Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 876
The cashier is a young, colored (mixed-race) African woman who works at the grocery store across the street from Dr. von Leinsdorf’s home. When she delivers razors to Dr. von Leinsdorf’s apartment for him, she refuses a tip and seems happy to help. She also agrees to bring his groceries to him two or three times a week.
The cashier has a small frame and a delicate face. Her skin is not dark, and Dr. von Leinsdorf sees it as ‘‘the subdued satiny color of certain yellow wood.’’ She wears her hair drawn back in a chignon. There is a gap between her front teeth that shows when she smiles.
The cashier lives with her mother, a laundry worker, in one of the black townships outside of town. She is one of nine children and quit school when her mother could not afford the required clothing.
During her affair with Dr. von Leinsdorf, the cashier is very watchful. Laws forbid such relationships, and she fears embarrassing her mother, who believes the cashier is working for Dr. von Leinsdorf. She enjoys being with him, but she is realistic and knows that their relationship cannot last.
Paulus is the son of a farmer in the South African countryside. He was reared with the black African children whose families worked his father’s land. When he left for school, he did not forget his friend Thebedi. He often brings her things from school that he has made, and although he realizes that a relationship between them is forbidden, he initiates one when they are in their teens.
Paulus’s feelings for Thebedi are tender and loving. He buys her little gifts and allows her to stay with him in his parents’ house when his mother and father are gone. Still, he knows that he and Thebedi cannot be together in the future, and when he learns that she has had his child, he panics. Paulus clearly values his social status more than his feelings for Thebedi because he reacts to the news of the baby rather than to the news that Thebedi has married Njabulo. When Thebedi does not give the baby away, Paulus poisons the child. Because of lack of evidence, the charges are dropped.
Njabulo is a young man who has had feelings for Thebedi for years. He asks Thebedi’s father for her hand in marriage, and the two are wed. When Thebedi has a child who is light-colored (Njabulo and Thebedi are both dark), his compassionate and tender nature is revealed. He does not reject the child, but provides and cares for the baby lovingly.
Thebedi is Paulus’s black African lover. The two were playmates as children, and when they are older, they begin a sexual relationship. Thebedi is a dark-skinned girl who has a gentle, soft-spoken manner. She never resists Paulus’s advances and seems happy to comply with his requests to meet with her. When she is promised to Njabulo in marriage, she does not tell Paulus, nor does she tell him that she is pregnant with his child. She seems ready to let go of her past with Paulus in favor of her future. When Paulus learns about the child, however, Thebedi must confront her past. She seems to know that Paulus intends to harm or kill her child, but she does nothing to stop him. This nonresistance indicates her feelings of powerlessness in a whiteruled society.
Thebedi’s feelings for Paulus seem to be genuine. At the end of the story, she is still wearing the earrings he gave her years earlier. She also changes her testimony about the baby’s death; initially, she says that Paulus poisoned the baby, but when the trial comes, she claims to have no knowledge of what happened. Although she does not desire a relationship with Paulus, she also does not seek vengeance. Instead, she wants to be free to live her own life with her husband and new baby, and she releases Paulus to pursue his future too.
Dr. Franz-Josef von Leinsdorf
Dr. von Leinsdorf is a geologist who has been working in South Africa for almost seven years. He is completely absorbed in his work, making little time for local politics or culture. He is originally from Austria and speaks with an accent, and his appearance is that of a European. Never married, he is considered attractive by his coworkers. His face is described as being dark on the lower half but light and young-looking on the top half. He lives in a small apartment and enjoys his solitude.
When Dr. von Leinsdorf meets the cashier, he is aware of the taboos against their relationship but goes forward anyway. He finds the cashier attractive and enjoys her company. He also teaches her to type and helps her improve her grammar. When he and the cashier are caught together, he does not fully understand her terror, indicating that he does not understand how different their lives really are. Still, he tries to protect her, but they are both taken into custody by the police. In the end, he handles her legal representation and secures her release from jail, but they do not see each other again.
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