Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 558
The very fact that the woman and her lawyer husband are not given names in this story is significant, for although they are the central characters, they are anonymous colonials whose lives must change, even though they are liberals sympathetic to the local freedom fighters, now that native Africans have...
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The very fact that the woman and her lawyer husband are not given names in this story is significant, for although they are the central characters, they are anonymous colonials whose lives must change, even though they are liberals sympathetic to the local freedom fighters, now that native Africans have taken over this unnamed African country. This story, like many others by Nadine Gordimer, a South African writer, is about the changing world of African society, a world always at tension between the often silent world of the blacks and the increasingly dislodged world of the white colonials. Dislodgement is indeed what “A Soldier’s Embrace” is about.
The story begins with the event of the embrace itself, an experience of the lawyer’s wife confronting two celebrants of the cease-fire, one white, one black. In an abruptly frozen moment, she kisses them both on the cheek, and as the story progresses and the revolutionaries take more and more control of the city, she remembers that embrace in an obsessively symbolic way—the convergence of the two soldiers with her own confused self symbolizing the dilemma in which she and her well-meaning, liberal husband are caught. She kisses one on the left cheek and one on the right cheek as if they were two sides of one face, and this Janus image of the two faces of African society is the central one that dominates the story.
The two-faced nature of the story centers on the gradually mounting sense of fear and alienation that the couple feel in a world in which they once felt at home. Three Africans who were once friends and whose attitudes change with the revolution add to this feeling of isolation. First, there is Father Mulumbua, a priest from the slums who has gone to prison in the past for shouting freedom slogans; the couple are proud of their friendship with Mulumbua. Now he feels uncomfortable in their home and says little. Then there is Chipande, who has come in out of the bush after being forced to leave by the old white regime. Now with a job in the new order, he comes to visit but is also uncomfortable, restless, and curt. Finally, there is Muchanga, an old servant, who, although they keep him on because they believe that he will not survive alone, causes them to feel somehow guilty.
Gradually, the lawyer loses clients as more and more of the white colonials move across the border; reluctantly he realizes that there is no longer a place for him in this country that he has called his home, for he knows that he will be at risk in the university and will be unwanted as a consultant in the new government. The story comes to an inevitable climax when the lawyer and his wife realize that they must go, and the lawyer accepts a position in the neighboring country. At this point, Chipande, the young friend whom they have known for years, comes, with tears in his eyes, to beg them to stay. At the story’s close, the wife sets up Muchanga with a hawker’s license and a handcart, realizing that he cannot survive. As she waves good-bye to him, she does not know what to say, for the right words, whatever they were, she feels are left behind forever.