(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Part 1 of Burger’s Daughter, which takes up more than half the novel, establishes the basic family relationships and social background of the protagonist, Rosemarie, or Rosa, Burger. Her father Lionel, as both physician and disciplined revolutionary, is a man of overwhelming moral integrity who, moreover, dies in prison—a martyr to his beliefs. Rosa’s mother, an equally dedicated Communist, also has spent time in prison, so that the child Rosa learns early to take on adult responsibilities—which include not merely caring for herself and her father but also smuggling messages into the prison. She has grown accustomed to almost total social ostracism from her first days in school. Rosa is, however, spared poverty.

The Burger family seems to have more than enough money. There are black servants (who are treated decently, without condescension) and even an informally adopted black child who is being reared in the family as a son. Party members, whether white, black, or colored (or underground) are continually being quartered at the large family house, sometimes for months at a time. In addition, the family has a swimming pool, which is just as forthrightly and openly integrated racially as the house. Lionel loves to teach young Africans—city dwellers in an arid region—how to swim. It is in this pool, however, that Rosa’s younger brother, Tony, drowns.

By the time she is twenty, Rosa’s parents both have died. She is without a passport in a nation that despises her. Though she has friends—Party members—she tends to avoid them. She lives in a state of existential loneliness—...

(The entire section is 664 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Burger’s Daughter expresses well the author’s contention that “fiction is a way of exploring possibilities present but undreamt of in the living of a single life.” The novel is the evolution of Rosa Burger’s awareness and understanding of the forces that make up the life of her politically active family. It also chronicles the fictitious life of Lionel Burger, a white member of the Communist Party, and the activities that reflect the historical development of South African politics from the 1920’s to the 1970’s. Through the lives of the father and the daughter, Gordimer explores the possibilities present to the Burger family and shows the choices that they make.

One of the novel’s main themes concerns the degree to which an individual is expected to make a political commitment to the life of the republic. Initially, in Rosa’s case, the choice to go against apartheid is in fact the legacy from her family rather than from anything resembling a personal decision. In the course of the novel, Rosa retraces the steps of her family’s past, as she also understands the real and devastating effects of a segregated society. She makes a series of difficult choices that land her in a South African prison at the novel’s end.

The novel begins with Rosa at the age of fourteen, as she waits alongside others who have come to bring supplies and messages to imprisoned loved ones. She is seen in a schoolgirl’s uniform carrying a quilt and a hot-water bottle for her mother, who is in prison. The narrative shifts from this third-person perspective to the voice of Rosa herself as she recounts that event from girlhood, as well as the many others that shape her life.

The tone of the first-person perspective is self-analytical, as it reflects upon Rosa’s personal experiences. She recounts her brother’s death by drowning; her mother’s death by multiple sclerosis; the intense love relationship with a man named Conrad; the imprisonment and death of her father;...

(The entire section is 819 words.)