Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1178

Power
Whether it is real or perceived supremacy, whether it is inherent or artificial authority, the theme of power dominates both the novellas in Coetzee book Dusklands. In the first novella, there is the authority of Eugene Dawn’s supervisor (Coetzee) who has the power to either accept or reject the report that Eugene is working on. Coetzee, because of his rank in the office, has the authority as well as the obligation to make sure that his employees’ work matches the criteria of the position or fulfills the needs of the department. In this case, Coetzee, although he praises Eugene’s work, suggests that he re-write the study in a less abstract and more comprehensive style. Eugene, however, gives Coetzee even more power than the supervisor requests. Through his own lack of confidence, Eugene imagines Coetzee to be a far greater figure than Coetzee really is. In the process, Eugene sacrifices some of his own power, leading him down a spiraling path that takes him well beyond the definitions of reality into a place where he becomes confused and disoriented.

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To make up for his perceived lack of power, Eugene belittles his wife and diminishes his need for her. He also devalues the existence of his son, turning him into an object rather than loving him. And on the other side of the equation, in order to make up for his continual disintegration, Eugene often imagines himself to be more powerful than he really is. For example, despite the fact that he has been committed to an institution or to some psychiatric ward of a hospital, Eugene aligns himself with the doctors who work there, thinking of himself as their equal rather than realizing that he is more the equal of the other patients who live and are cared for there. He belies this notion of power, however, when he states that he wants to stay in the hospital long enough to discover whose “fault” he is.

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Power in the second novella is perceived through the protagonist Jacobus, who imagines that he is the epitome of intelligence and therefore rules over the native Africans. He cracks his whip, and the people obey him. He carries a gun, and they fear him. But without these weapons, he is as frail as they are in the wild, maybe even more so. Once he becomes ill, he must turn to them to be healed. They provide the potion and the food that cure him. He does not accept this notion, however. He always takes credit for his survival. Even when he must take a group of men with him in order to hunt elephants, he states that if he were not in their presence, his men would not survive. He believes that his workers believe this notion too. He says that they think of him as their father. In other words, he is the leader, the ruler, and the final word. And yet his men betray him, choosing to leave his presence when given another choice. It does not take much to defy him. But Jacobus does have the final word, at least according to his journal. For he goes back and kills those who defied him. He goes, however, with an army of men, equipped with modern weapons. The power, therefore, is not in the individual man but in the gun.

Delusion
The protagonists in both novellas are delusional. The author allows them to speak in their own voices, no matter how far from reality their minds, and thus their words, may stray. In the first novella, Eugene becomes so stressed out in his need to prove his intelligence and to therefore impress his supervisor that his mind snaps. In the beginning of the story, Eugene perceives his supervisor as an all-powerful being, someone Eugene would like to emulate, but he lacks the confidence to do so. He flip-flops through varying impressions that he is at one time better than his supervisor and then that he is subordinate to him. He also goes back and forth in his assessment of his marriage and his wife. At one time he says he is bored with her and yet he continually calls her from work to check up on her. And the moment that she turns her attention from him, he cannot stand it. When he thinks that she is having an affair, he craves her the most. Eugene also cannot fully comprehend his relationship with his son. At times he calls him only “her son” referring to his wife’s relationship with the boy. And he mentions how distracting the boy’s conversations are. But then when he runs away, he takes his son with him. He wants to make his son stronger, and he believes he can only do this away from his wife. He is the one who needs to be made stronger, but he imposes this condition on his son. And from that point, the delusions just get worse. He is not aware that he has done anything wrong in kidnapping the boy. And when the police arrive, Eugene is not fully cognizant of the harm he is causing when he sticks a knife into his son. Coetzee presents Eugene’s type of delusional mind as the source of those who create various rationales for going to war with a country that is non-threatening.

Jacobus, the protagonist in the second novella, is likewise delusional but not quite as noticeably. His view of reality is distorted not by a mind disturbed by stress so much as a mind that is unaware of its own prejudice. Jacobus’s thoughts are unrealistically inflated. He is so blinded by his prejudice that he belittles everyone around him. He does not see his own weaknesses but rather imposes those weaknesses on the native Africans who serve him. So in conclusion, he believes that he is the only one with intelligence, the only one who has developed a spirituality, the only one who can survive the harsh conditions of the desert. If it were not for him, his men would die, he believes, and yet he does not give credit to tribespeople who have survived in the desert for thousands of years. He does not understand their customs and traditions, so he dismisses them. Their way of life is beneath him, but it is their medicine that saves him. He accuses them of stealing and yet he has stolen their land and hunts their animals, not just for survival but also for profit. By dismissing them as a people not on equal standing with himself, he can justify their murders. He can rid the land of them as some people kill insects that are threatening to eat their crops. He can leave Klawer in the desert and not return to him as he promised, even though if it had not been for Klawer, Jacobus might have been left to rot when he fell sick. Coetzee presents Jacobus’s delusional mind as an example of the source of a cruel system such as apartheid.

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