Nadine Gordimer Gordimer, Nadine (Vol. 123) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nadine Gordimer 1923–

South African novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

The following entry provides an overview of Gordimer's career through 1996. See also, Nadine Gordimer Criticism and volumes 5, 7, 10, 17, 18 and 80.

Gordimer is a well-known and acclaimed writer who explores the social effects of South Africa's apartheid system and the consequences of its demise. Although political themes are central to her work, Gordimer focuses on the personal aspect of political turmoil. As a white in South Africa, Gordimer occupies a difficult position in relation to the country's racist institutions. Although opposed to racism, Gordimer benefitted from racist institutions with a privileged place in South African society. Many believe that this explains why Gordimer's storytelling talent was not acknowledged by the Nobel Committee until the dismantling of the apartheid system began.

Biographical Information

Gordimer was born on November 20, 1923, in a mining town called Springs, South Africa. Her father was a Latvian Jew who emigrated to South Africa and had a jewelry shop in Springs. Her mother was born in London, but emigrated to South Africa with Gordimer's grandfather, who was a diamond miner. Gordimer's family was not well off, but they had a black servant from the time she was 2 until she was 30. Gordimer was warned to stay away from natives as a child, and she knew nothing about native life or culture. Her childhood was filled with solitude and extensive reading, and it was this exposure to literature that caused her to adjust her view of native people. Gordimer began writing at an early age. She published her first short story at the age of 15, and her stories appeared in such American publications as the New Yorker and Harper's. In 1946 Gordimer began studying at Witwatersrand University and, for the first time, had contact with blacks who were not servants. It was a turning point in her acceptance of blacks as human beings. Gordimer's political consciousness developed slowly, but she eventually became ardently and vocally opposed to apartheid. She left the University and returned home after a year to concentrate on her fiction. In 1949, Gordimer married Gerald Gavronsky. The two had a daughter and then were divorced in 1952. After the divorce Gordimer struggled to make ends meet. A friend sent her stories to a publisher in New York. Not only were her stories accepted for publication, but she signed a contract to write a novel, too. Gordimer was married again in 1954 to Reinhold Cassirer, with whom she had a son. Gordimer has continued to publish both short stories and novels, as well as lectures and essays. She has remained active in the fight against racist practices in South Africa, and in 1990 she joined the African National Congress. Gordimer thought about leaving her country; she even lived for a time in Zambia. However, she decided that she belonged in South Africa and would rather fight to change what she did not like. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.

Major Works

Gordimer's fiction chronicles the struggles and turmoil in South Africa surrounding apartheid and the aftermath of its dissolution. Gordimer's early work centers on the intrusion of external reality into the comfortable existence of middle-class white South Africans. Her first novel, The Lying Days (1953), is about an Afrikaner woman who gains political consciousness through her affair with a social worker. The stories in Not for Publication (1965) and Livingstone's Companions (1971) depict ordinary people defying apartheid in their daily lives. The Conservationist (1974) focuses on a wealthy white industrialist who struggles with his guilt and sense of displacement as his estate is overcome with poor black squatters. Burger's Daughter (1979) follows the struggle of the daughter of a slain leader of the South African Communist Party to find an apolitical existence. July's People (1981) is one of Gordimer's few novels that is not set in the present. It is set in the aftermath of a future revolution. The story revolves around a liberal white family who is forced to depend on a black man who was their former servant. The reversal of roles allows Gordimer to explore different aspects of racism and how it affects relationships. The stories in Something out There (1984) examine the temperament of individuals who unwittingly support the mechanisms of racism. Like July's People, A Sport of Nature (1987) focuses on the creation of a new black nation out of what once was South Africa. The protagonist Hillela is a white South African who inherits the cause of her slain black husband. At the end of the novel she becomes the First Lady of the newly created nation.

Critical Reception

Gordimer is lauded for her authentic portrayals of black African culture. Dick Roraback comments on her ability to assume a universal voice, remarking "Gordimer is multilingual. She can speak male and female, young and old, black and white." Many reviewers praise her use of precise detail to evoke both the physical landscape of South Africa and the human predicaments of a racially polarized society. Sylvia Clayton notes that Gordimer "places her figures exactly in the landscape, and the contrast between their precarious lives and her own controlled poise yields a high imaginative tension." Many commentators feel that her best talent is in her chronicling of contemporary South Africa. Some argue that because Gordimer is part of the privileged white class of South Africa, she is automatically complicit with a racist society. Other reviewers point to her liberal views and her balanced portrayal of all aspects of South African society to disprove her association with racist institutions. Roraback calls her "the conscience of the white South African." Others claim that Gordimer's detached narrative voice lacks emotional immediacy, but many regard her fiction as compelling and powerful. Various critics have argued that Gordimer's talent is better suited to either the short story or the novel. Barbara J. Eckstein states, however, that "Evidence of success in both genres disproves any assertion that Gordimer's talent is better suited to one fictional form than to another." Critics also note thematic repetition in Gordimer's fiction, some accusing her of rehashing and others praising how she breathes life into persistent themes and situations.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Face to Face (short stories) 1949
The Soft Voice of the Serpent, and Other Stories (short stories) 1952
The Lying Days (novel) 1953
Six Feet of the Country (short stories) 1956
A World of Strangers (novel) 1958
Friday's Footprint, and Other Stories (short stories) 1960
Occasion for Loving (novel) 1963
Not for Publication, and Other Stories (short stories) 1965
The Late Bourgeois World (novel) 1966
A Guest of Honour (novel) 1970
Livingstone's Companions (short stories) 1971
African Literature: The Lectures Given on This Theme at the University of Cape Town's Public Summer School (lectures) 1972
The Black Interpreters: Notes on African Writing
(criticism) 1973
The Conservationist (novel) 1974
Selected Stories (short stories) 1975
Some Monday for Sure (short stories) 1976
Burger's Daughter (novel) 1979
A Soldier's Embrace (short stories) 1980
What Happened to Burger's Daughter; or, How South African Censorship Works [with others] (nonfiction) 1980
Town and Country Lovers (short stories) 1982
July's People (novel) 1981
Something out There (short stories) 1984
Lifetimes under Apartheid (nonfiction) 1986
A Sport of Nature (novel) 1987
The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics, and Places (essays) 1988
My Son's Story (novel) 1990
Jump, and Other Stories (short stories) 1991
Writing and Being (lectures) 1995

∗This work contains stories from previously published collections.

Charles Poore (review date 8 May 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Her Field Is People: People Are the World," in The New York Times, Vol. CXIV, No. 39.186, May 8, 1965, p. 29.

[In the following review, Poore praises the stories in Not for Publication.]

The coolly controlled fury of Nadine Gordimer's storytelling stands out in this new collection [Not for Publication]. It is Miss Gordimer's best book.

Not many authors in her field accomplish what she sets out to do with so much force and grace. Her aim is nothing less than to advance the amenities of civilization. A tall order. But she goes about it with a kind of brilliantly deceptive casualness. You are caught up, first of all, in a story—the...

(The entire section is 780 words.)

Adrian Mitchell (review date 23 May 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pervaded by the Strangeness of Africa," in The New York Times Book Review, May 23, 1965, pp. 5, 47.

[In the following excerpt, Mitchell focuses on Gordimer's narrative technique in Not for Publication.]

It would be futile to look for a flowering of experimental writing among the fiction published about Africa today. The continent is dominated by race war and the state of the Republic of South Africa is such that it dictates a mood—and even a style—to those who try to write of it. Almost every public action in that country, and many private actions, too, add impetus to a revolution which seems as inevitable as anything in history.


(The entire section is 620 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement (review date 22 July 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Alone, Obsessed, Outsmarted," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3308, July 22, 1965, p. 609.

[In the following excerpt, the critic highlights the theme of lonliness in Not for Publication.]

Although Miss Nadine Gordimer's scene in her short stories is often South Africa, and her themes therefore often have to do with the colour bar, she is not an explicitly "liberal" writer: she nearly always writes of the best, the most humane side of her characters—even the thick-headed policemen who arrest the gallant Mrs. Bamjee for her anti-racialist activities in "A Chip of Glass Ruby" are decently abashed and sorry (as far as their natures will allow them) for...

(The entire section is 368 words.)

Patrick Cruttwell (review date Autumn 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Not for Publication, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, Autumn, 1965, pp. 444-45.

[In the following excerpt, Cruttwell contrasts the mood of Gordimer's fiction with Flannery O'Connor's.]

… It is mainly in male authors that the posturing seems obligatory (though I'm not so sure of that, now I've written it; I can think of some female ones, but I'd better not name them); and so it may not be coincidence that a quite unfair proportion of the interesting, the distinguished, the literate writing among the fiction I have received is the work of women. Three in particular: two volumes of short stories by Flannery O'Connor and Nadine...

(The entire section is 779 words.)

Gail Godwin (review date April 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Out of Africa and India," in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 252, No. 1511, April, 1976, pp. 101-02.

[In the following excerpt, Godwin discusses the changing African dimension of the characters in Selected Stories.]

Reading a collection of stories by a good writer affords a pleasure quite distinct from reading a novel by the same writer. The pleasure comes from the activeness demanded from the reader, from the quick leaps of synthesis he must make as he skips around in the book, pouncing on the stories that promise to attract him most, surprising the author in a variety of themes, moods, and stances as the author moves through his own time: the writing-time of the...

(The entire section is 1059 words.)

George Kearns (review date Winter 1984–85)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Something Out There, in The Hudson Review, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, Winter, 1984–85, pp. 619-21.

[In the following excerpt, Kearns discusses the politics of Gordimer's fiction in Something Out There.]

… Nadine Gordimer's Something Out There is a collection of nine short stories and the title piece, a long novella that might have had greater impact if published separately. Gordimer is a writer of political fiction whose assurance has become finer with time. Her South Africa is a country torn apart not by "racial problems" or "terrorism," but by what she wants us to know is nothing less than civil war. Lush patches of safety in this...

(The entire section is 551 words.)

Sylvia Clayton (review date 15-18 April 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Saboteurs," in London Review of Books, April 15-18, 1984, p. 23.

[In the following excerpt, Clayton comments on Gordimer's writing style in Something out There.]

Nadine Gordimer continues to send sane, humane reports from the edge of darkness. In her finest stories she fixes authoritatively the experience of her South African characters, who exist in the shadow of a gun. They are menaced by repressive laws, unpredictable violence and a cruel historical process; their small domestic treacheries can carry a fatal undertow of danger. In this latest collection [Something Out There] her tone remains cool, diagnostic, her brilliant camera eye unfazed. Even in...

(The entire section is 1057 words.)

Judie Newman (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Prospero's Complex: Race and Sex in Nadine Gordimer's Burger's Daughter," in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XX, No. 1, 1985, pp. 81-99.

[In the following essay, Newman analyzes the psychological connections that Rosa makes between race and sexuality in Burger's Daughter in relation to prevailing cultural attitudes toward each.]

Nadine Gordimer has remarked that all South African novels, whatever their political intentions, involve the question of racism:

There is no country in the Western world where the creative imagination, whatever it seizes upon, finds the focus of even the most private event...

(The entire section is 7653 words.)

Dick Roraback (review date 6 October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Gordimer Is in the Details," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 6, 1991, pp. 2, 10.

[In the following review, Roraback notes the freshness of the themes in Jump, despite their familiarity.]

Nadine Gordimer takes you by the hand. Sometimes she leads you gently. Sometimes, impatient, she yanks. Come, she says, there are things I want you to see.

We've been over Gordimer turf before. We know the field is not level. As always, there are salients of insensitivity, injustice, inhumanity—apartheid. After so many tours, can there be something we missed?

There can. There is [in Jump]. Our cicerone knows where...

(The entire section is 782 words.)

John Bayley (review date 5 December 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dry Eyes," in London Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 23, December 5, 1991, p. 20.

[In the following excerpt, Bayley discusses the stories of Jump in the context of classic stories by literary masters of narrative art.]

A Jane Austen of today is barely imaginable: but if one nonetheless imagines her, and locates her in South Africa, how would she be exercising her art? Could she find any subject other than the one Nadine Gordimer writes about? A great, even a good writer does not find his subject, it takes him over: he becomes it, and the world it has brought with it. But there exist situations in which this is necessarily not the case. Not only the...

(The entire section is 1352 words.)

Barbara J. Eckstein (essay date Winter 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nadine Gordimer: Nobel Laureate in Literature, 1991," in World Literature Today, Vol. 66, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 7-10.

[In the following essay, Eckstein discusses the political atmosphere of South Africa and how it affected Gordimer's career and fiction.]

The world literary community has noted each year the prevailing tastes and proclivities of the Nobel jury. So rare was the choice of the Nigerian Whole Soyinka in 1986, for example, that it evoked comment from many quarters. John Kwan-Terry has speculated on the reasons for the exclusion of Chinese names from the list of winners. The paucity of women recipients is no less cause for speculation. In addition,...

(The entire section is 2554 words.)

Nadine Gordimer with Claudia Dreifus (interview date January 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Nadine Gordimer: 'I've never left Africa,'" in Progressive, Vol. 56, January, 1992, pp. 30-2.

[In the following interview, Gordimer discusses her work and political change in South Africa.]

It was a frosty New York autumn afternoon, and Nadine Gordimer, South Africa's pre-eminent novelist, was sitting in the Union Square offices of her American publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Just a week later she would become the first woman in a quarter century to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and the second member of the African National Congress to win any Nobel. (Chief Albert Luthuli won the Peace Prize in 1960.)

Gordimer, sixty-seven, had...

(The entire section is 3152 words.)

Thomas Knipp (essay date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Going All the Way: Eros and Polis in the Novels of Nadine Gordimer," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 24, Spring, 1993, pp. 37-50.

[In the following essay, Knipp traces the thematic development of traditional expressions of Western liberalism in Gordimer's fiction.]

Nadine Gordimer's ten novels and seven collections of short stories constitute an impressive fictional achievement that is remarkable for its unity of vision and singleness of purpose. Gordimer has been preoccupied with a single great theme: the fate of ideological and methodological liberalism in South Africa since World War II. In interviews, essays, and speeches, she has clearly stated...

(The entire section is 6831 words.)

Graham Huggan (essay date Winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Echoes From Elsewhere: Gordimer's Short Fiction as Social Critique," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter, 1994, pp. 61-73.

[In the following essay, Huggan applies Gordimer's short story theory to her practice, analyzing "Six Feet of Country" in comparison to three later stories.]

Nadine Gordimer's novels have done much toward "articulating the consciousness" of contemporary South Africa. What is not often realized, or not realized often enough, is that her short stories also contribute to this articulation, and that the short story is just as well-equipped as the novel to attempt it. Gordimer has proved herself over time to be one of the...

(The entire section is 5548 words.)

Rosemary Dinnage (review date 9 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In a Far-off Country," in Times Literary Supplement, September 9, 1994, p. 20.

[In the following review, Dinnage outlines the narrative of None to Accompany Me.]

For forty years Nadine Gordimer has been revealing to us the splendours and miseries of life in her extraordinary country; now in this latest novel [None to Accompany Me] she takes us through the dramatic and confused transitional period just before the establishment of South African majority rule.

The narrative (there is no "story" in the usual sense) centres on two couples, one white and one black, and parallel with the political events that carry them along, is an account...

(The entire section is 711 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 18 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Faces of Revolution," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 18, 1994, pp. 3, 10.

[In the following review, Eder emphasizes the theme of change, both social and personal, in the South Africa of None to Accompany Me.]

There are revolutions—the French, the Chinese, the Russian—that devour the children who made them. More often, perhaps, it is a matter not of being devoured but of being digested. A little ahead of the curve of history, as always, Nadine Gordimer writes of two anti-apartheid fighters from whom victory, like a river rising and jumping its bed, has begun to withdraw and leave stranded.

None to Accompany Me takes...

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Richard Bausch (review date 25 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "After the Euphoria," in New York Times Book Review, September 25, 1994, p. 7.

[In the following review, Bausch praises Gordimer's personal approach to social and political issues in her None to Accompany Me.]

I read somewhere long ago that a good novelist is also a social historian; the operative word there is also. And while literary criticism, at least in the United States, has lately become more and more a kind of ersatz social science, where worth is judged according to social impact or a political agenda, one is always grateful for writers like Nadine Gordimer whose fiction is so often categorized as work of social significance, and who, when one actually...

(The entire section is 1454 words.)

Michael Wood (review date 1 December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Free of the Bad Old World," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 20, December 1, 1994, pp. 12-3.

[In the following review, Wood concentrates on characterization in None to Accompany Me, detecting autobiographical impulses in the narrative.]

Prisons have opened, exiles have returned, the notion of apartheid is in ruins. Blacks have moved into white suburbs, a new constitution is being drafted, the old opposition is practicing for new habits of rule. But there are hit lists, muggings, murders; violent rearguard actions; there is a housing shortage, there are land disputes, squatters risking their lives to reverse old patterns of settlement. There...

(The entire section is 2501 words.)

Jeremy Harding (review date 12 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pale Ghosts," in London Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 1, January 12, 1995, pp. 20-3.

[In the following excerpt, Harding assesses the narrative strengths of None to Accompany Me.]

… Nadine Gordimer's novel [None to Accompany Me] is set in the period after Mandela's release. It is about homecoming and transition. The heroine, Vera Stark, who works for a progressive legal foundation, is not an exile as such, but she has lived at a distance from herself, which is slowly closed by her encounter with a black land rights spokesman, courageous, ambitious but unpretentious—virtues that are not confined to Mandela, but which try a novelist's skills, and...

(The entire section is 535 words.)

Philip Graham (review date 5 November 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On 'The Concealed Side,'" in Chicago Tribune Books, November 5, 1995, pp. 6-7.

[In the following review, Graham describes Gordimer's artistic ethos as outlined in Writing and Being.]

This collection of Nadine Gordimer's recent Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard University [Writing and Being] offers six lucid and interconnected essays on fiction that should be read by every serious reader and writer. Throughout this slim yet intellectually hefty volume Gordimer—the distinguished South African novelist and Nobel Prize winner—succeeds in elegantly explicating her hard-won artistic ethos, a moving and fluid blend of personal discovery and...

(The entire section is 994 words.)

Nancy Topping Bazin (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Southern Africa and the Theme of Madness: Novels by Doris Lessing, Bessie Head, and Nadine Gordimer," in International Women's Writing: New Landscapes of Identity, edited by Anne E. Brown and Marjanne E. Goozé, Greenwood Press, 1995, pp. 137-49.

[In the following excerpt, Topping Bazin discusses how utopian and dystopian visions of Gordimer's novels reflect past and present racism in South Africa.]

However different their lives, Doris Lessing, Bessie Head, and Nadine Gordimer share the common heritage of having grown up in southern Africa. All three were profoundly affected by that experience. Their responses to the colonialist, racist, and sexist attitudes...

(The entire section is 2341 words.)

Edith Milton (review date June 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Writing and Being, in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 13, No. 4, June, 1996, p. 8.

[In the following review, Milton comments on the themes of Writing and Being.]

Nadine Gordimer is a writer whose moral vision predicates her literary one. The same could be said, to some degree, about any writer one would willingly read. But I see Gordimer's perspective on good and evil as being quite different from that of many, or even most, of the thinking writers of our day: Gabriel Garcia Marquéz, say, or Günther Grass or Doris Lessing, who are so burdened by the madness of contemporary society that they often need to break out of the confines of realism...

(The entire section is 1588 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Beauman, Sally. Review of Livingstone's Companions, by Nadine Gordimer. New York Times Book Review (31 October 1971): 6, 22.

Lauds the stories in Gordimer's Livingstone's Companions.

Broyard, Anatole. "The New African Landscape." New York Times CXXI, No. 41,554 (1 November 1971): 39.

Presents a stylistic and thematic overview of Gordimer's Livingstone's Companions.

Digilio, Alice. "South Africa and the Storyteller," Washington Post Book World XIV, No. 29 (15 July 1984): 4-5.


(The entire section is 532 words.)