The Story of an African Farm

by Olive Schreiner

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The Story of an African Farm Summary

The Story of an African Farm is an 1883 novel by Olive Schreiner set in southern Africa in the nineteenth century.

  • Em, her cousin Lyndall, and their friend Waldo, the overseer’s son, grow up on a farm run by Tant’ Sannie, Em’s stepmother, in the Karoo region of Africa.
  • The cruel Bonaparte Blenkins becomes master of the farm and plans to marry Tant’ Sannie but is eventually made to leave.
  • Waldo leaves the farm but later returns to find that Lyndall has died. An Englishman named Gregory, who had been in love with Lyndall, becomes engaged to Em.

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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

When The Story of an African Farm opens, Tant’ Sannie, a Boer woman, is in charge of the homestead. She lives there with her young stepdaughter, Em, and Em’s cousin, Lyndall. The German overseer, Otto, and his small son, Waldo, also live on the farm.

Waldo is a religious child, and he makes an altar and sacrifices his meat to God, thinking that he will see God’s glory. When he does not see what he wants, he concludes that God hates him. Two years later, Waldo thinks that he must be lost because he loves Jesus but hates God.

Time passes, and drought strikes the farm. Lyndall dreams of getting an education and becoming rich. Em is content to remain on the farm, which she will own when she turns seventeen. Waldo is a dreamer who thirsts for knowledge.

A stranger arrives at the farm one day, an Englishman with a large red nose. He is Bonaparte Blenkins, and he claims kinship with the great Napoleon Bonaparte. Tant’ Sannie, after a great many insults and complaints, allows Bonaparte to stay with Otto. Bonaparte tells many unlikely stories and appears to be a man of religion, but he is very different from Otto, whose simple faith and service brings him great joy. Bonaparte, wearing clothing given to him by Otto, puts on a show with his Sunday sermon about lying and hell while Waldo truly feels the love of God.

Within a short time, Bonaparte becomes the schoolmaster at the farm. Lyndall refuses to attend classes because of her “teacher’s” ignorance, but he flatters Tant’ Sannie and stays on. Waldo has developed a model of a sheep shearing machine that he carries with him constantly. Bonaparte feigns receiving news that his wife has died and earns the sympathy of Tant’ Sannie, whom he wishes to eventually marry.

Two months later, some sheep have gone missing, and Bonaparte visits Otto at the cabin. As usual, Bonaparte makes a show of being grateful and religious, but the next day he brings an accusation against Otto, presumably about the lost sheep. Tant’ Sannie insults Otto and tells him that he must leave the farm. Em and Lyndall try to visit Otto, but Tant’ Sannie has locked them in their room. Otto makes his preparations to leave, planning to meet Waldo, who has gone to the mill, but he dies that very night, still retaining his pure, innocent faith in God.

Bonaparte becomes master of the farm and cruelly informs Waldo of his father’s death when the boy returns. The cruelty continues as Bonaparte intends to take over Otto’s cabin. He flees when he thinks that a ghost has tapped him on the head (although it was only an ostrich named Hans). Bonaparte and Tant’ Sannie insult, taunt, and humiliate Waldo continually. Bonaparte even crushes Waldo’s machine.

Em gives Waldo her father’s books, which are in a box up in the loft. Bonaparte notices the boy spending time there. He trips Waldo, sending him into the pigsty, and burns one of the books, which he says is wicked. Later, Bonaparte accuses Waldo of stealing dried peaches from the loft, locks him in the fuel-house, and savagely whips him. Waldo, left alone in the dark, prays but does not receive an answer from God.

Bonaparte and Tant’ Sannie cannot marry for four years because of the terms of Tant’ Sannie’s husband’s will, and Bonaparte notices Tant’ Sannie’s niece, Trana, whose father is rich. He decides he will court Trana, but Tant’ Sannie, who is up in the loft, overhears him. She pelts him with pickle brine...

(This entire section contains 1241 words.)

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and salted mutton and makes him leave the farm.

The second part of the novel opens with a digression about the soul’s seasons of life as the author reflects on young people’s shifting ideas about God and religion, from the time of innocent belief through a period of questions to a coldness to the discovery of meaning through nature. Waldo, who has been experiencing these seasons, meets a stranger on the farm one day, about four years after Bonaparte leaves. The stranger tells him a long parable or allegory about a hunter who searches after truth, leaving all superstition and sensuality behind and dedicating himself to hard work in his quest. The hunter receives only one feather of truth, which is described as a white bird, before he dies. Waldo is pleased with the story and the stranger.

Gregory Rose, another Englishman, is leasing part of the homestead from Tant’ Sannie, and he falls in love with Em and asks her to marry him. Em agrees and thanks God for her good fortune. Lyndall has been away at school for four years, and she returns, filled with ideas about the ways of the world. She talks much with Waldo about the position of women, marriage, power, and freedom. Lyndall calls Gregory a “true woman,” and Waldo notes that he will leave the farm when Gregory becomes master there.

Tant’ Sannie is courted by Little Piet Vander Walt and marries him. Gregory has clearly fallen in love with Lyndall, who allows him to drive her home from Tant’ Sannie’s wedding even though she has been discussing dreams and goals with Waldo that evening.

Waldo leaves the farm shortly after, and Em tells Gregory that it would be better if they do not marry. Gregory declares his love for Lyndall and asks how he can serve her. She says that he can give her his name, and the two agree to marry. Then a stranger shows up at the farm, a man Lyndall both loves and hates. He wants Lyndall to marry him, but she will not. She will, however, leave with him as long as she remains free. The stranger agrees to the plan, and the two leave the farm in the night.

Gregory, who has been living at the farm, goes in search of Lyndall some months later. He finds her alone and ill in a hotel in a small town. She has had a baby, who died after only a few hours, and the doctor says that she will never rise from her bed again. Gregory disguises himself as a woman and becomes her nurse, caring for her tenderly. Finally, he takes her out in the wagon toward the mountains, and Lyndall dies.

Waldo returns to the farm and writes a long letter to Lyndall about his work as a store clerk, a wagon driver, and a wholesale store worker. He tells her about his trip to the sea and his loneliness. He describes how he saw the stranger again, the one who told him the story, but he realized that the man was not what he once thought. When Em realizes that Waldo is writing to Lyndall, she tells him to stop, for Lyndall is dead.

Waldo strives to find meaning in Lyndall’s death and in his own life, and eventually he discovers the Universal Whole, or Universal Life, and finds peace. Gregory and Em agree again to marry, for Lyndall has told Gregory to do so. Tant’ Sannie, who now has a baby of her own, sees Bonaparte Blenkins in town. He is married to a dying woman. Waldo decides that he will remain on the farm, appreciating its beauty and his peaceful work, and he dies believing once more that life is sweet.

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