Last Updated on April 14, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 783
Alan Paton's "The Waste Land'' was written in 1961 and is set in an unnamed town in an unspecified country. Given Paton’s South African nationality, the focus of most of his writings on that country, and his work as an anti-apartheid activist, it is often assumed that this short story is set in, or at least inspired by, apartheid-era South Africa. During apartheid, many non-white South Africans were forced to live in townships, underdeveloped areas where poverty and crime were major issues. Through the story of a working-class man who is attacked by a street gang, “The Waste Land'' explores how social dysfunction—such as that created by apartheid—impacts the individual.
Although it is short, “The Waste Land” is dense with atmosphere, and Paton uses visceral descriptions of the main character's fear to help the reader appreciate the true terror of this "waste land" in which he finds himself. Paton describes the physical sensations of this fear in his protagonist, whose mouth is dry and whose heart is "pounding" in horrified anticipation when he spots the gang waiting for him. The use of short sentences and the fast-paced narrative only serve to underscore the protagonist’s mounting fear and anxiety, allowing the reader to be swept up in his race for survival.
It is notable that though the bus has ostensibly delivered the protagonist closer to home, he describes the bus as “an island of safety in a sea of perils,” subverting right from the start the expectation of home as a familiar or comforting place. The waste land itself, filled with tangles of wire, iron, and burned out skeletons of cars, is symbolic of the darkness and decay of the broader society in which the story takes place. Indeed, the title of the story seems to refer not only to the literal waste land but to a society and community that has been laid to waste, forcing the poor and working classes to turn against each other. In running into the waste land, the protagonist is not only evading his pursuers but also symbolically entering a place of moral darkness, where the normal boundaries of society no longer exist.
The events that transpire in the waste land show how easily social mores become warped in a dysfunctional society. This is demonstrated most clearly through the transformation of the protagonist, whose fear and panic eventually erupts into violence. Convinced that he moral and hard-working, the protagonist thinks it is particularly unjust for a "law-abiding" person such as himself to be set upon by criminals. However, after running through the waste land, he does not think twice before swinging his heavy stick down upon the head of the approaching young man, killing him instantly. Law-abiding behavior, the story seems to suggest, is a privilege of those who never have to face scarcity, poverty, or violence.
At the end of the story, the protagonist discovers that the young man he has killed is his own son, Freddy. The shocking implications of this information contrasts with the understated way in which it is revealed, with one of the pursuers casually remarking, “your father’s got away.” Though Freddy’s father, the protagonist, briefly buries his head in his hands when he realizes what he has done, he displays few outward signs of grief or loss. There is a terrible irony, certainly, in the fact that the protagonist has unknowingly killed his own son, particularly in light of his earlier fears about what would happen to his children if he were to die. But the protagonist also seems to recognize, with a dull sense of acceptance, that this is simply how life is in this town, at this time. He responds to the realization that he has killed Freddy by moving away from his body and uttering an idiom of his own language. This idiom—“People, arise! The world is dead”—is the clearest expression of the protagonist’s despair, resignation, and grief. After speaking, however, he simply stands and walks out of the waste land, leaving his son behind.
The author does not mention which language the character is speaking, but if we assume it to be a native South African language, it can be taken as a reminder that this broken society is not a natural or organic outgrowth of what had existed in South Africa before. If we read this story as a reflection on apartheid, it suggests the extent to which Black South African society has been eroded by the harmful policies of white settlers, leaving behind a dark place in which honest hard-working men cannot find safety, and where sons and fathers turn upon each other purely in order to survive.
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