Selected Stories

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

For more than thirty years Nadine Gordimer has been writing and publishing short stories (many of them appearing first in English or American magazines and later in book form), and they have been greeted with increasing acclaim as representing some of the finest work being done in the genre of the modern short story. Selected Stories contains thirty-one stories which Gordimer has chosen from five earlier volumes: The Soft Voice of the Serpent (1952), Six Feet of the Country (1956), Friday’s Footprint (1960), Not for Publication (1965), and Livingston’s Companions (1971). In a brief introduction, Gordimer comments on the writer’s need for solitude combined with a simultaneous empathy with other people and a detachment from them. “The tension between standing apart and being involved,” she says, “that is what makes a writer.” In this selection of her stories, with their varying points of view and with shifts from author-as-narrator in most of the stories to first-person narration in several, one is struck by Gordimer’s closeness of observation, her wit and brilliance of style, her skill in presenting many characters of several ethnic backgrounds, and her usually firm control over her fictional materials.

Since Miss Gordimer (in private life Mrs. Reinhold Cassirer) is a native of South Africa and has lived there for more than fifty years, it is not surprising that most of her stories concern race relations in one way or another. Yet she does not confine herself to racial themes, though they are present in many stories. Even when her stories contain characters of more than one race, as most of them do, she is usually more concerned with human sympathy and love (or the lack of it) than with skin color or social status. The earlier stories were written before the movement for independence of the native or black majority and other nonwhite groups in South Africa’s multiracial population. Several of the later stories, written after the mid 1950’s, give glimpses of the efforts made by the “coloreds” of various skin hues and ethnic heritage and by white liberals and sympathizers in the South African struggle against the political system of apartheid. Under this system nonwhites are segregated in varying ways and degrees from whites so that the politics and the social structure of the country may continue to be controlled by a white minority government. American readers of Gordimer’s stories need some knowledge of how apartheid operates, especially in regard to the segregating of blacks in slumlike “locations” on the outer edges of cities like Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city. The blacks (also called natives or Africans in many of the stories) work for and among whites in the daytime but are expected to return to their locations at night unless they have special passes which they must be ready to show to authorities upon request. The government strongly disapproves of social mixing of whites and nonwhites, and unauthorized whites found in black locations are subject to arrest. Older American readers of Gordimer’s stories, particularly those who live or have lived in the South, will often be reminded of the many restrictions, sometimes state-legalized but more frequently enforced by local custom, which were placed upon American blacks until recent years. A major difference is that American blacks were, and in most cities and other political entities still are, a minority, whereas the South African blacks are a large majority of the total population. The continuance of apartheid in South Africa is complicated by the presence of a large number of Indians (a group originally brought in as a source of cheap labor) and by many other nonwhites who for convenience are all termed “colored” because of their mixed ethnic heritage, some of them being light-skinned enough to pass for white, as they do upon occasion.

As Robert F. Haugh has pointed out in his perceptive study of Nadine Gordimer’s stories and novels, her short fiction derives in content, form, and technique (while still retaining its own originality) from such earlier authors as Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, Guy de Maupassant, Joseph Conrad, and Stephen Crane, and from her American contemporary J. D. Salinger, whom she greatly admires. Gordimer usually develops her stories to suggest or emphasize mood, theme, character, or tone rather than dramatic action or plot. The stories and sometimes the titles hint at meanings and leave unanswered questions. In “Is There Nowhere Else Where We Can Meet?” a young white woman meets a ragged black on a woods path, struggles to keep him from stealing her handbag and parcel, then runs away, and at last asks herself, “What did I fight for? Why didn’t I give him the money and let him go?” In “The Catch” a young white couple on a seaside vacation see, admire, and later become friendly with an Indian fisherman (“They almost forgot he was an Indian”) whose prize salmon the husband photographs first with his prettily smiling wife and then with the proud fisherman. Later, driving with three white urban friends of their own class, they offer a ride to...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Selected Stories includes an introduction by Gordimer and thirty-one stories written between 1943 and 1973, selected by Gordimer from her five previously published short-story collections: The Soft Voice of the Serpent (1951), Six Feet of the Country (1956), Friday’s Footprint (1960), Not for Publication (1965), and Livingstone’s Companions (1972). Selected Stories presents from five to eight stories from each previously published collection, always including the title story. Arranged chronologically, this collection provides a historical perspective, since more than half of the stories have political themes dealing with the difficulties of living under apartheid in South Africa. Reading Selected Stories provides insight into the social and political climate surrounding Gordimer as she wrote.

The stories present thirty-one separate fictional glimpses into people’s lives. Not directly addressed, apartheid is revealed through the characters who are living under the system. Gordimer chronicles sometimes moments, sometimes years in the lives of whites and blacks, old and young, males and females, in various locations. Character is portrayed through either home and family, social connections, or political views. Almost half of the stories deal with husband-and-wife relationships, and of the remaining stories, eleven have female protagonists. Women’s position in society and in the...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Gordimer’s fiction highlights the dangers of repressive cultures, whether racist or sexist. Yet she downplays her position as a woman writer; in her introduction to Selected Stories, she writes, “All writers are androgynous beings.” Her view on feminism in South Africa is also subdued. The politics of the country precludes feminism as a primary issue; the vast differences between the lives of white and black women in South Africa make a sense of community between the two quite difficult to achieve.

Through the use of character foils, “Happy Event” from Selected Stories helps to clarify this position. Ella Plaistow goes to a nursing home to have an abortion, freeing herself and her husband for their planned six-month European holiday; Lena, her maid, is sentenced to six months of hard labor after a dead newborn found in the veld proves to her child. In Gordimer’s story, Ella has no sympathy for Lena despite the indirect plea for help Lena sends, wrapping the infant in the blue nightgown given to her by Ella because Ella could no longer bear to wear the gown herself, associating it with her abortion.

Although downplaying her role as a woman writer, Gordimer deals frankly with women’s issues such as abortion. Much of Gordimer’s fiction is narrated from the woman’s perspective, and woman’s plight is not neglected. Many of her short stories and several of her novels, in the Bildungsroman tradition, focus on young women who are freeing themselves of parental authority, establishing their sexual lives, or committing themselves to political action. Other issues in Gordimer’s fiction of special concern to women are the sexism that results from a patriarchal culture and the difficulty of reconciling one’s responsibility to children and to oneself.

In 1991, Gordimer won the Nobel Prize in Literature in recognition of the quality of her large body of writing. Her short stories and novels, if read chronologically, provide not only an artist’s vision of twentieth century South Africa but also the history of an artist’s growth. Gordimer has created many worlds, narrating them from the perspectives of men and women, the privileged and the oppressed, the blind and the insightful. Her different perspectives provide insights into the complexity of social and political problems, including, but not exclusive to, those of women.


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Clingman, Stephen. The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986. Places Gordimer’s novels in the context of South African history. The subtitle emphasizes that Gordimer’s treatment of history is that of one who is living in the midst of the events. Includes a thorough bibliography of works by and about Gordimer, on South African history, and on South African literature.

Eckstein, Barbara. “Pleasure and Joy: Political Activism in Nadine Gordimer’s Short Stories.” World Literature Today 59, no. 3 (Summer, 1985): 343-346. Suggests that Gordimer’s stories are more complex and ambiguous than is sometimes assumed.

Gerver, Elisabeth. “Women Revolutionaries in the Novels of Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing.” World Literature Written in English 17 (1978): 38-50. Argues that Gordimer’s women revolutionary characters gain strength and complexity in later novels (1953-1974). Connects the women revolutionary characters to critical realism.

Haugh, Robert F. Nadine Gordimer. New York: Twayne, 1974. Deals with thirty-five stories and the first five novels. Prefers the stories to the novels. Includes a chronology of Gordimer to 1973 and a selected bibliography that has been superseded by Clingman’s.

Smith, Rowland, ed. Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. The introduction details positive and negative criticism of Gordimer’s works. Sixteen essays originally published between 1954 and 1988 show the development of Gordimer criticism and deal with short stories and eight novels. Essays by Sheila Roberts and Dorothy Driver concentrate on Gordimer’s treatment of women. Indexed.

Trump, Martin. “The Short Fiction of Nadine Gordimer.” Research in African Literature 17, no. 5 (1986): 341-369. Deals with short stories from the 1940’s into the 1980’s. Categorizes many into three groups: initiation stories of young women, satiric stories of affluent whites, and stories of physical or moral conflict caused by South African apartheid. Traces the link between the political oppression of blacks and the social oppression of women. Provides a context for the political stories by dealing with Gordimer’s position in South Africa.

Visel, Robin. “Othering the Self: Nadine Gordimer’s Colonial Heroines.” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 19, no. 4 (1988): 33-42. Addresses Gordimer’s complex treatment of the white female South African who identifies her struggle for greater independence with the political struggles of blacks—the white female who identifies the black other within herself.