Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The novel’s title suggests that Will is the protagonist, but My Son’s Story is more concerned with his father, nicknamed Sonny. Like other novels in Nadine Gordimer’s large body of work, this book explores the complex effects of an unjust system of governance: that of South Africa under apartheid. The focus on the son indicates the author’s and the father’s conviction that changes to the system will have the greatest benefit to the younger generations. The universal application of a personal relationship calls to mind Arthur Miller’s similar use in All My Sons.
Gordimer writes from a position that has both advantages and disadvantages. A lifelong resident of South Africa, she was all too aware that her well-to-do white status was the source of most of her benefits and privileges, which were legally prohibited for black and "Coloured" people. Her sympathy for the indigenous African characters who are often at the center of her fiction has limits in that her personal experience vastly differs from theirs.
In this work, a progressive white female anti-apartheid activist, Hannah, plays a central role. Gordimer insightfully shows some of the paradoxes of white involvement in this cause, as Hannah’s love for and sexual relationship with a black African man endangers both of them and the movement and takes an especially hard toll on his family members. While Will’s ultimate career choice to become a writer enforces Gordimer’s view of the power of words in effecting political change, it may also be seen as defending her own position.
The predominantly negative effects on Sonny’s family are a large part of what makes this the son’s story. Will grows up in a society that, for many years, succeeded in hiding the true cost of segregation. Sonny and his wife, Aila, raised their children believing that a modestly comfortable life in the black lower middle class was sufficient. Ironically, they had succeeded to such an extent that the children were co-opted more than their parents.
Both Sonny and Aila, in different ways, become active in political movements before their children’s consciousness is raised. Their daughter internalizes the institutionalized inferiority of black Africans’ position through self-harm, not resistance. Will both feels conflicted about helping his father hide his adultery and fantasizes about having sex with blonde white women. The material rewards that he initially accepts to help his father betray his mother are ultimately replaced with the authentic self-knowledge that enables his decision to write and thereby speak truth to power.