The Waste Land

by Alan Paton
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What is the setting of Alan Paton's story "The Wasteland"?

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Setting refers to the time and place in which events in a story unfold. The setting can also refer to the mood, circumstances, weather, social status of the characters, historical period, and immediate surroundings in which the characters find themselves.

In Alan Paton's short story, the plot unfolds during the evening at the end of a work week (most probably a Friday) when the main character returns home from work carrying his wages. He has just stepped off a bus and has to walk the rest of the way home. The atmosphere is thick with the man's fear, for he realizes that he will be robbed by the young men he has noticed. It is obvious that they plan to accost him, and he is frightened that he might be killed.

Most of the action occurs in an area known as the wasteland—a place filled with discarded waste and derelict cars. The man realizes that it is the only place he can go to escape being robbed and hurt. It is very dark, and the abandoned cars and other trash mean that he can hide and evade his malicious pursuers.

In the darkness, the man strikes at a figure looming up at him, and he hears it cry out in pain. He eventually escapes by hiding underneath a truck. He ironically learns that his son, Freddy, is a member of the gang who planned to accost him when they speak about him, and one mentions that "your father's got away." His son had evidently arranged, with the gang, to attack him and take his hard-earned money. It is also tragically ironic that the man discovers that the young man he had hit with his heavy stick has died, and that it is his son.

The story illustrates the kind of crime prevalent in the townships of South Africa, especially during the Apartheid era. Black people were displaced and forced into areas where poverty and crime were allowed to fester and grow. The authorities did very little to fight crime in such areas, and this, amongst other atrocities, led to the type of situation depicted in the story.

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"The Wasteland" takes place in a South African town at night. More specifically, the setting is a lot with old cars, wire, and iron. The story takes place during apartheid, the system of legal racial segregation that was in place in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. The protagonist, an old man pursued by robbers, must escape to this lot because the only other place in sight is a convent, which has been barred to the public. In this lot, the old man at first runs into wire and cars, and the lot is so dark that he cannot see his attackers. In this darkness, he hits one of the men pursuing him with a stick. He then has the insight to hide beneath a truck, where he realizes that the man he has killed is his son, who urged the other men to attack his own father.

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