The Waste Land

by Alan Paton

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"The Waste Land" Summary

The Waste Land” is a short story by Alan Paton that tells the story of a working man’s deadly encounter with a group of criminal young men.

  • The story is set in an unnamed city (presumably in South Africa) that has begun to suffer from urban decay.
  • The unnamed working-class protagonist exits a bus with his wages, only to find a group of young men waiting for him.
  • Aware they intend to rob him, or worse, the protagonist attempts to flee by running into the adjacent waste land.


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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

An unnamed protagonist, a man, gets off a bus and immediately sees a group of young men waiting under a tree in the darkness. He is afraid: he wishes he could run after the bus, but it is too late, and he is instantly filled with terror. He has his wages for the week in his purse and knows that the men intend to rob him, but he is also very afraid that they will kill him. Thinking to himself that young men like this do not know the meaning of mercy, he worries that his wife will be made a widow and his children will be made orphans.

The protagonist hears the men as they begin walking towards him, including some who approach from the opposite side. They do not speak, but the protagonist is sure of their intentions. On the other side of the road is a waste land filled with "wire and iron and the bodies of old cars," and the protagonist decides that fleeing into the waste land offers him the best chance of survival.

With a burst of strength, he runs in that direction, swinging his heavy stick as he hears the young men speaking to each other. As he plunges into the waste land, bits of scrap iron clutch at his leg, terrifying him further until he is sobbing. He falls into a trap of barbed wire and begins to cry out weakly for help as he struggles. Eventually, he manages to free himself from the barbed wire, although his hands and face are torn in the process.

Emerging back onto the road, he sees the bus beginning to return, and calls out again for help. In the bus's lights, however, he sees the form of one of the young men coming towards him. Feeling that his death is near, the protagonist thinks how unjust it is that someone who has always abided by the law and worked hard, such as himself, should be targeted like this. In anger, he strikes the approaching young man hard on the head with his stick, sending him reeling down to the ground. The young man makes a groaning noise, as if to suggest that his own life, too, has treated him unjustly.

The protagonist then turns and starts to run, but he does not notice the large shape of an old truck and runs directly into it, knocking himself to the ground. He is stunned by the impact, but after a moment, he recovers enough to turn over and hide himself under the truck. His heart is pounding furiously and he tries to calm his breath so that the young men, approaching, will not hear him.

From under the truck, he sees two of the young men coming closer. One tells the other he had heard a man running on the road, and they decide the protagonist must have gotten away. Then another young man arrives and tells "Freddy" that his “father” has escaped. There is no reply, and the group begins to realize that Freddy is not among them. They begin calling out for him.

Then one of the young men encounters the fallen man. In the dark, he thinks it is the protagonist whom they have been pursuing—until he realizes there is no purse of money on the body. After lighting a match to see better, he announces that the body belongs to Freddy and that he is dead.

Still in his hiding spot, the protagonist feels the thud of Freddy's body against his when the young men lift it and swing it under the truck to hide it. They then turn away and leave. The protagonist buries his face in his arms and says to himself in his own language, "People, arise! The world is dead." He then gets up and starts to walk away, leaving the waste land and his son’s body behind.

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