Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610

Boesman and Lena has several important themes, one of which echoes the classical Greek saying that an unexamined life is not worth living. This statement is especially relevant to Boesman, who continually dismisses Lena’s questions regarding why their lives are as they are and how they came to their present condition. Boesman dismisses these questions angrily and derisively, showing his resolve not to examine his life too closely. He is determined throughout most of the play to accept without question their situation as dispossessed people. This determination is the source of his conflict with Lena. In opposition to Boesman, Lena wants to believe that their lives are not meaningless and isolated, but valuable and witnessed by others. This desire for a witness reveals Lena’s need for a human community outside of Boesman, who does not fulfill her need. It also explains Lena’s illusion of talking with the old African, although they do not speak the same language or understand each other. To Boesman, on the other hand, the man is merely an old Kaffir and he wishes to continue in isolation.

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Boesman and Lena also displays, as Athol Fugard himself acknowledges, the influence of the French existentialist Albert Camus. Camus’s works deal with the precariousness of human existence, the apparent meaninglessness of life, and how people react to this threat of meaninglessness. These themes are all found in Boesman and Lena, in the opposing ways in which each faces their continual dispossession and deprivation. The theme of abuse of another person is central to the play; Boesman emotionally and physically abuses Lena. Boesman’s reason for being so abusive is complex. Initially, it seems that Lena thwarts Boesman’s desire to avoid thinking about the condition of their lives. By the end of the play, one sees that Boesman is angry at himself for his powerlessness and angry at the whites who put him in such a situation. He chooses, then, a safe target in Lena, who is physically defenseless and emotionally undermined by him.

Another important factor is that the play is both about the conflict between Boesman and Lena and about the South African situation, with the latter theme subtly presented in the references to other nonwhite people being dispossessed of their homes. This theme constitutes the social protest aspect of the play. It raises the larger social issue of South Africa’s policies concerning the land during this period. These policies sanctioned removal of nonwhites from certain locations so that whites could use the land (slum clearance is the reason mentioned in the play). Thus, the play’s subject is larger than the interpersonal conflict between the two title characters.

The quest for, and acceptance of, the truth constitutes another important theme. To a degree, even Boesman finally accepts some truths that he had avoided—for example, his real bitterness at the white power structure and his anger at the people who scramble to obey it. The theme of facing the truth, however, applies especially to Lena. In the face of Boesman’s derision, she continues to question and to try to examine her life. She wants to know the meaning behind the impoverished and chaotic reality with which she is faced. Thus, Lena’s carrying her bundle—her life—on her head is symbolic: She carries her life on her head because she reflects on her life in her head. She is not a mindless automaton in the face of cruelty and deprivation. Thus, in a sense, the play is hopeful, though it may seem overwhelmingly bleak, for Lena succeeds in continuing her quest for meaning and for a link to humanity.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1247

In a world in which every movement is monitored, controlled, and...

(The entire section contains 1857 words.)

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  • Summary
  • Act Summaries
  • Themes
  • Characters
  • Critical Essays
  • Analysis
  • Teaching Guide
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