Burger's Daughter

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Nadine Gordimer weaves a number of themes together in this book to produce a moving narrative which dramatizes the cost of South Africa’s racist social policies. The setting is the segregated society of South Africa in all its complexity. With spies for the white government everywhere, life is a constant struggle within rigid limitations on personal movement, personal relationships, and social and professional opportunities. Against this backdrop we meet Lionel Burger, a doctor turned Communist, who early in the book dies in prison where he is being held for his efforts in behalf of black liberation. His death leaves his daughter alone in the world, her mother having died earlier as a consequence of her own imprisonment on similar charges.

Rosa, faced with all the usual complexities of growing up and finding her own sense of identity, discovers that her personal problems are complicated by her status as the daughter of a hero, since she is the object of constant government surveillance. Trained from youth in the complex need for duplicity and secrecy, Rosa finds that her own life must be surrounded by a web of deceit. As a result, she finds that she cannot attain the kind of self-expression that is her right as a human being. She is not free to be spontaneous; every action must be guarded and self-consciously planned in terms of how it will appear to others. Not sure that she shares her parents’ dedication to the black cause, she finds that others expect this of her. Unable to embrace her past, she learns that she cannot escape it either, since she is forbidden to leave the country.

At the end of a long effort, she finally gains a one-year travel permit to go to Europe, as long as she avoids contact with people whom the government has reason to suspect of antigovernment sympathies. While in Europe, she discovers what it is like to live in a country where one does not have to be ashamed of a white skin. She also discovers new perspectives on her past when she visits a woman who was married to her father before he married her mother. Here, also, she meets and becomes the lover of Bernard, through whom she finds a sense of self, as well as the space and time to feel and think for herself, to experience...

(The entire section is 912 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Burger’s Daughter is divided into three parts. The first part begins in South Africa in 1962 when Rosa Burger is fourteen years old and takes her through her father’s imprisonment for communist activities and the death of both parents, her brief affair with the nomad Conrad, her education and work as a physiotherapist, her turning away from a life dedicated to the Communist Party, and her departure for Europe in 1975. Part 2 tells the story of Rosa’s year in Nice, France, with Katya Bagnelli, her father’s first wife, and Katya’s bohemian expatriate group, a year highlighted by Rosa’s intense affair with a married man, Bernard Chabalier. Part 3 begins with Rosa’s abrupt return to Johannesburg just as journalist and Party member Orde Greer goes on trial, and it concludes a year later, in 1977, with Rosa’s own imprisonment and her prospect of a clouded future as Burger’s daughter.

Sections of the novel are narrated by an omniscient third-person witness, but much of the story is told in Rosa’s words. Early on Rosa explains, “One is never talking to oneself, always one is addressed to someone.” This device establishes the inner monologues, frequently to Conrad, through which Rosa’s story unfolds, and it creates a coherent central consciousness.

Close attention is demanded in reading Burger’s Daughter. There are sudden changes in point of view and leaps in chronology, usually with little transition. Minor characters appear and disappear, showing up again many pages later. The substitution of dashes for the usual quotation marks around dialogue can be...

(The entire section is 661 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Nadine Gordimer is one of the most distinguished novelists of the twentieth century, and Burger’s Daughter is one of her greatest accomplishments. She has won many prizes: the Booker Prize from England, the Malaparte Prize from Italy, the Nelly Sachs Prize from West Germany, the Scottish Arts Council’s Neil Gunn Fellowship, the Grand Aigle d’Or from France, and the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature. South Africa, with all of its racial agonies, is her milieu, and she explores it with close attention to the details of everyday life there. Her protagonists are frequently liberal, white, middle-class women whose best intentions are often confounded by the many traps apartheid lays for human relationships. Elizabeth Van Den Sandt in The Late Bourgeois World (1966), Maureen Smales in July’s People (1981), and Hillela Capran in A Sport of Nature (1987) are examples. Other novels and short stories have male protagonists, but in all instances the same respect for human dignity is paramount.

Many of the characters in Burger’s Daughter could easily be parodied, but Gordimer always develops her characters with compassion and understanding. One of the aging women in Katya Bagnelli’s circle, for example, keeps a gigolo for his sexual services, a practice that the others accept in good humor. Sexual needs are human needs, and human nature is to be granted a wide latitude as long as it eschews selfishness and does not trespass. The lesbians and homosexual men are accorded the same frank assimilation into the group. The gigolo, Didier, tells Rosa that “the premise is accepted by everybody: live where it’s warm, buy, sell, or take pleasure honestly—that is, according to your circumstances.” Gordimer’s vision is not a feminist one. It is a humanist vision that gratifies women and men alike by celebrating their possibilities and hoping for their redemption.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Boyers, Robert. “Public and Private: On Burger’s Daughter,” in Salmagundi. LXII (Winter, 1984), pp. 62-92.

Cooke, John. The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: Private Lives/Public Landscapes. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985. The chapter “Leaving the Mother’s House” explicates Burger’s Daughter in the light of Gordimer’s explanation that the novel originated in her sympathy for the children of South African communists. Their parents’ frequent imprisonment worked great hardship on these children. Cooke stresses the betrayal of Burger’s cause represented by Rosa’s seeking a passport from an Afrikaner functionary and by her taking up with Katya, Burger’s nonpolitical first wife. An excellent bibliography is included.

Driver, Dorothy. “Nadine Gordimer: The Politicisation of Women.” In Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer, edited by Rowland Smith. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. Gordimer attempts to escape her white consciousness and to free white consciousness in general from its “colonial strictures,” Driver argues. Gordimer “draws on sexuality as a common bond between men and women” and “draws on gender identity as a common bond between women.”

Gordimer, Nadine. “Why Did Bram Fischer Choose Jail?” New York Times Magazine, August 14, 1966,...

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