Last Updated on June 8, 2022, 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.
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 sustain the mental and physical energy necessary to keep himself alive. Lyndall’s other oddly passive male admirer, Gregory, is similarly lost without Lyndall and unable to help her, despite the enormity of his admiration for her. Gregory’s willingness to dress up as a woman in order to comfort Lyndall after her tragic childbirth indicates his willingness to discard Victorian gender stereotypes and to respect the vigor of Lyndall’s self-assertion. In casting an androgynous haze over his sexual identity, however, the act implies that Gregory is not strong enough to be the kind of man Lyndall needs as her soulmate.
The other characters in the book are largely foils to the tragically doomed ambition and spirit of Lyndall and Waldo. The spiritual differences between the two main characters and figures such as Tant’ Sannie and Em are so vast as to make the situation almost ridiculous. That Tant’ Sannie and Em should both be hoodwinked by an opportunistic buffoon such as Bonaparte Blenkins even as Waldo is working out his own inner destiny is almost pathetically incongruous. However, Tant’ Sannie and Em do provide a loving and supportive environment for the youngsters to grow up in. In addition, Em’s marriage to Gregory at the end of the book is a signal that, despite the deaths of the two main characters, life in the farm will go on and that Lyndall and Waldo will not be forgotten.
In The Story of an African Farm, Schreiner combines the philosophical inclinations of a novelist such as George Eliot with the concern about practical issues of women’s self-definition raised by novelists of the 1890s such as George Egerton, Mona Caird, and Mary Cholmondeley. Schreiner’s book is not, however, only a Victorian woman’s novel; it is an exploration of the colonial experience. Without Schreiner, later South African novelists such as Pauline Smith, Sarah Gertrude Millin, and Nadine Gordimer would have lacked a crucial precedent and reference point for their work. Schreiner explores social and cultural issues that are still resonant. That she does this while writing a novel of striking originality and imagination is a tribute to her power as a novelist.