Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 865

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A primitive hovel in the garbage-strewn ghetto of Korsten, a multiracial district on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, symbolizes the ultimate reduction in circumstances that forces two brothers to come to terms with each other and with the realities of life in South Africa. Athol Fugard set The Blood Knot in a cramped shack on the front of the stage so that the audience is located, uncomfortably, in the midst of the brothers’ world. The most basic issue of the play—“you and me,” as Fugard states it—is overwhelming and inescapable. “If there is a human predicament, this is it,” Fugard says in his introduction to the text. “You are the other man, bound in his fate, tied to his life.” Neither character can escape, nor can the audience, but as the play proceeds, neither character wants to avoid responsibility. If the play succeeds, the audience will not want to escape either.

The two brothers are superficially very different. Morris had tried to simplify his life by operating behind the disguise of his light skin until he learned that he feels more at ease with himself if he accepts his real identity rather than living in constant dread and uncertainty. He has the ability to read and write, which gives him a temporary form of escape—he can create images of beauty through language and can sustain a dream through the process of organizing and planning a project. Zachariah is very dark-skinned and has no interest in “education.” He cannot read and usually does not worry about it. He is very angry about the racial injustice in South Africa and direct in his expressions of resentment; he is explosive and impulsive. Both men have had to come to terms with what Fugard calls “the constant emasculation of Manhood by the South African ’way of life’—guilt, prejudice, fear, all conspiring together finally to undermine the ability to love directly and forthrightly.”

Although the two men have been living together for a year, they have not really come to terms with each other. Morrie is trying to compensate for the privileges he has had, and Zachariah is trying to forgive Morrie (he resents his advantages), but the men have not yet learned how to work together beyond their agreement to share space, provisions, and time. Both are making an effort, but many things still separate them. Ironically, one of these things is hope, and they must learn to reject the possibilities of a delusory dream before they can really understand each other. Zachariah dreams of a trouble-free existence, Morrie of a utopian partnership in an unspoiled gardenlike wilderness. Neither is possible, but both men pretend that the future will radically transform their lives. Morrie is trying to draw Zachariah into his dream because he still feels guilty about his earlier desertion, and Zachariah tolerates his efforts because he senses Morrie’s goodwill, but until they compose the letter to their potential pen pal, they have not really done anything as a joint effort.

The letter-writing project, which drives the dramatic narration, is the means through which the brothers move toward a real understanding of each other, an understanding which makes brotherhood and love possible. As the project develops, the point of view that each expresses gradually evokes a sympathetic response in the other. Morrie sees the political realities of a letter to a white woman, while Zachariah reacts on a purely human level; Morrie explains his return to Korsten by saying that he had thought, “Maybe he needs you,” which is the complement of “Maybe you need him.” When Zachariah wants to purchase a fine suit for Morrie so he can at least think about what it would be like to project a presence that guarantees respect, Morrie realizes that he has rejected something that Zachariah could only vaguely yearn for.

The dramatic revelation that explains the necessity for Morrie’s return—his admission that “I thought I left you behind”—is objectified by his description of how he thought he was locked on the wrong side of a park gate while posing as a white man. The realization he comes to is that both sides of the gate are wrong. There is no place for them in South African society, and as Fugard puts it at the end of the play, they “wake up to find themselves heavy, hopeless, almost prostrate on the earth . . . [they] are men who are going to try to live without hope, without appeal.” All that they have is a true home where they can be open and free with each other, a “lucid knowledge,” which may not be enough to resist despair but is better than the deceptions that have heretofore structured their lives. In a statement illustrating the quiet courage that he has earned, Morrie seems stronger than at any other time in the play. “I think there’s quite a lot of people getting by without futures these days,” he says. If his words cannot provide much comfort to him and his brother, they are at least the expression of an honest thought, and Zachariah says, “I’m a man with a taste for thought these days.”