Following his successful debut with Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton wrote a second novel set in South Africa, Too Late the Phalarope. This second novel continues to be overshadowed by its predecessor, despite considerable critical opinion that it is the more polished of the two. Both books carry Paton’s imprint in their portrayal of unfairness in a system designed to keep the races separate. As a dedicated political activist, Paton saw his writing as a means to a higher end. Too Late the Phalarope clearly exhibits the author’s disgust with injustice in a supposedly “moral” society.
Cry, the Beloved Country centers on the black experience in South Africa, while Too Late the Phalarope depicts the lives of Afrikaners (descendants of Dutch settlers who traveled to South Africa three hundred years ago). Specifically, Paton depicts a heroic protagonist, Pieter van Vlaanderen, grappling with private issues in the face of a strict law forbidding interracial sexual relationships. Pieter’s internal struggles are intensified by the fact that, as a top-ranking police officer, he represents lawfulness and duty. His inability to resolve his dilemma with self-control leads to his ruin.
Numerous critics regard Too Late the Phalarope as a modern-day Greek tragedy. The story features an extremely virtuous and upright hero whose downfall comes about as the result of his own tragic flaw. Further, secondary characters (such as Pieter’s family) are destroyed by forces outside themselves and over which they have no control. The narrator, Sophie, is somewhat re- moved from the rest of the characters because of her disfigurement, and thus serves as the chorus, commenting on the action of the plot. By updating the Greek tragedy, Paton refers to the universality of human suffering and weakness while demonstrating the dangers of an unjust social structure.
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...
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