Nadine Gordimer

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Student Question

What are the important symbols in "The Moment Before the Gun Went Off"?

Quick answer:

In "The Moment Before the Gun Went Off," there are various important symbols, such as the main character's rifle, the barbed wire fence that surrounds the main character's property, and the grave of the farmhand.

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The main character, Van der Vyver, describes the rifle he has inherited from his father. Guns are usually symbolic of violence and often foreshadow death. Indeed, it is a common movie trope that if a gun appears in the first half of the movie, it is sure to be fired in the second half. The gun in this story also leads to violence, as it is the gun which accidentally fires and kills the farmhand.

Another important symbol in the story is the "high barbed security fence" that surrounds Van der Vyer's property. This fence is a symbol of the protection that Van der Vyer is able to give himself against "the agitators." It is also a symbol, more importantly, of the divide that exists between white people and Black people in the story.

A third important symbol in the story is the "unmarked grave" of the dead farmhand. At the funeral at the end of the story, the grave is mentioned repeatedly. The dead man's mother "stares at the grave." The narrator also stares at the grave, and then he and the mother "stare at the grave in communication." The grave here then is firstly a symbol of the farmhand's death. The fact that the grave is "unmarked" indicates the low status of the dead man because of the color of his skin.

The fact that the grave is repeatedly described also suggests that it is a symbol for the guilt and remorse felt by the narrator. The narrator feels constantly guilty and remorseful for this farmhand's death. Finally, the grave here is also symbolic of the emotional connection that now exists between the narrator and the farmhand's mother. They have been connected by the shared experience of the death.

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