Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 731

Gordimer’s characters are often marred by personal weaknesses or political oppression. Most stories have external narrators who treat the characters with irony or sympathy or both, as if the flaws that merit criticism are also somehow out of the characters’ control. Arrests and deaths, repression and confusion are typical in these stories. Some characters are caught in the trap of political oppression; others, in social stereotypes. Several stories juxtapose white and black characters, illustrating the different types of damage that the social and political systems engender.

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The difficulties of living under apartheid are obvious in stories such as “Ah, Woe Is Me,” in which Sarah works as a servant for the narrator; neither the hard work of Sarah nor the useless good intentions of the narrator are enough to help Sarah’s family. Sarah never questions the justness of her plight but only wants her children to recognize their position in society and do the best they can within it. Segregated living conditions and lack of quality schools in the location force Sarah to live separately from her children for long periods. The story revolves, though, around the view of the narrator, who is wholly ineffectual in dealing with the misfortunes of Sarah’s family. “Ah, Woe Is Me” is one of seven stories in the collection which are narrated in the first person. The voice of the woman of privilege telling the story of Sarah provides an ironic tension, an apparent concern amid hopelessness. A similar type of ineffectuality is noted in “Six Feet of the Country” and “Africa Emergent,” two other stories with political themes narrated by white characters. “Africa Emergent” is notable in that the narrating architect not only recognizes his limitations in aiding his black acquaintances but also sees how the political system encourages mistrust between people.

Most of Gordimer’s white characters are scarred by South African society. Some members of the leisure class live empty lives, following social rituals that mandate against individuality. Seventeen-year-old Kathy Hack of “A Company of Laughing Faces” learns through her mother’s tutelage that being grown up means following the crowd. The external narrator describes Kathy’s young social circle unfavorably— artificial, boring, and sexist. Kathy is to fit in by wearing “small tight shorts . . . [as] equipment rather than [as] clothes.” At the dances, the boys “rove in predatory search,” seeking a partner from the “pool” of girls. Water imagery permeates this story in which Kathy is taken to a sea resort to mingle with people her own age. The story ends with a drowning, a stark warning to all the individuals drowning in society. If Kathy does not heed the warning but instead follows the mundane social rituals, she could become like the narrator of another story in the collection—“Rain-Queen”—who learns at nineteen the ease of hypocrisy.

Two stories in the collection which are told dramatically—as if a camera and a microphone pick up the sight and sound with little interpretive input from a narrator—are “No Place Like” and “The Train from Rhodesia.” The stories follow female protagonists for only a fraction of a day—just long enough for a change of plane or a stop at a train station. Yet through telling details, Gordimer reveals their inner conflicts. In “No Place Like,” a woman on a brief stopover in an African airport refuses to continue on the path of her routine journey. The repetition of the need for the shiny plastic boarding card and the repeated call to Gate B emphasize society’s restrictions, the plastic card necessary for passage and Gate B the symbol for channeled movement. The protagonist can no longer follow such regimentation. In “The Train from Rhodesia,” the young wife has an epiphany while traveling with her new husband; she found life empty and thought that marriage would fill the gap. Seeing her husband cheerfully treat a black vendor with disdain awakens her to the knowledge that this marriage is not the answer to her emptiness. Both stories suggest through details that these women’s lives are unfulfilled. In “No Place Like,” regimentation seems to be at fault; in “The Train from Rhodesia,” the privileged life is shown to be empty. The point of view of each story provides only suggestions of the causes of the all-too-clear dissatisfactions. Whether physical or psychological, dissatisfaction with life reigns in Selected Stories.

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