Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 431

In the novel, Nadine Gordimer explores the implications of a relationship between a woman and a man of different backgrounds and experiences. The primary themes are inequalities of race, gender, religion, and nationality. The novel’s protagonist is Julie Summers, a young, white woman from a privileged background who was born and raised in a South African city. Her experiences are contrasted to those of Ibrahim ibn Musa, known as Abdu; while he is also a young adult living in South Africa, he is not white and is poor, a man, and a migrant from a rural area in northern Africa. A related theme is how a relationship is perceived by the two people involved. Similarly, Gordimer asks the reader to think about what constitutes “difference” and how people bridge perceived gaps as well as legal barriers.

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Initially, Julie is seeking a casual relationship; she seems drawn to Abdu primarily by what she perceives as his difference from her. Her privileged background has limited her opportunities to interact socially to people of similar racial and class background. Abdu, who has traveled to South Africa to work and hopefully to improve his economic situation, sees the possibility of a longer-term, more serious relationship that could provide positive opportunities, including employment and immigration status. Gordimer establishes the commonalities of their emotional connection that seem to transcend the barriers, but also shows how Julie resists the growing intimacy. While she imagines that she is overcoming the prejudices of her background by ignoring them, bringing Abdu into her social environment makes her aware of the limited extent that is possible.

The situation changes when Abdu is deported. Both of them must reevaluate their relationship and Julie, overcoming her reverse snobbery about legal formalities, decides she must marry him if they are to stay together. Once they arrive in his home, a desert village, she embraces the emotional and, to her, exotic aspects of his upbringing, such as membership in an extended family and the spiritual dimensions of Islam. She struggles both to find acceptance within his family and to understand the environment, especially his reasons for wanting to leave it. The uneasy resolution involves a kind of role reversal. While Julie has become committed to Ibrahim, that commitment has expanded to include her role in his family and the study of Islam; she will stay in his community. In contrast, although the emotional bond has grown stronger, Ibrahim chooses to leave once more. The strength of their love, Gordimer suggests, lies partly in their understanding that it can survive separation and life’s many tribulations.

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Summary

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Characters