The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Nadine Gordimer’s protagonist is a masterfully drawn character, seen in the full context of her life and times (some details of which the reader learns in flashback). It is easy for the reader to believe that he knows virtually everything about Rosa Burger, but on deeper reflection one realizes that Rosa has secrets disclosed neither by her nor by her creator. (The reader comes to know this character about equally through authorial third-person and first-person narration.) It might be better to say that Gordimer, in her portrayal of Rosa, does not so much withhold certain things as merely give the reader hints of them, expecting him to make all the connections for himself. Sometimes this is not so easy to do; Gordimer, indeed, has a reputation for being a difficult writer—and an emotionally cold one. The question here would be whether Rosa has a “cold” personality or is simply so reticent (or is presented so sparingly) that the reader cannot be certain of her true state.

It would certainly be difficult to construct a full picture of Rosa’s sexuality. Gordimer, however, presents a poignant description of Rosa’s first teenage “passion”: At the age of seventeen, she was designated by the Party to act as the “fiancee” of a certain half-Portuguese Communist prisoner named Noel de Witt. Once a week, as his “legal relative,” she would visit him and pass along important messages. She took her role seriously and would shake a few drops of...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Rosemarie (Rosa) Burger, the daughter of white South African Communists, now seeking her own identity. Rosa is a complex, serious young woman who was reared in a household dedicated to the struggle against apartheid. Both of her parents were imprisoned at various times throughout her childhood, and their deaths have now left her emotionally at sea, uncertain whether her identity as “Lionel Burger’s daughter” is one she wants or is able to live up to. The book’s story is that of her slow journey toward self-knowledge and self-acceptance.

Lionel Burger

Lionel Burger, Rosa’s father, a committed Communist activist. He is a hero of the antiapartheid struggle, a well-known figure in whose home blacks and whites are equally welcome. His final imprisonment ruins his health, and he dies in jail. A kind and intelligent man, he leaves a legacy of idealism that is both stifling and overwhelming for his daughter.

Cathy Jansen Burger

Cathy Jansen Burger, Rosa’s mother and Lionel’s second wife, also a committed activist. Cathy Jansen was a young union organizer when she met and married Lionel Burger. The couple had two children, Rosa and a son, Tony, who drowned as a boy. Like her husband, Cathy had a life dedicated to the fight against apartheid. She, too, was imprisoned several times before her death after a long illness.

Colette “Katya” Swan Burger...

(The entire section is 600 words.)