The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Elizabeth is in more than one sense the only character of substance in the novel. There are minor characters who play a part in the real-world portion of Elizabeth’s years of suffering, and these characters help her on her way back to sanity, but the vast majority of the novel’s drama is played out in a world of hallucination and symbolism.

The characters of Elizabeth’s fantasy world represent good and evil. At times, they seem to represent pure forms of these two polar opposites, but Elizabeth realizes that good and evil do not exist in pure form.

Sello seems to represent the good and also to offer Elizabeth a haven from the terrifying world of her dreams. He warns her, however, not to become too complacent in her belief in his goodness:What was presented to Elizabeth as goodness remained consistently so, to the extent that she too rapidly accepted Sello as a comfortable prop against which to lean. He turned to her once and warned her to retain her own mental independence: ‘You have an analytical mind. You must analyze everything you see.’ She failed to heed the warning, and the day he abruptly pulled away the prop of goodness she floundered badly in stormy and dangerous seas.

Sello cannot free himself from the evil power of a woman—the Medusa. Elizabeth’s prop fails because she realizes that, even in the case of the god-like Sello, there is both a good side to human nature and an evil side. Each nation has its gods and its myths to explain the existence of good and evil.

Elizabeth does not die a death of the soul, but she is tested, like Job, so severely that she loses her sanity in the face of the evil that the Medusa and Dan represent. In the statement from which the title of the novel comes, Sello tells her, “If the things of the souls are really a question of power, then anyone in possession of the power of the spirit could be Lucifer.” Once Dan saw his power, Sello continues, “he wanted to be God on the strength of his power irrespective of the fact that his heart is filth.... I gave him a free hand because I wanted to study, completely, his image. And 1 thought you needed the insight into absolute evil. I’m sorry it was so painful.”

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Elizabeth, the protagonist and a schoolteacher, a colored émigré from South Africa. Brought up in apartheid South Africa by a woman who she thinks is her blood mother, Elizabeth is somewhat unnerved by the sudden revelation that her mother is white and has been staying in a sanatorium for the mentally ill. Once in Botswana, Elizabeth comes down with her mother’s disease in the form of recurrent nervous nightmares and terrifying deliriums, making her literally a prisoner of her own tortured mind. With indefatigable willpower, the belief in the transcendence of humanity, and the sympathetic warmth of friends at the Motabeng local industries commune, however, she recovers from her illness to face life with greater resolve, independence, and optimism.


Sello, a Motabeng farmer and cattle breeder. He repeatedly appears in Elizabeth’s delusions. A self-proclaimed prophet and citizen of the world, a man of seemingly profound love and compassion, he assumes the image of a benevolent white-robed monk. Beneath this immaculate veneer is a moral predator who stirs the denizens of hell to hound the soul of an innocent woman.

Dan Molomo

Dan Molomo, a cattle tycoon and millionaire. He, too, appears in Elizabeth’s hallucinations, though less frequently than Sello. A demoniac sadist and a debauchee, he gloats over his endless orgies with sexually active women. A self-proclaimed king of the Underworld, a dandy, and a fop, he masks his devilry behind the charm of generosity and gaudy attire.


Eugene, an Afrikaner refugee from South Africa, the founding principal of Motabeng Secondary School. Although extremely taciturn and morose by temperament, he is at bottom a visionary and philanthropist who cares deeply about the human condition in Motabeng. As the originator of the Motabeng local industries cooperative, he works tirelessly toward the improvement of the lives of the local people. He remains one of the few men to inject a feeling of love into Elizabeth’s otherwise seemingly forlorn life.


Medusa, Sello’s accomplice, goddess of the infernal cesspit, and eternal dark companion to Bathsheba. Her main goal is the...

(The entire section is 929 words.)