Themes and Meanings

Nadine Gordimer’s “The Defeated” reveals the strong class system of South Africa in the mid-twentieth century—a system based on the exploitation of the labor of others by the ruling class. The most obvious underclass is made up of Africans who work in the mine owned by the narrator’s parents. The narrator describes the unhealthy skin color and symptoms of tuberculosis among the mineworkers without naming the disease or its connection to work in the mine. She also fails to connect her own family’s prosperity and leisure with the privations suffered by the mineworkers. The second class introduced is the Jewish immigrant class, represented by the Saiyetovitzes. They, too, are “defeated” in their labor, because they work so hard among the very underclass that they, too, seek to rise above.

Gordimer distinguishes among the various sources of affluence and subsistence among the South Africans in Cape Town. The narrator’s parents gain wealth through their education and commercial astuteness, while others, belonging to the merchant class, rely on “instinctive peasant craftiness.” Still others, such as Mr. Saiyetovitz, lack “craftiness” and so are relegated to “hard . . . dirty work” for which there is little payoff. In every case, affluence ultimately depends on the sweat and blood of someone, though the relationship remains hidden to most people.

Gordimer makes a strong statement about the nature and consequences of the class system in South Africa through the character of Mr. Saiyetovitz. An immigrant forced to change his name and therefore his identity, he must labor just as the even “lowlier” Africans must in order to provide for his family. However, he treats those “below” him as he is treated by those “above” him. Miriam, even more than the narrator’s parents and the narrator herself, demonstrates how the labor of others is taken for granted by those who benefit from it. She, too, refuses to recognize the source of her affluence.