The Story of an African Farm Themes

The main themes in The Story of an African Farm are doubt versus belief, women’s roles, and desire and fulfillment.

  • Doubt versus belief: Waldo struggles but ultimately comes to terms with his spirituality, while Em sustains a simple faith and Lyndall largely rejects religion.
  • Women’s roles: While Em embraces traditional women’s roles, Lyndall feels constrained by them and strives for freedom and independence.
  • Desire and fulfillment: All the novel’s characters are driven by desire in some form, though most of them do not see those desires fulfilled.

Themes

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1221

Doubt versus Belief

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Religion is central to The Story of an African Farm, and various characters exhibit varying degrees of religious belief and devotion. Waldo especially struggles with religious belief, and his seasons of the soul closely follow those described by the author in the first chapter of the novel’s second part. As a young child, Waldo is devoted to God, but he becomes disillusioned when God does not respond to his sacrifice by showing his glory as Waldo expects. He concludes that God must hate him. Over time, Waldo moves from difficult questions to a strong sense of God’s presence. When Waldo’s prayers remain unanswered after his father’s death and when he is abused by Bonaparte, the boy loses his faith almost completely. He rediscovers it by the end of the novel but in a new form, as he finds peace in nature and in some kind of Universal Life that helps him cope with Lyndall’s death. The author, considering especially her seasons of the soul digression, seems to be promoting this kind of religious transformation, away from organized Christianity to a more nature-based faith.

Otto, however, is fully committed to his Christian faith. He believes and prays and finds a deep joy in God no matter the circumstances of his life. Otto is an innocent man who longs to bring others to God, and he dies in his innocence, embracing death almost as an old friend. Yet Otto is also a naive man who tends to believe anything he is told even if it is not true. He wants to think the best of everyone and cannot imagine that anyone could tell a lie or commit a sin. He even believes the evident deception of Bonaparte. Indeed, Otto provides an example of what is often called fideism, the reliance on faith to the rejection of reason.

The religious assertions of Bonaparte and Tant’ Sannie are hypocritical at best. Bonaparte’s prayers and blessings, sermon and pious behavior are mere show. He uses religion to gain people’s trust and to assert power over them. He believes nothing of what he says. Tant’ Sannie’s beliefs are shallow, and her actions belie them. She laughs at the pain of others and participates in Bonaparte’s accusations against Otto and abuse of Waldo.

The novel’s other characters also reflect various religious positions. Em’s faith is simple and clear, and it seems to run deep. She thanks God sincerely when Gregory asks her to marry him, and she fulfills her duties even if they cost her a great deal. Em puts other people ahead of herself and remains kind and good throughout the story, likely due to her religious beliefs. Lyndall, however, claims to believe in nothing, yet at the end of her life, she does turn to prayer to cope with the pain, suggesting that her faith may run deeper than even she realizes, no matter how much she tries to deny it. Yet Lyndall has turned her back on religion and even on the moral standards of her society when she lives with the stranger outside of marriage. Finally, the stranger Waldo meets on the farm also claims not to believe in anything, yet he presents an anti-religious stance, telling Waldo a story that emphasizes the inaccessibility of truth and labels concepts like immortality as lies. The stranger’s story has a strong effect on Waldo, for he is already struggling with his faith, and in the tale, he finds a mirror of his own doubts, which is why he embraces the story.

Women’s Roles

The roles of women in society is a major theme in The Story of an African Farm, and characters discuss and play those roles in different ways throughout the novel. Em, for instance, embraces traditional women’s roles. She is a caregiver, making sure that Waldo has what he needs and trying to comfort the people around her. She feels blessed by her engagement to Gregory and is eager to embrace married life. Yet Em unselfishly sets Gregory free when she realizes that he no longer loves her. She remains on the farm that transfers to her ownership when she turns seventeen, and she manages it well, yet she prefers to have a man around the place to help even though she is efficient in her own right.

Tant’ Sannie claims that she embraces traditional women’s roles, but actually, she does not, at least not always. She runs the farm with firm control, yet she also often listens to the wrong people. She accepts Bonaparte’s accusations against Otto, for example, even though she knows Otto has been trustworthy for years and that Bonaparte has no proof. Tant’ Sannie wants Bonaparte to marry her, so she is willing to go along with whatever he says. When Bonaparte crosses Tant’ Sannie, though, by courting her niece, she turns on him viciously and chases him off the property. Tant’ Sannie does eventually marry, but she retains full control over the relationship. Her much younger husband, Little Piet, is firmly cowed by his domineering wife.

Lyndall, on the other hand, repudiates traditional women’s roles. She wants to make her own way in the world as a free woman, yet she realizes that this is not really possible. Lyndall does not wish to marry or have children, so she makes a deal with Gregory that she will marry him to get his name as long as he expects nothing from her. She thinks that being a married woman, at least in name, will give her more freedom. Yet there is another man in Lyndall’s life, and she is more bound to him than she realizes. The stranger has a hold over Lyndall. Sometimes she loves him, and sometimes she hates him. She does not want to marry him, because he will bind her to him and destroy her. She will live with him but without marriage, for she thinks this will make her free. It does not. Lyndall ends up pregnant and alone, loses her baby (whom she seems to love even though she says she does not), and dies with only her “nurse” (Gregory) to care for her.

Desire and Fulfillment

The characters in the novel are mostly driven by some kind of desire. Waldo longs for God, beauty, knowledge, and peace. Lyndall wants freedom to pursue the kind of life she envisions as ideal. Em wants marriage and family. Gregory desires Lyndall. Bonaparte Blenkins focuses his efforts on power and money. Tant’ Sannie wants a marriage in which she is in control.

All of these characters strive to attain their desires, but most of them fail, at least in part. Waldo does find peace and beauty in the end, but he dies in the process. Lyndall ends up sick and alone, dying in a wagon, looking at her reflection. Em will marry Gregory, but it is unlikely to be a happy marriage, for Gregory does not possess Lyndall. Ironically, perhaps, Bonaparte and Tant’ Sannie are the characters that get what they want. Bonaparte marries a dying rich woman whose money will likely set him up for life. Tant’ Sannie dominates her weak husband, Little Piet, and is happy in the end, her desires apparently fully met.

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