division has precipitated this appalling lack of civility.

The narrator, of course, is asked to be the intermediary between the health authorities and the beleaguered family. What is ironic, however, is that he has as much power to effect change as Petrus's family (which is none). Because of institutional racism, neither the average white nor average black citizen has any influence on the prevailing culture.

Meanwhile, Petrus is so desperate for the return of his brother's body that he is willing to pay an exorbitant twenty pounds for exhumation expenses. However, despite the payment, his brother's body is never recovered. Because the authorities cannot distinguish between the bodies of the "anonymous dead," they send along the body of another dead man, a "heavily-built, rather light-skinned native with a neatly-stitched scar on his forehead."

The almost lackadaisical manner in which the authorities respond to the discrepancy demonstrates the dehumanization that racial division promotes. In fact, this dehumanization is evident at all levels of society. Despite his seeming solicitude, the narrator himself admits that it may be pointless to recover the body of Petrus's brother. After all, he "had no identity in this world anyway." Ominously, despite the rural peace, the black and white communities exist on antagonistic terms. The former defers to the latter, and although there is no violence (as in the cities), the racial divide is clear.

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I'm not sure there is an explicit moral to Gordimer's "Six Feet of the Country." More likely is the fact that her intention is to make readers come to an emotional realization similar to that of her characters.

From one perspective, we see the young man who dies struggling to make a life for himself, risking everything for a better life, all to no avail. In the end, neither he or his family are even capable of purchasing a small parcel of land for a grave.

From another perspective, we see the white employer struggling to make sense of the confusion and tension created by the policies of a bureaucratic government that make such simple tasks so exceedingly difficult simply because of the color of one's skin.

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