The Fletchers represent the two main elements in the white population of South Africa. She is Afrikaner, the daughter of a Boer pioneer who was a powerful man of considerable distinction; in marrying a British South African, she clearly believes that she has married beneath her station. Her crime against Joseph’s sister—the baby has been abandoned and perhaps even murdered—derived from family pride: her sense that she had to save her brother from public shame. Yet she is more quietly racist than her husband. His speeches to his two young guests are a wild mix of spurious racist doctrine, insane misinterpretations of history, and apocalyptic predictions about nuclear warfare and the end of civilization. In his paranoia, he raves about how dark-skinned people threaten the integrity of the white race and how “we” must stick together against “them.” The Fletchers remain together in their racist fortress, but they obviously do so only in spite of their corrosive resentment of each other.
If they have made a purgatory of their lives, Ignatius Louw is in a kind of hell. He has let himself be “saved” by his sister, who cared less for his happiness than for his reputation as a member of their family. He seems to be tormented by guilt for what he has permitted the Fletchers to do, and he says that he desired his black mistress as he had never desired anything in his life. It is also possible, however, that he committed miscegenation as an act of defiance against his society, his family, and his father, whose picture, glaring down from the wall, he smashes in his rage.
The narrator and Frank are decent young men who really are what Fletcher tells them they are—the hope of South Africa. When they arrive at the farm they are still innocents, and when they leave they have grown up. Listening to Joseph tell them his story, the narrator feels as if he is again a child at home, listening to one of the black servants tell him stories. Joseph’s story, however, is not make-believe; it actually happened, and the narrator realizes as he listens to it that it requires a moral response.
Joseph is the most fully rounded character in the novel, the one most capable of surprising the reader. On the one hand, he balances Mrs. Fletcher in his concern for his family. He is certain that he will never see his sister again, and he wants desperately to find her child, who is his family’s only link to the future. On the other hand, he also wants to use the situation to his own advantage. Realizing that he is doomed to a life on the Fletcher farm, he is determined to make the most of it. At the end of the novel, Fletcher, the paranoiac racist, and his African victim are comically chained together, with Fletcher “dancing” to Joseph’s words.
The narrator, a university student who hitchhikes with his friend Frank from Lyndhurst (probably modeled on Kimberley) to Cape Town. Marooned in a small, isolated Karroo village, he finds lodging for the night at Fletcher’s home. A student of literature, he is humane in his attitude toward Africans, in part because of his fond memories of his family’s African servants; he cannot, however, entirely escape the attitudes that are inevitable in a member of a socially superior caste. Essentially innocent when they arrive at the Fletcher residence, he and Frank feel as if they have grown up after spending the night there.
Frank, the narrator’s friend, a medical student. A tall and rather awkward boy who dresses carelessly, he is shy and even timid, but he is a careful observer of people with a lively and almost clinical interest in human behavior. Described by the narrator as a clever boy in school, he is quite witty. Because he is not a racist, he makes fun of Fletcher’s racism and his grandiose ideas of “world order” with sardonic remarks that are too subtle for Fletcher to understand. In the novel’s plot, he is a more important character than the narrator because he is...
(The entire section is 1,101 words.)