Nadine Gordimer Gordimer, Nadine (Vol. 80) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Nadine Gordimer 1923-

South African novelist, short story, nonfiction, and novella writer, essayist, and critic.

The following entry provides criticism on Gordimer's short fiction from 1994 through 2003. See also, Nadine Gordimer Criticism and CLC, Volumes 5, 7, 10, 17, 18 and 123.

The Nobel Prize-winning Gordimer explores the effects and aftermath of South Africa's apartheid system on both ruling whites and oppressed Blacks. Although the political conditions of apartheid, which were in place from 1948 until 1990, are essential to the themes of her work, Gordimer focuses primarily on the complex human tensions generated by those conditions. Lauded for her authentic portrayals of Black African culture, Gordimer is also praised for using precise detail to evoke both the physical landscape of South Africa and the human predicaments of a racially polarized society.

Biographical Information

Gordimer was born on November 20, 1923, in Springs, South Africa, the daughter of Jewish emigrants, her father from Lithuania and her mother from England. Due to a heart ailment, Gordimer was withdrawn from school and restricted from normal childhood activity at a young age. She received occasional tutoring and read voraciously. She began to write in earnest as a response to the racial divisions she observed, publishing her first short story at fifteen. She briefly attended the University of the Witwatersrand, and in 1949 moved permanently to Johannesburg. By the early 1950s she had published two short story collections, Face to Face (1949) and The Soft Voice of the Serpent, and Other Stories (1952), and her first novel, The Lying Days (1953). Recognized by numerous literary awards and honorary degrees, Gordimer has received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for the novel A Guest of Honour (1970), which many critics regard as her finest work; the Booker McConnell Prize for Fiction for the novel The Conservationist (1974); and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991. She was the first South African writer, and the first woman writer in twenty-five years, to be awarded the Nobel. More recently, Gordimer's novel The Pickup (2001) received a Booker Prize nomination.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Gordimer's first stories were published in various American periodicals and were subsequently collected in her first major volume, The Soft Voice of the Serpent. Throughout her career as a short fiction writer, Gordimer has strived to portray individuals who struggle to avoid, confront, or change the conditions under which they live, in particular the repressive South African political system of apartheid. The short fiction included in A Soldier's Embrace (1980), for example, offers an ironic historical overview of South African society. In Something Out There (1984) Gordimer examines the temperament of individuals who unwittingly support the mechanisms of racial separation. Jump and Other Stories (1991) continues her exploration of how apartheid insulates the daily lives of Blacks and whites in South Africa. Her latest collection, Loot, and Other Stories (2003), reflects South Africa's transition to a post-apartheid society. These stories explore the new challenges and concerns of characters who are living through a turbulent and gripping time in South African history.

Critical Reception

Although most critical studies of her work focus on her novels, Gordimer is viewed as an insightful and compelling short fiction writer. Many critics have noted a connection between the tone of Gordimer's fiction and the deterioration of race relations and escalation of violence in her country during the late 1960s. Her work is regarded by many commentators as a social history of South Africa and its changing conditions; she has often been praised for her delicate and perceptive treatment of controversial issues. Critics have traced in her recent work a transition to post-apartheid themes and characters struggling to adjust to changing political and social reality in South Africa—particularly the aftereffects of apartheid and the shifting dynamic of racial relations. Some reviewers have argued that her detached narrative voice lacks emotional immediacy and the lack of punctuation in her short stories makes her work difficult and unrewarding. Yet despite the criticisms, most commentators regard her fiction as powerful and commend her prose for its clarity and poetic elegance.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Face to Face: Short Stories 1949

The Soft Voice of the Serpent, and Other Stories 1952

Six Feet of the Country 1956; revised edition, 1982

Friday's Footprint, and Other Stories 1960

Not for Publication, and Other Stories 1965

Livingstone's Companions 1971

Selected Stories 1975; also published as No Place Like: Selected Stories, 1978

A Soldier's Embrace: Stories 1980

Town and Country Lovers 1980

Something Out There 1984

Jump and Other Stories 1991

Why Haven't You Written: Selected Stories, 1950-1972 1993

*Loot, and Other Stories 2003

The Lying Days: A Novel (novel) 1953

A World of Strangers (novel) 1958

Occasion for Loving (novel) 1963

The Late Bourgeois World (novel) 1966

“The Flash of Fireflies” [published in Kenyon Review] (essay) 1968

A Guest of Honour (novel) 1970

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

Burger's Daughter (novel) 1979

July's People (novel) 1981

A Sport of Nature (novel) 1987

The Essential Gesture: Writing, Politics, and Places (essays) 1988

My Son's Story (novel) 1990

Three in a Bed: Fiction, Morals, and Politics (nonfiction) 1991

None to Accompany Me (novel) 1994

Writing and Being (criticism) 1995

Harald, Claudia, and Their Son Duncan (novel) 1996; enlarged as The House Gun, 1998

Living in Hope and History: Notes from Our Century (essays) 1999

The Pickup (novel) 2001

*Includes the novellas Karma and Mission Statement.

Graham Huggan (essay date spring 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Huggan, Graham. “Echoes from Elsewhere: Gordimer's Short Fiction as Social Critique.” Research in African Literatures 25, no. 1 (spring 1994): 61-73.

[In the following essay, Huggan applies Gordimer's theoretical writings regarding the short story form to four of her short fictions: “Six Feet of the Country,” “A Company of Laughing Faces,” “Livingstone's Companions,” and “Keeping Fit.”]

Nadine Gordimer's novels have done much toward “articulating the consciousness” of contemporary South Africa.1 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 foremost exponents in the world of the modern short story. Yet her critics have tended, almost exclusively, to focus on her novels. Why should this be so? The main reason for the critical imbalance in favor of Gordimer's novels might be brought down, perhaps, to a lowest common denominator: that critics have had and continue to have difficulty with the short story. The lack of theoretical groundwork does not help; for while theories of the novel abound, it has not been until relatively recently that short story theory has awakened academic interest, most noticeably in the United States. Recent theoretically-informed studies such as Susan Lohafer's Coming to Terms with the Short Story (1983) and Bill New's Dreams of Speech and Violence (1987) act as valuable correctives to those who persist in seeing the short story as a “minor” genre or, still worse, as an incipient or microcosmic form of the novel. Two collections of nineteenth-and twentieth-century views of the short story, Charles E. May's Short Story Theories (1976), and its “sequel,” Susan Lohafer and Jo Ellyn Clarey's Short Story Theories at a Crossroads (1989), are also particularly useful, although it seems significant that most of the views provided in either collection are by short story writers rather than by short story critics. It is in May's collection that Gordimer's most succinct statement on the short story can be found: her essay “The Flash of Fireflies,” which first appeared in The Kenyon Review in 1968. In this paper, I shall look first at some of the propositions put forward by Gordimer in this earlier essay, and compare them to later statements made in her introduction to the 1975 Selected Stories. I shall then go on to suggest how her short story theory may be applied to her fiction, beginning with a detailed analysis of the early story “Six Feet of the Country” (1956), and continuing with brief, comparative comments on three later stories: “A Company of Laughing Faces” (1965), “Livingstone's Companions” (1971), and “Keeping Fit” (1992).

The essay “The Flash of Fireflies” opens with the question: “Why is it that while the death of the novel is good for post-mortem at least once a year, the short story lives on unmolested?” Gordimer's contention is that “[i]f the short story is alive while the novel is dead, the reason must lie in approach and method” (179). Yet how do the approach and method of the short story differ from that of the novel? Gordimer argues that the strongest convention of the novel, its “prolonged coherence of tone” (179), is also potentially its weakest aspect, since it is “false to the nature of whatever can be grasped of human reality” (180). The short story, which relates to “an area-event, mental state, mood, appearance which is heightenedly manifest in a single situation,” is, according to Gordimer, “better equipped to attempt the capture of ultimate reality” (180). Shelving for a moment the problem of what Gordimer might mean by “ultimate reality,” I shall focus on her concept of “heightened manifestation.” Reminiscent of Joyce's epiphanies or Woolf's moments of being, the “heightened manifestations” of the short story are posited by Gordimer as being particularly appropriate to modern consciousness, which “seems best expressed as flashes of fearful insight alternating with near-hypnotic states of indifference” (180-81).

So far in her essay, Gordimer would seem to be doing little more than restating Frank O'Connor's influential thesis that the short story is somehow a more “authentic” form of self-expression than the novel, and that the self it expresses is more often than not lonely, alienated, idiosyncratic.2 Gordimer goes on, however, to ask what I believe to be the most challenging question posed in the essay: “What about the socio-political implications of the short story's survival?” (181). For Gordimer, the novel “marks the apogee of an exclusive, individualist culture … [I]t implies the living room, the armchair, the table lamp” (181). The short story, like the novel, presupposes leisure and privacy, but it does not have “the consistency of relationship” (181) of the novel; because of its limited duration, fragmented form and immediate impact, it “depends less than the novel upon the classic conditions of middle-class life, and perhaps corresponds to the breakup of middle-class life which is taking place” (181). It is not clear what Gordimer means here by the “classic” conditions of middle-class life. Presumably she is referring to the security and tendency toward a reassuringly integrated outlook that are reflected in the literary conventions of, say, the nineteenth-century realist novel. It is debatable, of course, whether the novel is as consistent and integrated, or the society it supposedly reflects as secure, as Gordimer implies; her own novels, in any case, expose the flaws and contradictions inherent in middle-class ideology. Her second point, however, is more illuminating: for if the short story corresponds to a breakup of contemporary life, its implicit expression of the disintegration of the existing social order makes it an ideal vehicle for radical social critique. The anti-authoritarian potential of the short story has not been lost on other commentators: O'Connor, for example, suggests that “we can see in it an attitude of mind that is attracted by submerged population groups, whatever these may be at any given time” (88). It is precisely this attitude of mind which emerges from Gordimer's short fiction, corresponding to the short story writer's attempt to articulate what I shall refer to here as a “submerged consciousness.” This hypothesis suggests that the reader should treat the primary narratives of Gordimer's short stories with suspicion, and should look instead for what emerges from beneath the surface or between the cracks of these narratives. Terry Eagleton's comments are useful here:

It is in the significant silences of a text, in its gaps and absences, that the presence of ideology can be most positively felt. It is these silences which the critic must make ‘speak’. The text is, as it were, ideologically forbidden to say certain things.


Eagleton is describing Pierre Macherey's theory of literary production, but he could equally well be describing the politically repressive conditions under which Gordimer's work has been—and continues to be—produced. In Macherey's model, however, ideology is unconsciously produced by the literary text; in Gordimer's, it emerges from a deliberate strategy of textual interruption (Macaskill). Repressed narratives rise to the surface and make their presence felt: a technique Gordimer uses most obviously in the novel The Conservationist (1974), but which is used in intensified form in several of her short stories. The literary devices of inference and ellipsis—not restricted to the short story, of course, but at their most telling in the short story—are particularly well-suited to Gordimer's exposure of the politics of repression. By using inferential techniques to articulate a submerged consciousness, Gordimer identifies the short story as a powerful agent of social critique in a country where freedom is strictly limited.

Gordimer outlines her approach toward the short story more clearly in her introduction to the 1975 edition of her selected short stories. The problematic “ultimate reality” to which she refers in her earlier essay, implying that her primary interest is in portraying “universal” aspects of the human condition, is this time more closely identified with her immediate social environment. “A writer is selected by his subject [sic],” claims Gordimer, “his subject being the consciousness of his own era” (14). The short story, in this context, is not political by design but by necessity: “ultimate reality” is indissociable from social reality. This does not mean that Gordimer's short stories need subscribe to the “dreary” social realism she disparages in “The Flash of Fireflies” (181) but rather that, irrespective of their artistic handling, they are the products of a specific set of social and historical conditions. Gordimer suggests further that, since the writer is “selected by his subject,” he or she is highly likely to inquire into the mode of production of his/her work, to explore both the social conditions which have given rise to it and the ideological presuppositions on which it is based. It is true of course that in her explicitly political novels (such as Burger's Daughter, 1979) and her implicitly political ones (such as The Conservationist, 1974) Gordimer does just that, but the most succinct and, in my view, most pertinent expression of the limits of the ideology within and against which she writes is in short stories where an elided sub-text, submerged beneath the body of the presented text, implicitly challenges and undercuts the dominant narrative voice. I would like to demonstrate what I mean by taking a closer look now at some of the narrative tactics employed in Gordimer's short stories, beginning with the early story “Six Feet of the Country.”

For a reader accustomed to the complex narrative displacements of Gordimer's novels, the apparently univocal and syntactically uncomplicated story “Six Feet of the Country” might seem disarmingly simple. The disarmed reader is the deceived reader, however, for the apparent simplicity of the story is part of a greater narrative strategy which consists in presenting the reader with an illusion of completeness while allowing him/her (if he/she reads carefully enough) to see through that illusion. The reader recognizes, in the process, that the content of the story is not so much contained in the form as omitted from it. The central technique, then, is that of irony; the most telling literary device, that of ellipsis.

The plot of “Six Feet of the Country” can be quickly summarized as follows: The anonymous narrator, a travel agent in the city, has bought a nearby farm for himself and his ex-actress wife in the hope that it will improve the quality of their lives and give some stability to their unhappy marriage. Neither happens, and matters are complicated further when Petrus, one of the black farmhands, informs the narrator that his brother has died. Petrus's brother is taken away by the authorities for post-mortem and duly disappears; but Petrus and his family insist on (and pay for) the right to bury their own. After some delay, the coffin is returned, and the funeral takes place; it transpires, however, that the body in the coffin is not Petrus's brother. The mistake cannot be rectified, and Petrus loses both his brother and his money.

The story seems well rounded: beginning with background, it proceeds with action and moves on to dénouement in conventional realist fashion. Yet, from the outset, the reader is led to suspect that the narrative is unreliable and incomplete. “My wife and I are not real farmers” (Selected Stories 59), says the narrator at the beginning of the story, giving the reader immediate grounds for suspicion: for if he is not a “real” farmer, who is he “really”? Significantly, we never learn his name; and although his is certainly the dominant narrative voice, the “real” voice is suggested as being elsewhere. This initial suspicion increases when we learn that his wife would like to be an actress (i.e., to play another role), and increases still further when he compares his wife unfavorably with his female visitors: his wife, “her hair uncombed, in her hand a stick dripping with cattle dip,” is contrasted with “some pretty girl and her husband shambling down to the riverbank, the girl catching her stockings on the mealie stooks” (59-60). The impression given to the reader in the first few pages is of an unstable marriage in uncertain surroundings; for the narrator lives neither in the city nor, properly speaking, on the land: instead of “having it both ways,” he finds himself with “not even one way or the other but a third, one he had not provided for at all” (60). The implication is that the narrator's control over his subject is at best limited, and that he is offering us a falsification—or at least an abridged version—of the story.

Out of this uncertainty, the possibility emerges of a sub-text (or texts) which tacitly inform(s) the reader of the “real” conditions that drive the narrative. This sub-text can be located in two areas: first in (his wife) Lerice's, second in (his farmhand) Petrus's version of events. That there is a large degree of coalition between these two versions is suggested by the narrator's discovery of a strange similarity between his wife and Petrus:

She and Petrus both kept their eyes turned on me as I spoke, and oddly, for in those moments they looked exactly alike, though it sounds impossible: my wife, with her high, white forehead and her attenuated Englishwoman's body, and the poultry boy, with his horny bare feet below khaki trousers tied at the knee with string and the peculiar rankness of his nervous sweat coming from his skin.


Although their social status is obviously very different, Lerice and Petrus both occupy a subordinate subject position; as Martin Trump puts it: “Gordimer has perceived a common element in the degrading way in which black people and women are treated in her society” (348). Indeed, the major source of irony in the story can be traced back to the narrator's failure to recognize that the third possibility, the one he has not provided for at all, is that his own patriarchal values are complicitous with the more obviously divisive and inhumane practices of the apartheid state. His failure to acknowledge his wife's right to her own voice is thus consistent with the authorities' failure to acknowledge the blacks' right...

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Robert Cancel (essay date fall 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Cancel, Robert. “Nadine Gordimer Meets Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: Text into Film in ‘Oral History.’” Research in African Literatures 26, no. 3 (fall 1995): 36-48.

[In the following essay, Cancel examines the cinematic adaptation of Gordimer's short story “Oral History,” contending that the film version “is remarkable in the way it takes Gordimer's understated, nuanced story and overlays it with a powerful African liberation theme.”]

In 1982, seven of Nadine Gordimer's short stories were made into films for broadcast on television, six of them hour-long productions and one a half-hour in length. Each of the films exhibits evidence of the problems and...

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Vera P. Froelich and Jennifer Halle (essay date summer 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Froelich, Vera P., and Jennifer Halle. “Gordimer's ‘Once Upon a Time.’” Explicator 56, no. 4 (summer 1998): 213-15.

[In the following essay, Froelich and Halle contend that “Once Upon a Time” reflects an important stage in Gordimer's political and literary development.]

Although she feels a “realistic optimism” (qtd. in Lazar 163) about her country now, throughout her nearly half-century-long writing career, Nadine Gordimer has been one of South Africa's main critics; thus her difficulties with governmental censorship. Her criticism, however, was usually indirect, woven into the multifaceted, often lyrical portraits of her native land, its life...

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Kenneth W. Harrow (essay date 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Harrow, Kenneth W. “Gordimer contre Hemingway: Crossing Back Through the Mirror That Subtends All Speculation.” In (Un)Writing Empire, edited by Theo D'haen, pp. 187-202. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.

[In the following essay, Harrow considers the relationship between Ernest Hemingway's “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and Gordimer's “A Hunting Accident.”]


“The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” is quintessential Hemingway. The restrained, tough voice of the narrator, a narrator who sees and describes the events as though he were a big-game hunter, is...

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Judie Newman (essay date 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Newman, Judie. “Jump Starts: Nadine Gordimer After Apartheid.” In Apartheid Narratives, edited by Nahem Yousaf, pp. 101-14. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

[In the following essay, Newman offers a thematic analysis of the stories in Jump and maintains that with this volume Gordimer explores post-apartheid political and social concerns.]

As apartheid has crumbled, the question which has presented itself repeatedly is whether the South African novelist has lost his or her essential subject. Can the white novelist survive the end of apartheid—or has the artist's inspiration disappeared, together with the tools previously employed? The question betrays an...

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Johan U. Jacobs (essay date 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Jacobs, Johan U. “Finding a Safe House of Fiction in Nadine Gordimer's Jump and Other Stories.” In Telling Stories: Postcolonial Short Fiction in English, edited by Jacqueline Bardolph, pp. 197-204. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001.

[In the following essay, Jacobs asserts that Jump and Other Stories represents an important stage in Gordimer's political and literary development, as it begins to explore postapartheid political and social issues.]

Nadine Gordimer's fictional achievement has been to present “history from the inside”:1A World of Strangers (1958), Occasion for Loving (1963), The Late Bourgeois World...

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Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 January 2003)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Review of Loot, and Other Stories, by Nadine Gordimer. Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 1 (1 January 2003): 11.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic argues that Gordimer “can still deliver a rabbit punch to the solar plexus as efficiently as anybody now writing.”]

The collision of personal and political agendas and ideals [in Loot, and Other Stories] is analyzed with radiant precision and wit in the 1991 Nobel laureate's ninth collection: eight adamantine stories and two ambitious novellas.

Several of the former are commandingly terse, including the parabolic title story, in which an earthquake reveals both a cluttered ocean...

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Sebastian Smee (review date 7 June 2003)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Smee, Sebastian. “All Over the Place.” Spectator 292, no. 9122 (7 June 2003): 45.

[In the following review, Smee derides the prose style of the stories in Loot, finding it inferior.]

Nadine Gordimer's lazily allusive and unkempt prose style makes most of the stories in her new collection, Loot, a pleasureless slog. This is Gordimer's tenth collection of short stories; the first, Face to Face, was published in 1948. In these latest, casually tossed off fictions, she still displays a natural short-story writer's feeling for the intimate moments and quiet epiphanies that can alter people's lives. And in several of the better stories here...

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Carmen Callil (review date 23 June 2003)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Callil, Carmen. “Disgrace.” New Statesman 132, no. 4643 (23 June 2003): 50.

[In the following review, Callil notes the stark subject matter and lack of punctuation in the stories of Loot, arguing that the tales are difficult to read.]

Nadine Gordimer's exceptional gifts as a writer—her intelligence, her moral sense—have been comprehensively acknowledged by Nobel and Booker prizes and by the critics, who have rightly placed her as one of the great among us. But you have to sit up straight to read her, open your mind, extend your understanding, watch every word. It's worth it. The stories in this collection [Loot, and Other Stories] are both...

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Judith Chettle (review date July 2003)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Chettle, Judith. “Writing in a State of Transition.” World and I 18, no. 7 (July 2003): 219.

[In the following mixed review, Chettle maintains that the theme of transition is central to the stories collected in Loot.]

Writers from South Africa, like all artists, naturally hope to transcend the zeitgeist, the mood of the moment, and reach that heady region where universal values endure. Sometimes, however, circumstances conspire, as they did in South Africa with apartheid and in eastern Europe with communism, to trap them in a public square that requires a political response, obligating them to protest as well as bear witness to the conditions they observe....

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Messud, Claire. “Lost Things Revealed.” New York Times Book Review (4 Sunday 2003): 8.

Discusses death as the unifying theme of the stories in Loot.

Additional coverage of Gordimer's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: African Writers; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 39; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 3, 28, 56, 88, 131; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 5, 7, 10, 18, 33, 51, 70, 123, 160, 161; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7;...

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