Summary

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Last Updated June 7, 2024.

Introduction

"Mrs. Plum" is a short story by Ezekiel Mphahlele, a South African writer who lived in exile for much of his life due to his opposition to apartheid. Published in 1967 within his collection In Corner B, it is a striking example of social realism. Set during South Africa's repressive apartheid era, it offers a glimpse into the life of Karabo, a black domestic worker, and her relationship with her white employer, Mrs. Plum.

Mphahlele uses the story to explore the racial and economic inequalities embedded within apartheid, a system of legalized racial segregation that denied basic rights to the black majority. Karabo's narrative exposes the power dynamics between the races and highlights the unspoken rules and simmering tensions that govern their interactions. The story is not meant to offer solutions. Yet, Karabo's observations and experiences provide a powerful commentary on the human cost of segregation.

Plot Summary

Karabo, a young African woman, has recently begun a new job as a domestic worker for Mrs. Plum in Johannesburg. This is her third job in the city, after leaving two previous ones with difficult employers.

Things seem better with Mrs. Plum. Unlike Karabo's past experiences, Mrs. Plum treats her with respect. She calls her by her African name and offers fair pay, food, and a place to live. Karabo also develops a positive relationship with Mrs. Plum's daughter, Kate. Mrs. Plum runs evening classes to help domestic workers learn to read and write. She uses newspapers to educate Karabo, which exposes her to racial injustices.

Karabo is confused about why Mrs. Plum attends meetings for black people in the country. Karabo believes her family can speak for themselves and does not understand why her employer would want to represent them. Kate explains that Mrs. Plum and others like her want black people to have more say in the country's government.

Following Mrs. Plum's guidance, Karabo spends Thursday afternoons at the Black Crow Club learning to sew. While there, the women gossip about their employers—their "madams" and "masters"—with playful exaggeration and frustration. Some brag about defying unreasonable demands, like taking a master's dog for a walk. Others share stories of mistreatment or sexual harassment.

Karabo struggles to understand Mrs. Plum's complex personality. Despite Mrs. Plum's efforts to educate Karabo and fight for racial equality, Karabo finds her distant and difficult to comprehend.

Karabo describes how Dick, the gardener, resents the preferential treatment the dogs receive and mocks Mrs. Plum's way of doting on them. He entertains Karabo and her friend Chimane with playful imitations of Mrs. Plum's behavior. Despite his fear of white people, Dick rebels in small ways, like smiling at scoldings or letting the dogs loose. Still, he fulfills his duties to his employer.

After several years working for the household, Karabo notices changes in Kate. Initially, she seems content with her life and social circle. However, her interactions with black intellectuals spark a rebellion. Kate adopts a "wild" persona, playing loud music, dancing provocatively, and staying out late. 

Kate openly defies her mother's wishes by pursuing a relationship with the black doctor, a social taboo at the time. This defiance leads to a bitter conflict with Mrs. Plum, which highlights the limitations placed on white women who dare to challenge racial norms. Karobo tries to stay neutral in this conflict between mother and daughter, which is a difficult goal as they both look to her for support.

During this period of familial strife, Mrs. Plum gets into legal trouble. When the police come to search her home for "loafers," she chases them away with a garden...

(This entire section contains 997 words.)

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hose. The next day, she is arrested. Mrs. Plum chooses to go to jail for two weeks rather than pay a fine, further highlighting her commitment to activism. Kate returns home during this time and reconciles with her mother. Kate has a new white boyfriend named Jim.

Chimane tells Karobo that she is pregnant. This news creates a dilemma for Chimane. She wants to get married and raise a child, but she also feels a responsibility to financially support her aging parents.

Later, Karabo receives a note indicating Chimane is in trouble. She goes to Alexandra township with Dick's help and finds Chimane lying in bed, weak and in pain. Chimane's aunt tells her that Chimane had an abortion and scolds her niece, throwing away the chance to be a mother.  Although recovering, Chimane returns to work without letting her employers know what has happened. Chimane's situation leads Karabo to reflect on the need for servants to lie to their white employers.

Give them any lie and it will do. For they seldom believe you whatever you say. And how can a black person work for white people and be afraid to tell them lies. They are always asking the questions, you are always the one to give the answers.

One day, Karabo investigates strange noises coming from Mrs. Plum's bedroom. Gazing through the keyhole, she sees her employer engaging in a sexual act with Malan, the pet dog.

Rumors spread about servants poisoning white people's dogs. The police launch a brutal crackdown, arresting many black men and searching for nonexistent poison. Mrs. Plum seems increasingly paranoid. Suspicious of her gardener, she fires Dick without any evidence.

Karabo wants to return home after her uncle's death. She confronts Mrs. Plum about lost wages for the days she will be gone. The exchange is tense and ends with Karabo announcing that she will not return to work for Mrs. Plum.

One week later, Mrs. Plum arrives unexpectedly. She asks Karabo to return to work. She offers a small raise but not an apology. Karabo negotiates for a bigger raise and more vacation time. In the end, Mrs. Plum seems relieved to have Karabo back and mentions that her dogs were stolen and possibly dead. The story ends with Karabo wondering if Dick stole the dogs and if Mrs. Plum only wants her back to replace her pets.

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