Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 27, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 341

Set in South Africa under apartheid, the novel explores how the members of one black family are transformed through resistance to the unjust regime. Nadine Gordimer focuses on differences between generations as they pursue different avenues of personal fulfilment and creating effective social change.

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Family Bonds

Will, the son in the story, immediately introduces the importance of family bonds when he describes how he learned of his father’s affair. Sonny; his wife, Aila; and their two children, Will and Baby, are black. Will is dismayed to learn not only that his father has a lover but that she is white. As the four family members become involved with anti-government activities in various ways, Will is torn between his loyalty to his father and his anguish over betraying his mother. When mother and daughter not only leave but become entangled in a radical fringe group, all the family bonds are torn or frayed.

Race Relations

Sonny’s involvement with Hannah begins with shared commitment to resisting the oppressive government, although ironically, it is the white woman who initially is more of an activist. Gordimer makes their relationship the main symbol of the multiple ways that apartheid separated people in personal terms by race, from simply sharing the same public space to intimate relationships and marriage. From the story of these two people, complex webs of relationships show the dangers that people faced every day in breaking the color barriers.

Social and Political Activism

The changing consciousness of Sonny and his family connects with the larger, rapidly increasing social changes that were occurring in apartheid South Africa. Sonny and Aila had been resigned to the inevitability of the unjust system in which they lived. As a teacher and an Anglophile, Sonny rationalized that culture could be separated from politics. Gordimer presents the range of resistance efforts, from street protests through violent terrorist cells, that permeated South African society and generated lasting change. Sonny’s imprisonment for a relatively minor infraction represents the oppressive tactics with which the government tried to quash opposition.

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Characters