Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1345
Chapters 1–13 The narrator, Sophie van Vlaanderen, begins by describing her nephew Pieter’s childhood. Because Sophie has lived with her brother and his family for many years, she has known Pieter his entire life. His relationship with his father has always been strained because his father is harsh and distant....
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The narrator, Sophie van Vlaanderen, begins by describing her nephew Pieter’s childhood. Because Sophie has lived with her brother and his family for many years, she has known Pieter his entire life. His relationship with his father has always been strained because his father is harsh and distant. Sophie believes that Pieter has his father’s strength and masculinity and his mother’s gentleness and caring nature.
From the very beginning, Sophie refers to the family’s eventual destruction and how she might have saved Pieter from his fall. Because she tells the story in past tense, she often foreshadows events to come.
Pieter has grown up and was a decorated soldier in the war, after which he was given a highranking position with the police. As secondin- command, he is resented by Sergeant Steyn, who is older and more experienced than Pieter, and yet must report to him.
Pieter is a well-known rugby player who often plays with the younger men in the town. One night, he catches one of the players pursuing a young black woman. Because of the Immorality Act of 1927, which forbids sexual relationships between blacks and whites, the young man could face serious charges. Instead, Pieter talks to him and allows him to go free.
The next day, Pieter visits his friend Matthew Kaplan (“Kappie”), with whom he shares an interest in stamp collecting. While Pieter is looking over some stamps for purchase, Pieter’s father, Jakob, enters Kappie’s store. Because of past incidents related to stamp collecting, Pieter becomes uncomfortable in his father’s presence, and finishes his business quickly. This interaction brings about one of his “black” moods that haunts him throughout the story.
A man named Smith is sentenced to hang for murder. He had impregnated one of his black servants, and knew that it would be obvious that he was the father. To avoid punishment under the Immorality Act, he and his wife killed the girl and cut off her head so that the body could not be identified if it was found. The crime is discovered, however, and Smith faces murder charges, of which he is found guilty and sentenced to hang.
Pieter is sent to find Stephanie, a young woman who makes a living for herself and her illegitimate child by brewing and selling illegal liquor. She is often arrested and seems unaffected by serving jail time. When Pieter finds her, he experiences a strange attraction to her, which he terms “the mad sickness.” He denies it to himself and takes the girl to town to face charges. The judge warns her that if she does not find legal work, she may lose her child. She reacts strongly; this threat pierces her veil of nonchalance.
A new minister arrives in town and everyone comes to see him, having heard that he is an impressive speaker. Pieter’s sister, Martha, blushes as she looks at the new minister, as do all the young unmarried women.
A large party is planned for Jakob’s birthday. Pieter gives his father a book, which is a bold gesture because Jakob only reads from the family Bible. Pieter gives him The Birds of South Africa and Jakob is so pleased that the entire family is proud of Pieter.
Nella leaves with the children to visit her parents for an extended stay. Her marriage to Pieter has been tense; both are relieved but also anxious at the prospect of being apart for a while. Stephanie stops by Pieter’s house to tell him that she has gotten legitimate work, and Sophie notices a look pass between them. She senses danger and from here on is nervous for her nephew.
Plagued by his attraction to Stephanie, a woman who should repulse him, Pieter decides to talk to Kappie about his problem. However, he cannot bring himself to confess the desire that shames him. Kappie can tell that something is wrong, but does not try to push Pieter into telling him.
A few days later, Pieter meets with his cousin Anna, and they talk and drink brandy. Pieter does not usually drink, so the brandy takes effect and he goes to a place where he knows he will see Stephanie. He finds her, and they sleep together, and when Pieter returns home there is a note on his door that reads, “I saw you.” Overwhelmed by guilt and terror, he becomes paranoid. He imagines that everyone has found out about his crime and judged him until Kappie tells him off-handedly that he left the note because he saw Pieter drinking brandy with his cousin.
Deeply relieved, Pieter returns to his routine. Sergeant Steyn leaves on vacation with his family, where his daughter picks up small seashells as souvenirs. Sophie mentions this in a mysterious, foreshadowing way.
Nella returns home with the children and she and Pieter enjoy a very romantic evening that rekindles their love. The joy is only temporary, however, because they soon return to their old habits and patterns. As a result, Pieter’s “black mood” returns, and he seeks Stephanie out and has sex with her a second time.
Once again filled with guilt, Pieter feels profoundly ashamed of himself. The young minister visits, asking Pieter if he thinks Jakob will allow him to marry Martha. In a lightened mood, Pieter assures him that Jakob will approve and gives the young man advice on dealing with Jakob.
Pieter, Jakob, Sophie, and the rest of the family go on a picnic. Sophie describes it as the last time they were all truly happy before they were destroyed. In an unusual moment of togetherness, Jakob takes Pieter on a walk to show him some of the birds from his book, most notably the phalarope.
Back at work, Pieter learns that Stephanie has lost her job. She is distraught at the thought of losing her child, and when she runs into him in the street, she explains that she needs a lawyer but has no money. He offers to give her some money, but they must meet privately so as not to arouse suspicion. They agree to meet at night, and when they do, she seduces him, even though he promised himself he would not have sex with her again.
The next day, he is called into the captain’s office. The captain is the highest-ranking police authority and he tells Pieter that a charge has been made against him of violating the Immorality Act. Pieter denies it repeatedly until evidence mounts against him. The final proof is a small seashell placed in Pieter’s pocket by Stephanie. Steyn has given it to her for that very purpose. Stephanie’s knowledge that there is a seashell in Pieter’s pocket, and her accurate description of it, are proof that she has been intimate with him.
Jakob disowns Pieter, crossing his name out of the family Bible. He demands that Pieter’s name never be mentioned in the house again. He changes his will, removing Pieter and adding Nella and the children on the condition that they never have anything more to do with Pieter. When Jakob’s wife says she must see her son Pieter once more, he tells her that if she leaves the house, she cannot return. Sophie chooses to see her nephew, even though she will no longer be allowed in her brother’s house.
Pieter loses his job and faces imprisonment, but his aunt, Kappie, and the captain stay by his side. As it turns out, the captain is the father of Stephanie’s child. Martha is forced by the scandal to break off her engagement to the minister, who leaves town shortly thereafter. The townspeople whisper about the incident, and soon after, Jakob dies. Before he goes to prison, Pieter gives Sophie his diary that tells the story of his downfall. He says it is for Nella to read, in hopes that she will come back to him. It is the diary that enables Sophie to tell the story of the novel.