Themes and Meanings
Michael’s final rejection of the black children is at once a symbolic and a literal act. By ordering them never to return, he is trying to reject their dreaded Africanness, which gradually becomes a persistent irritant to him. Michael, therefore, may be regarded as the embodiment of the white South African’s conscious or unconscious wish to rid himself of the gnawing demands of black intransigence.
To this extent the story may be read as an allegory, but it is also a sensitive and incisive treatment of the moral ambivalence dividing an essentially decent youngster. Michael’s instinctive empathy for the black children is established early in the story. The children’s touching dependence on each other is particularly appealing to Michael, whose need for a sibling as well as parental affection and attention is implicit in his behavior. Even though the children are “identical in appearance to a hundred, a thousand, other piccanins,” they become increasingly individualized to Michael as his contacts with them increase. The apartheid system will not permit him to relate to the children on a personal, affectionate level, but his own sensitive humanity can safely do so in dream and fantasy. Even so, Michael does make tentative attempts to reach out to the piccanins in the harsh world of reality. For example, his questions, which are ostensibly innocent and paternalistic, conceal Michael’s desire to know them as persons. Therein lies the source of the tragedy. Michael’s revelation—it reminds one of a Joycean epiphany—comes, significantly, in dream: His hatred of the piccanins is mutual, and it is the inevitable product of the mores of his particular society. There is more: Michael understands that the piccanins require love as much as bread. This understanding comes too late; he has lost the moment. The human urge to give love, which does not recognize racial differences in its pristine stages, has been frustrated in both black and white.