The Smell of Death and Flowers

by Nadine Gordimer

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544

The main theme of the story is the possibility of a radical leap from political apathy to wholehearted involvement in a just cause. At the beginning of the story, the protagonist is a pretty but shallow woman; at the end of the story, she has been arrested for an act of civil disobedience and has come to feel the righteousness of the blacks’ fight against apartheid, and to make their cause her own. Such a conversion to political activism is, for Joyce, not a matter of intellectual ratiocination; nobody tries to convince her to join the demonstration. Instead, the struggle takes place almost entirely within Joyce’s emotions.

The first milestone in Joyce’s move toward emotional involvement in the black cause is her dance with a black man at the multiracial party. As Joyce dances with Eddie Ntwala, the author looks inside Joyce’s mind, showing both the protagonist’s anxious queries to herself about what she is feeling and her relief that she still feels “nothing.” Here, in this moment of introspection, the reader sees the beginning of the struggle for Joyce’s soul between apathy and commitment. The second milestone is Joyce’s inner struggle with her emotions at Jessica’s apartment, a struggle that leads to her final decision to keep her earlier promise to take part in the demonstration.

The third and final milestone occurs just after her arrest, when the police are taking down the names of the demonstrators. By this time, the author relates, Joyce no longer feels “nothing”; instead, she feels what the black onlookers are feeling at the sight of her, a young white woman, being arrested. For Joyce, a genuine sense of solidarity with the oppressed has finally triumphed over her earlier indifference to the larger world; she now knows how the blacks feel when they are oppressed by white authority.

In “The Smell of Death and Flowers,” Nadine Gordimer strongly suggests that the motives for undertaking acts of political courage are not always purely idealistic ones. Taking part in an antigovernment demonstration, although indeed dangerous, can be a means whereby an individual can, through involvement in the camaraderie of political activism, break out of personal isolation and a crippling inability to feel anything strongly; such a dangerous act thus provides psychological benefits to the participant.

Although she evidently has faith in South African whites’ ability to travel down the road to multiracial political activism by achieving genuine empathy with the plight of the blacks, Gordimer has no illusion that the path to fellow feeling with the victims of oppression is an easy one to tread. In her narration of the gathering of the protesters for the march into the African location, Gordimer points out that Matt Shabalala, the black participant, knows that he is taking far greater risks than Joyce—for he, a married man, is endangering his future hopes for employment, thereby placing his entire livelihood at risk. Joyce, Gordimer pointedly notes, thinks that she, in her excited anticipation of what will happen, is feeling exactly what Shabalala is feeling, but she is not. Even here, then, in the midst of the common struggle, Gordimer shows that there is a gap in empathy between the races that only shared experiences can close.

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