Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 995

The Story of an African Farm is one of the first postcolonial novels in English. Olive Schreiner’s South African setting is not just an exotic local-color background. It is inextricable from the novel’s significance. Schreiner explores the transplantation of European culture and ideals to a new landscape. In chronicling the personal, spiritual, and intellectual evolution of Lyndall and Waldo from childhood to adulthood, she explores the effect this transplantation has on individuals who, though of European background, have never known Europe itself.

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Schreiner has been criticized for seeming to depict a depopulated landscape, for effacing the presence of native Africans from the lands colonized by English and Boers. However, Schreiner, who concerns herself explicitly with issues of racism and colonization in later works, such as “Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland,” even in The Story of an African Farm makes clear how foreign and how estranged from the land the European colonizers feel themselves to be.

Lyndall is perhaps the most beloved character in all of South African literature. Many generations of women, in South Africa and elsewhere, have been named Lyndall after Schreiner’s heroine. Although Lyndall derives much of her character and outlook from the environment—Tant’ Sannie’s ostrich farm in which she spends her youth—her sensibility is always roving; it strives to go outside the bounds of locality and circumstance in which it is constrained. As opposed to the more domesticated Em, Lyndall finds the straitjacketing effects of Victorian definitions of womanhood exacerbated by the cultural impoverishment of her colonial setting. Lyndall knows that the lover she takes is unworthy of her, but she can think of no other option to escape her situation. There is a vast gulf between the level of Lyndall’s personal aspirations and the practical steps she can take to fulfill them. That she is never able to return the love of the two men who truly love her, Waldo and Gregory Rose, is an indication of the unfulfilled quality of Lyndall’s life. For all her energy and ambition, her character is not able to take root in African soil, to establish itself as a spirit and a presence capable of taking on the dominating circumstances of life in that place and time.

Waldo, weak and sensitive, is in a way even more vulnerable than Lyndall, lacking her drive and willpower. Nevertheless, he has an outlet unavailable to the young girl: his penchant for speculating and philosophizing. Untalented in any aspect of life but the mental one, Waldo is a rare soul, somebody whose mixture of simple belief in God and complex intellectual musings would make him unusual in any setting, but especially that of colonial South Africa. The peak of Waldo’s introspection is achieved when he encounters the stranger who tells the story of the man who searches for truth. The feather that is the only material vestige of this search becomes Waldo’s symbol. The feather does not represent the truth itself, but rather the small specimen of art or experience that is left when the search for truth inevitably fails to achieve its goal. The feather, however, is enough for the man in the stranger’s story, and, inferentially, for Waldo. Art, as represented by Waldo’s carvings, has the power to express an otherwise elusive truth.

Despite Waldo’s mental strength, he is too weak in character to withstand the devastating blow of Lyndall’s early death. The understated scene at the end of the book in which Waldo dies as the chickens go on living in their instinctual way (a death scene so understated that readers often do not immediately understand what has happened) shows that without the spark of Lyndall to animate him, Waldo recedes and yields to the land, not able to...

(The entire section contains 995 words.)

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