Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582

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The method of the story is typical of many of Gordimer’s short stories; it is lean and spare, like the stories of her early modernist precursors, Anton Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield. The story communicates by implication rather than by direct statement. It begins with the embrace that gives it its title and then develops that minor but symbolically dramatic encounter into a metaphor that obsesses the lawyer’s wife, but that she herself does not really understand. Throughout the story, the image of her face between the white face and the black face of the two soldiers continually recurs to her, standing for the inescapable dilemma of the white person in Africa.

The point of view of the story is that of an unidentified omniscient narrator, but it sticks closely to the perspective of the lawyer’s wife. One curious element of the story is that although the lawyer seems the central liberal white caught in the revolution of black freedom fighting, it is actually his wife who serves as the reflector of the growing discomfort that the couple feel in their home.

The structure of “A Soldier’s Embrace” moves back and forth between the personal experiences of the wife, beginning with the embrace and ending with her attitude toward her servant, and the more general problems of the lawyer trying to hold on to his place. These shifts are treated in an abrupt, elliptical fashion by Gordimer; the two faces of the story itself—one personal and one political—are separated by blank spaces in the text. Finally, the technique of the story is gradually to develop the embrace—the white soldier and the black soldier, with the white liberal woman caught in between—into a metaphor of the subtle ambiguity of the Janus-faced reality of black-white relations in modern Africa. It is an ambiguity that is never resolved, for at the end of the story the haughty Chipande comes and begs them to stay with tears in his eyes, like a truant child asking his parents to forgive him and not to leave. Thus, from Gordimer’s point of view, moving from childlike dependence to equal friendship is a difficult transition to make. The fact that the wife does not know what to say to her old servant Muchanga means she knew what to say before only because of his role as a servant. Now that is he not, that relationship is left behind, and she truly does have nothing to say. Only with the overthrow of white supremacy does even the white liberal realize how complex his or her relationship with blacks in their own country has been.

Nadine Gordimer had always been a staunch champion of the short-story form, claiming that it is a genre better equipped to capture the nature of human reality than the novel. Basically, Gordimer believes that the coherence of tone necessary to hold a novel together is false to what can really be grasped of human reality, whereas short-story writers practice the art of the present moment, the epiphanic realization that comes sometimes abruptly and sometimes gradually and is good only for that moment. “A Soldier’s Embrace” is a good example of Gordimer’s view of what the short story does best—reflect an ambiguous state of things that cannot be captured either by the prolonged coherence of tone of the novel or by the conceptual straightforward statement of the essay, but which can be realized indirectly by subtle suggestion.

A Soldier's Embrace

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2278

Nadine Gordimer, born in 1923 near Johannesburg, South Africa’s “golden city,” has for thirty years been identified as a South African writer. Recognition in the United States of Gordimer’s work began in 1952, when her first collection of short stories, The Soft Voice of the Serpent, was published in New York. Since that time, she has published eight novels and eight collections of short stories.

A Soldier’s Embrace, thirteen short stories, consistently continues to develop the themes, style, and characterizations of the previous collections, but Gordimer’s imaginative range, embracing a variety of situations and emotions, keeps the stories from seeming repetitious. Gustave Flaubert said, “One never tires of anything that is well written.” Like many writers, Gordimer confesses to being an “unconscious eavesdropper,” and fragments of realistic conversations combine with highly imaginative elements to form many of her stories. It is difficult to say whether any of the stories are autobiographical; Gordimer maintains a private personal life. If, however, she writes from a personal experience and she claims to absorb and use what she experiences, that experience may be years in the formative stage, gathering characters to it, suggesting a theme, eventually relating perhaps to a non-personal event that took place another time, another place. All these elements then emerge as a cohesive story.

Gordimer never left South Africa for short visits elsewhere until she was thirty. She lives there now, uses the political and social systems of that country as a basis for the structure of her stories and novels, and forms many of her characters out of the complex relations and situations of blacks and whites. Gordimer is South African, was educated partially in a convent, and her father was a well-to-do businessman. She is fully aware of the position of the white liberal in South Africa. She has a firm knowledge of the language, customs, habits, superstitions, ceremonies, and tribal rituals of the blacks. It is not necessary that the reader have Gordimer’s knowledge of the country and its inhabitants. She gives the reader a sense of the landscape and the wasted beauty of the land, different parts of the cities and their various dwelling places and shops by descriptive passages that never impede the progression of the story; the reader almost subconsciously absorbs them.

The sequence of the stories in this collection is conducive to the reader’s awareness of the political, social order of which Gordimer says, “society is the political situation.” The first story, “A Soldier’s Embrace,” exhibits the changing political situation after the confrontation between the Colonial government and the black regime that comes to power in an unnamed African country. The central characters, a well-known white lawyer who has been sympathetic to the black cause and his wife, move through phases of comfortable coexistence to an uneasy separate existence and fear, and finally leave the country. The last story, “Oral History,” reflects the changing political scene, the emphasis now on the effect upon a black tribe and its Judas-like chief.

Gordimer says that when she read Eudora Welty’s stories of rural Mississippi, she realized that “no place looked at properly need be considered at the end of the world.” South Africa may seem to be at the end of the world because of its isolated geographical, political, and social conditions, but by contrasting the isolation of the country and the isolation of character situation, Gordimer places a double emphasis on this dominant theme. Most of her stories are set in Johannesburg, a city of contrast, where rich and poor, black and white, sophisticated Europeans and tribal Africans live, work, and come into daily contact with one another. With a microscopically observant critical eye, Gordimer creates characters who are uneasy, conscience-stricken, sometimes politically conscious, cultivated men and women, sometimes from the poorer, uneducated class, but all searching, usually unsuccessfully, for a comfortable life in their particular situation. They attempt to transcend the politically controlled social situations, to come to terms with the ambiguities of a South African society, fundamentally out of joint, to shape individual identities and find relationships in which class and color are of little importance.

The failure of this endeavor is evident in the last line of “Town and Country, Part One”: “The girl’s mother was quoted, with photograph, in the Sunday papers: ’I won’t let my daughter work as a servant for a white man again.’” Also in the last line of “Town and Country Lovers, Part Two”: “Interviewed by the Sunday papers, who spelled her name in a variety of ways, the black girl, speaking in her own language, was quoted beneath her photograph: ’It was a thing of our childhood, we don’t see each other any more.’”

Even though she is a major figure in the advancement of literature coming out of South Africa, Gordimer should not be classed as a regionalist. The ever-changing political climate of South Africa imposes a limit upon her writing, on the development of her characters, but if she were geographically located elsewhere, another limiting influence would have taken the place of politics and social interaction, for every writer is limited by something. Unlike Chinua Achebé, who is concerned with universal human communication across racial and cultural boundaries and who imposes his authorial views on his work, Gordimer is not a political writer. She is concerned with politics only in the way it imposes limitations, affects, and molds the lives of her characters. Never does she use character or situation in the stories to make a political point, rather the reader perceives the situation in South Africa through the characters’ experience. The communal richness of the black population is never sentimentalized nor patronized, and sometimes, as in the first story of the collection, “A Soldier’s Embrace,” the white characters emerge pale, alienated. The significance of the political situation, the continuing war over apartheid, is never more than implicit in her stories. She differs from Doris Lessing, whose primary focus is the discriminatory practices of men against women, in her variety of subject matter and theme.

Some critics have compared Gordimer’s stories to those of J. D. Salinger. Unlike Salinger’s characters, however, who are excruciatingly important to him as people, Gordimer’s characters are important only in the way they act as vehicles for theme. The main thrust of her stories is the individual emotion as theme, whether it be warranted or unwarranted fear; misplaced love; loyalty that disappears under pressure; suffering as a condition of life, accepted or ignored; or the chance missed.

Because of the deliberate concentration on theme, some critics have labeled Gordimer coldly objective; a phrase that reappears in describing her approach is “cool camera eye.” Gordimer’s stories, characteristically brief, often convey very complex relationships, and it is this studied objectivity that enables the reader to see Gordimer’s characters with crystal clarity. They stand alone, starkly illuminated. The photographer does not intrude.

Gordimer delineates complex relationships: in “A Soldier’s Embrace,” the interaction between husband and wife; between the wife and a black and a white soldier celebrating peace; among husband, wife, and formerly exiled black friend, Chipande; and among husband, wife, Chipande, and Father Mulumbua, a black priest, fighting for his political survival. In “Siblings,” she dramatizes the involvement between twin sisters and their two children, one a boy who follows a traditional life of home, school, and social activities, and the other a girl who leaves home, torments her mother by telling her she is a lesbian, enters the hospital periodically either because of using drugs or trying to commit suicide by slashing her wrists; and the very different involvement of the boy and girl themselves.

The natural use of dialogue, the deliberate, careful choice of words, the phrasing, and the author’s precise manipulation of characters, produce in the reader an empathy with a particular character and evoke the desired emotion. The success of a Gordimer story depends on her device of indirection that communicates an emotion, an ingredient of experience, and her manipulative and developmental ability that move the reader toward implication, rather than on overt statements about the desires and motives of her characters. She employs devices of indirection extremely well. Sometimes, however, she shows a lack of confidence in her own ability by too often in the last few lines of a story overstating the point she has already made, thereby destroying the effect she has so consciously crafted. In “The Termitary,” she sets up the obvious, but good metaphor of the mother as termite queen. Both are imprisoned by duty and responsibility. In the last line, as if fearing that the reader may not understand, she had the daughter-narrator say, “Now she is dead and although I suppose someone else lives in her house, the secret passages, the inner chamber in which she was our queen and our prisoner are sealed up, empty.” Although this flaw is not a contrivance to set up her stories only for the ending, the reader, having encountered it in more than one story, is distracted and anticipates such as ending in other stories.

She consistently overworks the use of parenthesis, often giving unnecessary exposition. “Shops were being looted by the unemployed and loafers (there had always been a lot of unemployed hanging around for the picking of the town) who felt the new regime should entitle them to take what they dared not before.” Removal of such interpolations would not affect the story adversely; or, if the comments are important to the story, they should not be parenthetical.

That Gordimer begins with a conceptualized image of the desired effect on the reader is clear in her choice of titles, which envision the story’s main focus. She sometimes involves the reader immediately by setting a tone in the first few lines of a story. For example, “The Termitary” begins: “When you live in a small town far from the world you read about in municipal library books, the advent of repair men in the house is a festival.” Her style is successfully determined by the point of view she chooses for each story. The use of the omniscient point of view in “A Soldier’s Embrace,” “Town and Country Lovers,” and “Oral History” frees Gordimer to encompass numerous relations from many angles and give a broad view of the complexities of the involvements. In “Siblings,” “A Mad One,” and “A Hunting Accident,” told in limited third person, the reader sees all the action through the eyes of one character only. The focus is narrowed further still in “A Lion on the Freeway,” “For Dear Life,” “You Name It,” “The Termitary,” and “The Need for Something Sweet,” by her use of first-person narration. In “Time Did,” the “I” speaks directly to another character: “I had been lying there close to you, resting on the shore of your body attained. At these times you seem to take on physical functions for me; yours is the effort that makes us breathe.”

Within the controlled limits of Gordimer’s point of view techniques, the development of physical and moral character occur simultaneously. The narrative style is sometimes interior monologue as in “You Name it”; interior monologue punctuated by exterior dialogue as in “Time Did”; straight-line narrative including the character’s imagined scenes and confrontations as in “A Mad One”; and remembered conversations and happenings intruding on the current situation as in “A Soldier’s Embrace,” when the lawyer’s wife keeps remembering being caught between two soldiers, one black, one white, in a parade and responding to their embrace by impulsively kissing each on the cheek, an act completely out of character for her. Conflict and contrast develop as patterns, controlled without confusion by Gordimer’s point of view techniques, her style, and her various felicitous devices.

Symbolism exists in Gordimer’s stories properly in relation to the context of the story. In “Siblings” it is the scars on the inside of Maxine’s often slashed wrists that her cousin tries to avoid seeing; in “A Mad One,” the telephone by which Leif’s sister-in-law intrudes on his family life and which Elena unplugs; in “A Lion on the Freeway,” the cage denying freedom; and in “You Name It,” the written name of Arno Arkanius, first on the sand, then on the inside wall of a telephone booth.

That critics have compared Gordimer to Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, Guy de Maupassant, Joseph Conrad, and Stephen Crane appears to be a contradiction in itself, for where is the common link among these writers? Perhaps Gordimer uses isolated elements or techniques from all of them, but in saying that, one must acknowledge that she is also different. She is neither as cool as Chekhov, nor as consciously, deliberately perfect as Mansfield, her style is not as lush as Conrad’s or Crane’s, but sometimes her dead, like Joyce’s refuse to lie down. Why must Nadine Gordimer be compared to anyone? Her works are certainly worthy of being read and enjoyed for their own distinctive characteristics and qualities.

Although Gordimer has been cited as a “link between white and black culture in South Africa” and as the white South African woman who gives the most complete vision of South Africa available, she says that “no white South African writer can penetrate the African consciousness. If there is to be a true South African culture there should have been an honest intermingling of black and white.” She remains, at least in her short stories, committed to fundamentals, and in her chosen dwelling place, to “the infinite variety of effects apartheid has on men and women.”