Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 419
In The Story of an African Farm, Olive Schreiner presents the intertwined lives of a family against the backdrop of rural, colonial southern Africa. First published in 1883, since the feminist boom of the 1970s it has enjoyed renewed attention as a pioneering feminist novel. Schreiner is often named as one of the first writers to make the New Woman her subject, especially as an ancestor of important African-European writers such as Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing. Even though the novel features a strong woman protagonist, in the nineteenth century, writing was frowned upon as a woman’s profession, so Schreiner had to publish her book under the pseudonym Ralph Iron. The three highly distinct main characters each present their own story: there are two cousins, Em and Lyndall, and their friend Waldo; allegories and authorial voice are also interspersed. In presenting multiple voices, Schreiner also moved away from realist conventions of the day.
Because the novel is set on a farm in a South African plain called Karoo in the 1860s, it has a geographic and temporal specificity. In contrast, the main ideas have much broader resonance. The primary driving force is the gender issues that concerned Victorian-era women, both Boer and English, in settler colonial society. But bedrock issues of sexual identity for all persons are also presented. This occurs through two men: Waldo, who is sensitive rather than forceful, sympathizes with his sister’s rebelliousness. Gregory, who at one point assumes the female role of nurse, including donning the uniform, ultimately marries Em.
Lyndall, however, is the character who most clearly aims to break free of colonial repression. Feminist literary scholar Elaine Showalter in the 1970s called Lyndall “the first wholly feminist heroine.” Lyndall struggles not only for personal freedom, including sexual and economic freedom, but also for gender equality. Valuing intellect, she strives to become truly educated, not refined in a finishing school. She seeks sexual fulfillment through an affair without marriage and heaps scorn on that institution. Schreiner does not present an optimistic vision of possible outcomes for women striving to change society. Lyndall is noble in rejecting marriage as a viable path for intelligent women, but ultimately she dies in childbirth.
While pioneering in its critical views of society overall and in presenting a strong female character, the novel is not a general social critique of European colonialism in Africa. This is particularly notable in its presentation of the Black African characters and omission of discussion of race relations or possibility of African self-governance.