J. M. Coetzee Coetzee, J. M. - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

J. M. Coetzee 1940–

(Full name John Michael Coetzee) South African novelist, essayist, critic, editor, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of Coetzee's career through 1997.

Regarded as one of South Africa's most accomplished contemporary novelists, Coetzee examines the effects of racism and colonial oppression in his works. While addressing the brutalities and contradictions associated with the South African policy of apartheid, Coetzee writes from an apolitical viewpoint that extends beyond geographic and social boundaries to achieve universal significance. This effect is enhanced through his use of such literary devices as allegory, unreliable narrators, and enigmatic symbolic settings.

Biographical Information

Coetzee has lived in numerous small towns in rural Cape Province as well as the suburbs of Cape Town, where he was born. He attended the University of Cape Town, where he received undergraduate degrees in mathematics and English by 1961. Moving to London, Coetzee worked for International Business Machines (IBM) as a computer programmer while writing poetry and studying literature in his spare time. "[I spent] the evenings in the British Museum reading Ford Madox Ford," Coetzee wrote, "and the rest of the time tramping the cold streets of London seeking the meaning of life." He eventually gave up computer programming and traveled to the United States to complete his graduate studies in English at the University of Texas; he earned a Ph.D. in 1969. There he became troubled by such events as the Vietnam War and the assassination of South African Prime Minister H. F. Verwoerd. In his first major published work, Dusklands (1974), Coetzee addressed the underlying imperialism he sensed in the Vietnam War and applied its meaning to the ongoing sociopolitical situation in South Africa.

Major Works

In the Heart of the Country (1977) was the first of Coetzee's works to be published in both South Africa and the United States. Presented in stream-of-consciousness form, the novel relates the story of Magda, a troubled while woman who murders her father, ostensibly because of his affair with a young black woman. Unable to adjust to change and doomed by her isolation, Magda is usually considered by critics to represent the stagnant policies of apartheid. Coetzee's strong international reputation was solidified with his next novel, Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). Set along the frontier of an unspecified empire, this work addresses oppression through its depiction of a magistrate who must choose between helping to dominate a group of natives known as "the Barbarians" and his desire to ally himself with them. Waiting for the Barbarians also examines the poststructuralist theoretical discussion of the meaning of language and signs, particularly within an imperialist context, as the magistrate becomes obsessed with interpreting the meaning of the scars on the body of a young barbarian woman who has been tortured by authorities. Life and Times of Michael K (1983) corresponds thematically to Coetzee's earlier works but includes a new dimension in its focus on the oppression of a single character. Michael K is a slow-witted outcast who searches with his mother for a home during a turbulent period of an unnamed country's civil war. Although Coetzee has denied any similarities, critics frequently compare Michael K with the character K in Franz Kafka's novel The Trial. In Foe (1987) Coetzee returned to an examination of how language contributes to oppression. A retelling of the story of Robinson Crusoe, Coetzee's Foe features a woman who comes to the writer Foe—actually Daniel Defoe—with her story of Crusoe and the native Friday. When writing the story himself, Foe alters it by presenting its characters as idealistic and enterprising rather than indigent and depressed as the woman had originally described. Coetzee thus addresses the notion that written history can itself be a method of oppression because it is controlled by those who write it. Coetzee's next novel, Age of Iron (1990), traces the experiences of Elizabeth Curren, a white South African woman suffering from cancer who writes long letters to her daughter in the United States. Some critics considered this to be Coetzee's most brutal and pessimistic novel because of its detailed explication of the viciousness of apartheid and of the physical deterioration of disease; however, several note that Elizabeth's sentimental musings on childhood and maternal love signify rebirth and human continuity. The Master of Petersburg (1994) is an account of Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky's reaction to his stepson's mysterious fictional involvement with a group of political nihilists and subsequent death. As Dostoyevsky returns to Petersburg from his exile in Dresden in order to find the truth about his stepson's death, he becomes entangled in an increasingly totalitarian political system. Coetzee raises questions about the nature of authoritarianism and truth itself within such a system. Coetzee's essay collections—White Writing (1988), Doubling the Point (1992), and Giving Offense (1996)—all contain his work pertaining to theoretical poststructuralism. In Giving Offense Coetzee takes a controversial stance on questions of censorship. Coetzee's memoir, Boyhood (1997), is unusual in its third-person present tense style, which allows Coetzee to take an objective, reportorial, tone when discussing the events of his early life.

Critical Reception

Coetzee is widely considered one of the most important contemporary writers exploring the effects of Western imperialism on native culture. Critics have found his focus on the relationship between authorship and authority to be particularly pertinent in the postcolonial, late twentieth century, when questions have been raised by historians and literary theorists about the so-called ownership of history. Many commentators have praised Coetzee's commitment to giving marginalized people a voice in his fiction rather than telling his stories from the expected points of view. Some critics, however, find Coetzee's novels to be lacking a substantial social or political stance. Rather, they argue that Coetzee's avoidance of definite geographical settings and refusal to advocate revolutionary tactics reflects only the conflicted situation of the white middle and upper classes and, as such, actually reinforces the status quo.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dusklands (novellas) 1974
In the Heart of the Country (novel) 1977
Waiting for the Barbarians (novel) 1980
Life and Times of Michael K (novel) 1983
Foe (novel) 1987
White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (essays) 1988
Age of Iron (novel) 1990
Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews [edited by David Attwell] (essays and interviews) 1992
The Master of Petersburg (novel) 1994
Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (essays) 1996
Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (memoir) 1997

J. M. Coetzee with Tony Morphet (interview date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Two Interviews with J. M. Coetzee, 1983 and 1987," in TriQuarterly, No. 69, Spring-Summer, 1987, pp. 454-64.

[In the following excerpted interview, which was conducted in 1983, Coetzee discusses his novel Life and Times of Michael K.]

[Morphet:] The most immediately striking fact is the omission of "the" from the title [of Life and Times of Michael K]. I have puzzled over this, not without pleasure, but I cannot find a substantial answer to the riddle. Do you have any comment?

[Coetzee:] To my ear, "The Life" implies that the life is over, whereas "Life" does not commit itself.

The location of the story is...

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Allan Gardiner (essay date Autumn 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "J. M. Coetzee's Dusklands: Colonial Encounters of the Robinsonian Kind," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 27, No. 2, Autumn, 1987, pp. 174-84.

[In the following essay, Gardiner explores the ways in which Coetzee's novella "The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee" resembles Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe in its textual codification of European imperialism.]

Although post-colonial criticism has been primarily concerned with comparisons between the various post-colonial literatures, it has recently turned to establishing crucial differences between particular texts and their European analogues. The works of Cape Town author and scholar J....

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Rosemary Jane Jolly (essay date April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Territorial Metaphor in Coetzee's 'Waiting for the Barbarians'," in Ariel, Vol. 20, No. 2, April, 1989, pp. 69-79.

[In the following essay, Jolly discusses the physical territory of both geographical locations and of the human body as a metaphor for colonial invasion in Waiting for the Barbarians.]

When J. M. Coetzee's third novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, appeared in 1980 it elicited a number of interesting responses which have to do—whether the reviewers realize this or not—with the implications of the setting of the novel. Leon Whiteson criticizes it for an apparent lack of mimetic accuracy: "The geography is garbled; there is desert and snow,...

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Derek Wright (essay date Summer 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fiction as Foe: The Novels of J. M. Coetzee," in International Fiction Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 113-18.

[In the following essay, Wright examines Coetzee's fiction as representative of a hostile colonial act in itself.]

The settings of J. M. Coetzee's five novels are, at first glance, unusual for a contemporary South-African writer. They are, respectively, the United States, undefined parts of the South-African hinterland of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the frontier of an unnamed country on "the roof of the world," a war-ravaged Cape Town and Karoo of the future, and the fictional-cum-metafictional territory of the Robinson Crusoe...

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G. Scott Bishop (essay date Winter 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "J. M. Coetzee's Foe: A Culmination and a Solution to a Problem of White Identity," in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 54-7.

[In the following essay, Bishop questions the veracity of the authorial voice in postcolonial literature written in English and pinpoints Foe as a successful example of this questioning in a textual context.]

Ngugi wa Thiong'o, in "The Language of African Literature," argues that African children should be taught African literature in their own African languages to preserve the cultural identity that colonization sought to destroy. A paradoxically similar assertion can be made for students of...

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Derek Cohen (review date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, in Dalhousie Review, Fall, 1992, pp. 425-27.

[In the following review, Cohen praises White Writing as a valuable addition to the study of post-colonial and post-revolutionary South African culture, although he finds in many of the essays a "rather heavy-handed solemnity of purpose."]

It is not cheering or easy to reconcile the author of some of the most exciting and wrenching fiction of recent years with the careful academic who produced this book of essays [White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa]. Certainly the essays have their value, and they supply...

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Mike Marais (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Omnipotent Fantasies' of a Solitary Self: J. M. Coetzee's 'The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee'," in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, 1993, pp. 48-65.

[In the following essay, Marais argues "that J. M. Coetzee's novella 'The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee' … suggests as much about the ethnocentricity of early South African travel writing" as does early colonial literature.]

Referring to early colonialist literature in general, Abdul JanMohammed makes the point that "Instead of being an exploration of the racial Other, such literature merely affirms its own ethnocentric assumptions, instead of actually depicting the outer limits of...

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Mark D. Hawthorne (essay date Spring and Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Storyteller without Words: J. M. Coetzee's Life & Times of Michael K," in Commonwealth: Novel in English, Vol. 6, Nos. 1 and 2, Spring and Fall, 1993, pp. 121-32.

[In the following essay, Hawthorne examines the meaning of Michael K's silence in Life and Times of Michael K.]

While many critics have examined J. M. Coetzee's Foe (1986) for its intertextuality, treatment of women's issues, and use of fiction theory, few have examined his Life & Times Of Michael K. Those who have looked at this equally interesting novel have discussed Coetzee's use of myth and history or analyzed his use of starvation and his definition of the heroic...

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Rita Barnard (essay date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dream Topographies: J. M. Coetzee and the South African Pastoral," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 93, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 33-58.

[In the following essay, Barnard examines the significance of place in Coetzee's novels and critical essays, arguing that his settings are not dystopian, as has been suggested by some critics, but rather "atopian," embodying a feeling of constant displacement.]

In his recent edition of essays by and interviews with J. M. Coetzee, David Attwell notes that Coetzee's return to South Africa in 1976, and his second novel, In the Heart of the Country, marked the emergence of a new concern with place in his work. This...

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Patrick McGrath (review date 20 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "To Be Conscious Is to Suffer," in New York Times Book Review, November 29, 1994, p. 9.

[In the following review, McGrath finds The Master of Petersburg "dense and difficult, a novel that frustrates at every turn," but a worthy addition to Coetzee's canon.]

A ferociously bleak sense of human isolation has characterized the work of the South African writer J. M. Coetzee. In each of his novels he has created figures who stand starkly silhouetted against a vast, harsh landscape and an equally harsh political system; they are belittled and dehumanized by both. His prime concern has been with survival, spiritual and physical, the scraping of meaning and...

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Joseph Frank (review date 16 October 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Master of Petersburg, in New Republic, Vol. 213, No. 16, October 16, 1995, pp. 53-57.

[In the following review, Frank contends that The Master of Petersburg is an "enigmatic and rather puzzling book" and that Coetzee is one of the most important contemporary English-language writers.]

J. M. Coetzee is a subtle and complex writer whose works invariably contain more than appears on their seemingly pellucid surfaces. He made his reputation with novels that focused on the psychological tension created in the white South African psyche by the social and human anomalies of apartheid. But his special gift is to raise this particular...

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T. Kai Norris Easton (essay date December 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Text and Hinterland: J. M. Coetzee and the South African Novel," in Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 21, No. 4, December, 1995, pp. 585-99.

[In the following essay, Easton suggests that Coetzee places his novels in settings other than South Africa in order to symbolically emphasize himself as a "regional" writer, highlighting as he does the feelings of displacement of most South Africans.]

There is a certain paradox in placing a writer in a national or regional context, especially a writer like J. M. Coetzee who has distanced himself from such a reading. However, as much as his novels and scholarly criticism range well beyond a South African terrain,...

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Mike Marais (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Places of Pigs: The Tension between Implication and Transcendence in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg," in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXXI, No. 1, 1996, pp. 83-95.

[In the following essay, Marais contrasts relations of power in Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg.]


In a recent article on J. M. Coetzee's The Master of Petersburg, Stephen Watson observes that "the bulk of South African literature gives much evidence of that atheism of the imagination which is always conspicuous when a writer has set up barriers between human beings and the crucial questions...

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World Literature Today (interview date Winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Interview with J. M. Coetzee," in World Literature Today, Vol. 70, No. 1, Winter, 1996, pp. 107-11.

[In the following interview, Coetzee discusses his book Giving Offense and his position on key issues in the debate on censorship.]

J. M. Coetzee's new book, Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship discusses both writers and theorists from D. H. Lawrence to Geoffrey Cronje. It also covers a variety of concepts from feminist protest against pornography to South African apartheid opposition. Coetzee's stance does not take the binary oppositional Either/Or except in voting against censorship. On the whole, the ethical and philosophical question...

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Jennifer Wenzel (essay date Spring 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Keys to the Labyrinth: Writing, Torture, and Coetzee's Barbarian Girl," in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1996, pp. 61-71.

[In the following essay, Wenzel argues that although Waiting for the Barbarians does not deal explicitly with sociopolitical issues of South Africa, the image of the tortured human body around which the novel revolves represents "a nexus of the political and the poststructural, the historic and the linguistic," which necessarily includes events in South Africa.]

In a 1987 address in Cape Town, J. M. Coetzee denounced what he called

a powerful tendency … to subsume...

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Martha Bayles (review date 22 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Silencers," in New York Times, September 22, 1996, p. 33.

[In the following review, Bayles praises Coetzee's approach to questions of censorship in Giving Offense.]

"Of all the pathologies," J. M. Coetzee writes, "paranoia has been the most amenable to artificial simulation." The workings of the paranoid mind. Mr. Coetzee explains, can be programmed into a computer so that "qualified psychiatrists have been unable to tell whether what is being relayed to them is the verbal behaviour of a human being or an automaton." Not surprisingly for a dissident South African novelist, Mr. Coetzee finds a similar narrow, predictable "automatism" in state censorship....

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Michiko Kakutani (review date 7 October 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Childhood Hurt and Fear as a Writer's Inspiration," in New York Times, October 7, 1997, p. E8.

[In the following review, Kakutani discusses the early elements of Coetzee's life, as described in Boyhood, that led to his later writing career.]

Though Boyhood has the stylized, fablelike quality of so much of J. M. Coetzee's fiction, it is not a coming-of-age novel, but a memoir that happens to be told in the third person and the present tense. It is a fiercely revealing, bluntly unsentimental work that both creates a telling portrait of the artist as a young man and illuminates the hidden courses of his art.

Indeed, the seeds of...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Gitzen, Julian. "The Voice of History in the Novels of J. M. Coetzee." Critique XXXV, No. 1 (Fall 1993): 3-15.

Examines the "history-conscious characters" in Coetzee's novels.

Moses, Michael Valdez. "The Mark of Empire: Writing, History, and Torture in Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians" Kenyon Review XV, No. 1 (Winter 1993): 115-27.

Discusses the place of the written word within an imperial context.

Rody, Caroline. "The Mad Colonial Daughter's Revolt: J. M. Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country." South Atlantic...

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