Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608
Boesman, a “colored” (mixed-race) South African in his fifties. He and his wife, Lena, wander along the mudflats of a South African river after being driven away from their home by white authorities as part of a slum clearance. Boesman’s personality is shown in how he reacts to this situation: He accepts his and Lena’s bleak life with a hardened demeanor. That this dispossession is the latest in a series of such incidents in Boesman and Lena’s lives helps to explain Boesman’s cynical personality. His manner is exemplified by his refusal to stop and ponder why he and Lena—or, in fact, South Africa’s nonwhites as a group—suffer such a grim fate as his and Lena’s. Boesman believes that asking such questions of existence is futile. He believes that it is sufficient to know only the surface of life, merely to endure what life deals, and not to question or complain. For these reasons, Boesman is in conflict with Lena, and that conflict constitutes the major tension of the play. Boesman’s rationale for his feelings that he and Lena must concentrate solely on the present and not probe into the reasons for the hardships of their existence is that life is solely the present and that the past—or how he and Lena got to the present—is irrelevant. These beliefs are central to Boesman’s and the play’s development. The height of both the play’s and Boesman’s development comes when he reveals why he holds the beliefs he does about his and Lena’s condition. He reveals that a main component of his personality is his disillusionment with the powerless life he has led, believing that his and Lena’s lives themselves—and not merely their situation—are futile and meaningless. Thus, the plot of the play hinges on Boesman’s reactions to and interpretation of his and Lena’s plight and how the two of them clash on these issues.
Lena, Boesman’s wife, a mixed-race woman in her fifties. A major aspect of her personality is her compulsion to ask why their situation is as bleak as it is. One of the major aspects of Lena’s outlook on life is her belief in questioning: She clearly believes that for life to be worth living, one must examine it. Lena, for example, unlike Boesman, wants to delve into the past, to retrace their steps so she can know how the two of them arrived at their present situation. Another main component of Lena’s personality, unlike Boesman’s, is that Lena regrets their lack of companionship, in terms of their relationships both with each other and with the outside world.
Old African, a man of an unspecified age who is, according to the author, the quintessence of old age and decay. He meets Boesman and Lena on the mudflats. His presence is important in showing the futility of Lena’s desire for communication with others (he speaks only Xhosa, which Lena does not understand) and in making clear the frustrating nature of humanity’s desire to overcome loneliness, for he also wishes to communicate with Lena about his exhaustion, the fact that he is lost, and his own impending death. The appearance of Old African heightens the conflict between Boesman and Lena. To Lena, the man is a possible link to humanity; to Boesman, he is merely an anonymous and intrusive old black man. The Old African, therefore, serves two purposes: to show Lena’s need for human companionship and to develop the tension and contrast between Boesman and Lena.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 406
Much of Boesman's character is defined by his class status in his society. Boesman is of mixed-race descent, and therefore considered "coloured" by South African standards. Like the blacks of his world, he has been segregated from white society and denied access to good employment, housing, education, and all of the other things that provide dignity and a quality standard of living to individuals in developed communities. Instead, he has been forced to live on the periphery of the prosperous white world, collecting scraps and constantly moving from one shantytown to the next. His response is to take out his anger and frustrations on the only people in his world who are considered part of a lower class than himself: Lena, his companion and a coloured woman, and Outa, an old black man they meet along the road.
Boesman, a man in his fifties, has obviously mistreated Lena for a long time. At the beginning of the play, she wears bruises from a beating he gave her that morning and complains, "Ja, that's the way it is. When I want to cry, you want to laugh.’’ Boesman has few opportunities in his daily life to feel a sense of power and control, so he seizes them whenever he can. He taunts Lena for her ignorance and drunkenness, which have caused her to forget all of the places they have visited, and continually threatens her with additional beatings. Lashing out physically, however, is his way of covering his own sense of inadequacy and shame. As Lena says, ‘‘When Boesman doesn't understand something, he hits it.’’
Outa's arrival presents a challenge for Boesman. The old black man is an easy target for Boesman the bully, but Lena has taken a genuine interest in him, and even Boesman recognizes he can only push so far. He is jealous of the attention Lena showers on the stranger, and he calls the old man a "kaffer'' (a derogatory term for blacks used in South Africa), but he doesn't seriously harm Outa until after he is dead. Then he takes out all of the frustrations of his miserable day and miserable existence on the lifeless corpse of the old man. At the end of the play, faced with Lena's very real threat that she will leave him, Boesman gives in to her and recites the names of all the towns and homesteads they have occupied as they shuffle off down the road.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 380
Lena is a "coloured'' woman in her fifties in a society that does not value her race or her gender but, though she occupies one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder, she is probably the strongest character in the play. Lena talks nonstop. Thinking out loud seems to help her bring order to her chaotic world, and the occasional feedback she receives from her companion, Boesman, even though it is usually abusive, is nonetheless affirmation that she still exists and that others hear her cries. At first, Lena seems to be the victim in an oppressive relationship with Boesman. He insults her and beats her regularly, and her body shows the bruises and scars of her hard life on the road as well as his mistreatment. It is soon evident, however, that she is actually a very strong woman. Despite the constant threat of Boesman's abuse, she never hesitates to stand up to him and match his physical blows with her verbal ones.
While Boesman's crutch is violence, Lena leans on alcohol whenever she can to help her get through cold nights living outdoors and to forget, if only for a while, the hopelessness she often feels. Unlike Boesman, however, Lena also seems interested in finding genuine happiness in her surroundings. It is this interest that causes her to seek out the company of Outa, the old man they meet on the mudflats. While Boesman has only contempt for the ragged old black man, Lena sees in him the opportunity to form a bond with another human being. Even though she can't speak his language, Lena tells Outa all about her travels with Boesman, and even tries to get him to sing and dance with her. After Outa dies, Lena reveals her ability to think more deeply and more philosophically than her companion. Weighing the miserable life she leads against the alternative of death, Lena, much like Shakespeare's Hamlet, concludes, ‘‘Can't throw yourself away before your time. Hey, Outa. Even you had to wait for it.’’ In Outa's death, Lena finds a strange sort of release. She agrees to continue her travels with Boesman, knowing all the while that she is free and capable of trekking off on her own should she ever choose to follow that path.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 243
Outa is the nickname Lena gives to the old black man she and Boesman meet out on the mudflats of the Swartkops River. It is a kindly name that means ‘‘old father,’’ and reflects the respect with which she tries to treat the stranger. Lena spots him sitting in the mud not far from their campground and, despite Boesman's protests, invites him to share their campfire, their tea, and their bread. Outa speaks Xhosa, a tribal South African language, and no English, so not much is discovered about his past or his personality. He is obviously weak and sick, and can only manage to prop himself up on a log and mutter continuously while Lena rambles on to him about her life and travels and occasionally spars with Boesman. Outa's most important function in the play is as a foil, a character who does not contribute significantly to the plot of the play, but instead provides other characters a chance to reveal hidden and important aspects of their own personalities. As Lena's foil, Outa provides her the chance to take on the brief role of mother and caregiver, and to extend her contact with people beyond her abusive companion, Boesman. Through Outa's death, Lena achieves a greater sense of understanding of her world and independence from Boesman. She is able to weigh her suffering against the alternative, a death like Outa's, and to choose to look toward the future, whatever it may hold.