The Feminist Aspect of Gordimer's Short Story

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 801

In ‘‘Town and Country Lovers,’’ Gordimer sets up two dichotomies. The first is suggested in the title; there are two stories in two settings, both presenting interracial love affairs. The other dichotomy is between the men and women in the stories. The men are both members of the white ruling class, and the women are a black and a colored African living under apartheid. While the women are portrayed as fully formed characters with individual backgrounds and qualities, they represent the limitations, both social and political, placed on women at the time. These powerless figures raise a call to action on behalf of women in apartheid South Africa because, in both cases, their promise is stifled by their circumstances.

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Both the cashier and Thebedi are essentially powerless in their world, which is dominated by white men. This powerlessness is evident on an intimate level and on a social level. In their relationships with white men, they are passive and obedient. When Dr. von Leinsdorf asks the cashier to do something, she does it willingly. She seems happy to clean his apartment, cook his food, make his coffee, and share his bed. Her attitude is one of willingness because she has been taught that this is how a woman treats a man with whom she is involved. The descriptions of her intimate relationship with Dr. von Leinsdorf reveal that she is available to him whenever he wants to make love. She never initiates, and when they are intimate, he makes his way into her body. She is merely a passive vessel meant to serve his needs.

Thebedi also is passive and powerless in her relationship with Paulus. He initiates their romantic and sexual relationship, and he always tells her where and when to meet him. She willingly complies. She clearly has tender feelings for Paulus and trusts him because they have known each other since childhood. When it is time for her to marry someone else, however, she does not tell Paulus. She also does not tell him that she is carrying his child. Her passivity is so complete that she is unable to approach him with news that affects her life but not his. When Paulus learns about the child, Thebedi is powerless to stop him from killing the baby and surrenders her power in court by saying that she does not know what Paulus did when he was alone with the baby.

On a social level, the cashier and Thebedi are also powerless. While the men know that there are dangers in having interracial relationships, the women are aware that the consequences for them will be more severe if they are caught. They have no power in the government, and they realize that being caught means being at the mercy of those who have power. This is why the cashier is terrified when the police knock on the door, and it is why Thebedi is so careful to leave Paulus long before anyone might see her with him.

The women in ‘‘Town and Country Lovers’’ also lack their own identities in their society. Thebedi’s name is given, presumably because at one time, she and Paulus were playmates and therefore peers. The cashier, however, is never even given a name. She imagines what it would be like to drive around with Dr. von Leinsdorf as if she were his wife, indicating that her daydreams center on being identified with someone else rather than on building an identity for herself.

When this story was published in 1980, women’s rights were being addressed around the world. In Western countries, great strides had been made. This trend was reaching other parts of the globe although in some countries women were (and are) still denied equal rights. The difference in South Africa, however, was that oppression was both racially based and systematized in law. In such a situation, rallying for female rights was not a priority. Black and colored men were as oppressed as women.

Hierarchies exist in every culture, but apartheid made racial and gender hierarchies especially rigid. Gordimer’s unique accomplishment in ‘‘Town and Country Lovers’’ is her portrayal of the dilemma in which two nonwhite African women find themselves. She also depicts the dilemmas they do not even seem to recognize yet, such as their own powerlessness. Although these female characters do not know another way of life, both Gordimer and the reader do. Her portrayal of these two women represents an appeal to the reader to understand the need for female power during apartheid in South Africa.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on ‘‘Town and Country Lovers,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Bussey holds a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor’s degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature.

Emotional Landscapes

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In the introduction to Conversations with Nadine Gordimer, the editors quote Gordimer as saying that politics and sex constitute the ‘‘two greatest drives in people’s lives.’’ Discussing the sexuality of one of her characters, Gordimer says,

I think there may be a particular connection between sexuality, sensuality, and politics inside South Africa. Because, after all, what is apartheid all about? . . . It’s about black skin, and it’s about woolly hair instead of straight, long blond hair, and black skin instead of white skin. The whole legal structure is based on the physical, so that the body becomes something supremely important. And I think maybe subconsciously that comes into my work too.

The physical is everywhere in Gordimer’s short story ‘‘Town and Country Lovers,’’ and an examination of how she describes her characters’ bodies provides readers with an understanding of their motivations and how the politics of apartheid have shaped their capacity to love.

Along with names, behavior, dialogue, and personal history, physical description is a primary way that writers develop characters in their stories. By visualizing characters, readers can make associations with people they have seen or read about before. In short stories, writers work with a more limited amount of space than in novels, and they frequently focus on one or two details of a character to suggest the whole person. Here is Gordimer’s portrait of the geologist, Dr. Franz-Josef von Leinsdorf, in the first half of the two-part story:

Both men and women would describe him as a goodlooking man, in a foreign way, with the lower half of the face dark and middle-aged (his mouth is thin and curving, and no matter how close-shaven his beard shows like fine shot embedded in the skin round mouth and chin) and the upper-half contradictorily young, with deep-set eyes (some would say grey, some black), thick eyelashes and brows. A tangled gaze: through which concentration and gleaming thoughtfulness perhaps appear as fire and languor.

Gordimer presents this information through the eyes of others, as if to give the description more credibility, more objectivity, which is important in establishing the factual tone of the story. After all, it is the facts of the relationship between the white geologist and the colored cashier that authorities seek to uncover. The mismatched halves of von Leinsdorf’s face, the indeterminate eye color, and the way some might mistake ‘‘thoughtfulness perhaps as fire and languor,’’ all underscore the man’s inscrutable, almost anonymous, character and furthers one of the story’s themes: apartheid’s creation of a society of secrets. Whereas Gordimer uses the face and its expression as an index of the white male’s behavior in the story, she centers on the racial features of the unnamed colored girl and presents them through the eyes of von Leinsdorf himself:

She was rather small and finely-made, for one of them. The coat was skimpy but no big backside jutted. The cold brought an apricot-graining of warm colour to her cheekbones, beneath which a very small face was quite delicately hollowed, and the skin was smooth, the subdued satiny colour of certain yellow wood. That crepey hair, but worn back flat and in a little knot pushed into one of the cheap wool chignons.

Skin, hair, backside: all are features of the racialized body in South Africa. Moving from coat to backside to bone to skin, von Leinsdorf’s gaze fits that of a geologist, analyzing details and layers, the structures of a ‘‘thing.’’ The girl’s light tint is mentioned a few other times, underlining the importance of this fact for von Leinsdorf and making the affair more believable in the reader’s imagination. To characterize both the girl’s submissive role and the geologist’s patronizing and accepting attitude toward her when she physically embodies this role, Gordimer draws this picture:

She had a yokel’s, peasant’s (he thought of it) gap between her two front teeth when she smiled that he didn’t much like, but, face ellipsed to three-quarter angle, eyes cast down in concentration with soft lips almost closed, this didn’t matter. He said, watching her sew, ‘‘You’re a good girl’’; and touched her.

The cashier’s a ‘‘good girl’’ when she acts out her socially prescribed role. It’s interesting that von Leinsdorf never asks out the white women in his office, and indeed only begins an affair with the nameless cashier after she pursues him, offering, literally, to cater to his domestic needs. The convenience of the relationship is what appeals to him, the fact that he has to make little emotional or physical effort to maintain it. The only time the girl’s ‘‘silent body’’ speaks against von Leinsdorf’s desire is when the police come and she threatens to kill herself unless he lets her hide in the closet.

Whereas von Leinsdorf’s ‘‘liberal’’ behavior stems from his sense of noblesse oblige (the obligation of honorable behavior that is associated with high rank or birth), the white farmer’s son in the second story, Paulus Eysendyck, treats his black lover, Thebedi, more from a sense of entitlement. Unlike the virtually anonymous adult geologist whose only tie to the country is his work, Eysendyck was born in South Africa and lives in a web of immediate family and social relationships that shape his responses. The story of Eysendyck and Thebedi is the story of South African socialization itself. In a few short pages, Gordimer traces the characters’ growth from children to young adults, and charts the ways in which they grow into their prescribed social roles.

The only physical description of Eysendyck comes early in the story when readers are told that he was six feet tall at fifteen. From this rather simple statement, followed by the description of how ‘‘he had learnt how to tease and flirt and fondle quite intimately these girls who were the daughters of prosperous farmers like his father,’’ readers can envision a young man who behaves as if the world were his birthright. Gordimer provides more details about Thebedi’s body, but through a soft-focus lens. Readers are told only that she has ‘‘big dark eyes, shiny as soft water’’ and ‘‘dark legs.’’ The gilt hoop earrings Eysendyck bought her form a regular part of her dress. None of these details, however, allow readers to establish a clear picture of what she looks like, but they do help to form the impression of the love that Thebedi had for Eysendyck. The most ingenious use of characterization through physical description in the story is the depiction of the lovers’ baby, for which Gordimer uses a third-person shifting point of view. A narrator with this point of view is separate from either character but has access to the minds and feelings of both. Her descriptions, then, are often a blend of what both characters see and feel. Here’s a description of Thebedi’s baby at birth:

There was on its head a quantity of straight, fine floss, like that which carries the seeds of certain weeds in the veld. The unfocused eyes it opened were grey flecked with yellow. Njabulo was the matte, opaque coffee-grounds colour that has always been called black; the colour of Thebedi’s legs on which beaded water looked oyster-shell blue, the same colour as Thebedi’s face, where the black eyes, with their interested gaze and clear whites, were so dominant.

Comparing the baby’s hair to a weed certainly suggests the attitude that Eysendyck had toward the baby, but it also suggests Thebedi’s attitude as well. This idea is reinforced not only in her passivity when Eysendyck (presumably) kills the baby but later as well when Thebedi retracts her previous claim that she had seen Eysendyck pour the poison down the baby’s throat. This retraction, of course, is aided by the fact that Thebedi has a new baby with her husband.

Details such as these, however, don’t tell the truth of the stories; the truth lies in the gap between what happens and the emotional effects events have on characters and the real historical people they are meant to represent. Gordimer put these two separate stories together not only because they are thematically similar, but also because they represent the range of people affected by apartheid in general and South Africa’s Immorality Act of 1927 in particular. Whether her characters live in the country or city; whether they are white, colored, or black; whether they are professional, working class, or aristocrats, Gordimer shows how their lives have been unalterably shaped by the irrational and unjust policies of segregation. By artfully describing the circumstances and details of a handful of these characters’ lives, Gordimer allows readers to fill in the blanks and arrive at the moral truth these stories represent.

Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on ‘‘Town and Country Lovers,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Semansky’s stories, poems, and essays appear regularly in literary journals.

Race and History in the Stories of Nadine Gordimer

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Although Nadine Gordimer has in recent years written and published more novels than collections of short stories, the range and sequence of the short stories offer some revealing glimpses of her understanding of what living in South Africa has entailed. It is certainly true that in her novels a fuller and more comprehensive moral vision is presented. Reading the stories, though, is like a suburban train journey where all sorts of fascinating scenes of life are available for a moment before the train’s onward movement denies you the chance of complete vision. You as voyeur have the option of leaving the vision in its fragmented completeness, or else of completing the story yourself in your mind.

In this study I intend looking only at those stories whose primary thematic focus is race. This is one of the main themes developed by Gordimer in her short stories. She herself has made this point explicitly.

‘‘But all that is and has been written by South Africans is profoundly influenced, at the deepest and least controllable level of consciousness, by the politics of race . . . There is no country in the Western world where the creative imagination, whatever it seizes upon, finds the focus of even the most private event set in the overall social determination of racial laws.’’

What is more important is that Gordimer’s treatment of the theme is manifestly responsive to the historical developments that have affected race relations in South Africa since she began writing. Stephen Clingman has shown how her novels reveal a ‘‘developing consciousness of history’’—the title of his article ‘‘History from the inside: the novels of Nadine Gordimer’’ is based on a reference to a quotation from Gordimer’s critical work The Black Interpreters. I do not intend to repeat his conclusions—moreover the short stories differ from the novels in being much less comprehensive in their scope, and in some cases being less refined, or taking up more extreme positions than the novels. The article is intended to complement Clingman’s by showing how the explication of the stories within the frame of reference he laid down for the novels, is both possible and informative.

Several introductory points need to be made. Gordimer has always been an astute observer of all around her. Her fiction abounds with the most minutely observed detail—in fact at times this piling up of detail has been criticised for obscuring what the particular critic regarded as the basic slightness of what she was saying. However, most critics have agreed that her insights have been as finely perceptive as her observations. But these insights are historically limited because the writer is historically caught up in the reality she is trying to describe, and her novels ‘‘effectively take up ideological positions according to which that reality is viewed.’’ The development and changes that occur in her ideological range are the substance of Clingman’s article, and it is the intention of this article to corroborate Clingman’s conclusions through a similar analysis of the short stories.

The liberal tradition
The earliest studies of Gordimer placed her within the liberal tradition of fiction, which had been regarded as the dominant tradition in White South African literature. Contemporary criticism regards that tradition now as obsolete and irrelevant.

Certainly liberalism as a political ideology has passed out of relevance for post-Sharpeville and Soweto South Africa. The aesthetics of liberalism were centred on the ‘‘individual’’—a being possessed of certain freedoms and faculties, and liberal fiction concerned itself with ‘‘forms of interaction between people as interactions between individual persons.’’ And so short stories within this tradition would focus on individuals within individual situations. Also inherent in this tradition was the belief in the potentiality of people to ‘‘correct themselves, to liberate themselves from the inhibiting and perverting effects of social laws, codes and habits.’’ Individuals, then, could master reality (to effect this correction), and for this to be adequately demonstrated in literature, reality had to be seen to be ‘‘mastered’’, i e rendered non-problematically. Liberalism thus favoured realism as a mode whereby the perception of reality was able to be treated largely as nonproblematic.

Her first three collections were published during the 1950s, and they cover her writing from the early forties to 1960. Of the forty-nine stories, thirteen deal primarily with race. Historically this period saw the beginnings of the apartheid regime, the systematising of the various racist laws already on the statute book and the introduction of many others into an ideology designed to ensure White domination in economic, political, social and cultural affairs. Along with the racist laws came ‘‘security’’ laws in order to stamp out opposition to the regime; laws which were constantly revised and strengthened to plug the loopholes. Reaction against these laws came from Whites, both directly in the parliamentary opposition, in the Torch Commando, the Springbok Legion, the Black Sash, and other organisations, and indirectly by flouting the laws especially in multi-racial social contacts; and from the Blacks, in the form of the ANC, the Civil Disobedience Campaign of 1952/3, the Congress Alliance, the Congress of the People, and the Freedom Charter, and indirectly again by the multiracial social contacts. Gordimer’s early stories are sensitive to the liberal consciousness of the age, but do not carry much overt reference to historical or political events.

Ideological features
These early stories reveal some of the ideological features of liberal aesthetics. They concern themselves largely with individuals within specifically individual contexts. In some, the revelations which form the structural keystone of the story are revelations which suggest the potential for ‘‘salvation’’ on the individual’s own efforts, and generally the perception of reality they encompass is non-problematic. However, the position is not held simplistically. Gordimer is regularly critical of those Whites holding so-called liberal views. In the story ‘‘The amateurs’’ a group of well-intentioned Whites presents Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest to a Black audience, and the Whites do not really know what they are doing, nor do they understand the Blacks’ response to it. In ‘‘Ah, woe is me’’ the White woman finds herself unable to react with normal human sympathy to the distress of her former maidservant’s daughter. In ‘‘Six feet of the country’’ the speaker prides himself on the concern and paternalistic benevolence he shows to his Black labourers, yet the story’s ending reveals the radical lack of sympathy for the loss the old man had sustained in the death of his son. The same lack of consistency is revealed in other stories as well.

In ‘‘Something for the time being’’, the inconsistency between good intentions and unsympathetic actions reaches the point where the nature of the interaction becomes betrayal. William Chadders’ refusal to allow Daniel Mngoma to wear a Congress button in the shop is a denial of the goodwill he showed by offering him employment in the first place, and his reason for that refusal is such a concession to the apartheid mentality as to reveal Chadders’s essential moral bankruptcy. ‘‘The factory depends on a stable, satisfied black labour force . . . you and I know that the whole black wage standard isn’t enough . . . that they haven’t a legal union . . . but . . . I can’t officially admit an element that represents dissatisfaction with their lot.’’

These are snatches yet, like scenes perceived from the suburban train window, fragments within a greater whole. That greater whole in this case can be realised in the world that Gordimer reproduces in her novels, and the novels reveal the nature and extent of the failure of liberalism; its inadequacy in the face of the historical developments, and its inability to act satisfactorily as a means of perceiving the South African reality. Robert Green, commenting on A world of strangers, has written:

‘‘Miss Gordimer has claimed that she is the only South African writer to have investigated the development; ‘the decline of a liberalism, black and white, that has proved itself hopelessly inadequate to an historical situation.’’

There are two stories with overtly political references. ‘‘Something for the time being’’ is one, and ‘‘The smell of death and flowers’’ is the other. The latter story deals with the Civil Disobedience Campaign, and so the story is rooted in historical time at that point. The attitudes of Whites and Blacks in the story reflect on the political and social attitudes held at the time. ‘‘What I have written,’’ says Gordimer, ‘‘represents alternatives to the development of a life as it was found.’’ Later on, ‘‘But part of these stories’ ‘truth’ does depend upon faithfulness to another series of lost events—the shifts in social attitudes as evidenced in the characters and situations.’’

What is especially significant about ‘‘The smell of death and flowers’’ is that Gordimer presents characters who seem to carry her approval. Jessica Malherbe (forerunner of Anna Louw in A world of strangers) had broken out of her ‘‘White’’ identity by marrying an Indian and by working with Blacks, rather than for them. Joyce McCoy, the central figure of the story, achieves something very rare in Gordimer’s presentation of relations between White and Black—the climax of the story occurs when she experiences a feeling of empathy with ordinary Black people. ‘‘And she felt, suddenly, not nothing but what they (the Black onlookers) were feeling, at the sight of her, a white girl, taken, incomprehensibly, as they themselves were used to being taken.’’

Decline of liberalism
The decline for Gordimer of liberalism as a viable aesthetic is reflected also in the narrative techniques she employs. The early stories have a strong authorial presence. This occurs through a number of authorial comments; through the prominence given to the conclusion, which is often a comment or a reflection by the narrator on the action which illuminates or reinforces the central revelation of the story. Generally a distance is maintained between narrator and the narrated events. Little attempt to explore the interiors of the characters is made, and psycho-narration (i e the narrator reporting what the character is thinking without attempting to convey the immediacy or particularity of the character) is prominent. Even as good a story as ‘‘Is there nowhere else where we can meet?’’ sees both the White girl and the Black man as distant objects. The story ‘‘Monday is better than Sunday’’ presents a White family enjoying their Sunday leisure which is made possible by the labour of their Black maidservant Elizabeth. All the characters in this story are stereotypes, caricatures, and given Gordimer’s skill in characterisation displayed in other stories, it is fair to assume that Gordimer is presenting the family and Elizabeth in this caricatured fashion deliberately. ‘‘Caricature . . . is perhaps not a deliberate distortion of the subject but a form of truth about those who see the subject that way.’’

Technical aspects
However, this mode of presentation, with its fixedness, its presentation of reality as non-problematic, becomes unsatisfactory when what essentially has to be conveyed is the way reality is perceived by sentient beings. A story that does not in some way deal with the way reality is perceived says nothing about the reality dealt with. When the perception of reality is seen to be as problematic as ascertaining what the reality itself is, then it becomes necessary to alter the means of presenting the story, to reduce the authorial presence, and to allow for another less dominating mode. This aesthetic and ideological shift, and the technical adaptation are mutually interactive. This claim should not be seen as generally prescriptive—but it does apply in Gordimer’s case. In terms of the fiction, presenting such perception of reality requires venturing into the consciousness of the characters involved.

This can be achieved in a number of ways— first person narration, interior monologues (the stream of consciousness technique) or in snatches during third person narration where the point of narration moves from authorial to figural (from the narrator to one of the characters within the action). This is what happens in Gordimer’s fiction. More and more she starts using devices that allow her to enter the consciousness of the characters so that their inner processes can be presented as they are. The most interesting example of this is in the story ‘‘Horn of plenty.’’ This story deals with the relationship between a spoilt White American woman, Pat, married to a South African White, and her Black maidservant, Rebecca. By the end of the story, we judge Pat to be primarily responsible for the inadequate relationship. The reason why this is so comes across in the different methods by which Gordimer presents the consciousness of each woman. Rebecca’s world is presented largely through psychonarration— the narrator informing the reader what she (Rebecca) is thinking. We do not see the workings of her inner consciousness for ourselves. And so, we judge her on her actions, which are exemplary, even if she as a person is not very sympathetic towards Pat. Pat, on the other hand, is treated differently, and we are shown the workings of her consciousness, in an extended fashion, at least twice. The result is that we see her revealing herself as a spoilt, self-indulgent woman, unwilling to love, but wanting to be loved.

Similar devices are used in the stories to show the internalisation of the outwardly imposed restraints of the apartheid regime. Whatever barriers exist between Black and White are seen in their outward form (the legislation), but also in their inner manifestations. Gordimer’s revealing the consciousness of her White characters shows the extent to which the apartheid laws have imposed their restrictive patterns on people. This point is more strongly made with respect to the novels, e g in Occasion for loving, ‘‘the love between Gideon and Ann fails not so much because the sanctions of society break it up from the outside; but because those sanctions have become internalised, and cripple it from the inside.’’

Black consciousness
Significantly at this stage, Gordimer had not yet explored a Black consciousness in any depth. Her treatment of Blacks is distant and indirect—her view primarily concerned with Whites and their inadequacies. However, with the intensification of the opposition to the regime from Africa, as the continent lurched into independence; after the horrific impact of Sharpeville and the beginnings of the South African revolution, and its complete failure in the face of the massive state response, the intensifi- cation of the apartheid regime gave the question of race an urgency and importance that dwarfed other considerations. It was racism that had produced the traumatic events of 1960 to 1966, therefore opposition to racism required a more concerted attempt to bridge the gap. In Gordimer’s two books of stories written during the sixties, twelve of the thirty-one stories deal with race, a significantly higher proportion than before. More important than that number, however, is the attempt in four of these stories (from Not for publication) to portray a Black consciousness in operation—the most powerful story being ‘‘Some Monday for sure’’—the interior monologue of a Black exile in Dar es Salaam. The subject matter of the stories also changes, and becomes more specifically topical. Stories deal with passbook burning, ANC sabotage and exile, the 4am arrest.

The social domain
Allied to this shift is the shift in the ideological perspective. Instead of individual encounters being concerned primarily with individuals, now the encounters explore also the constraints imposed on individuals in a more general sense. The stories start exploring ‘‘typical’’ situations. ‘‘A ‘typical’ or ‘representative’ character incarnates historical forces without thereby ceasing to be richly individualised.’’ The individual’s private world is no longer the main concern of the writer, but instead the social domain within which the individual has his being, is. For example, the story ‘‘A chip of glass ruby’’ starts off with:

When the duplicating machine was brought into the house, Bamjee said, ‘‘Isn’t is enough that you’ve got the Indians’ troubles on your back?’’ Mrs Bamje said, with a smile that showed the gap of a missing tooth but was confident all the same, ‘‘What’s the difference, Yusuf?—we’ve all got the same troubles.’’

In another attempt to make a particular story carry a general application, the ‘‘allegorical’’ story called ‘‘The pet’’ describes the lifestyle and habits of a Nyasa servant who is cowed by living in a foreign land (South Africa) illegally. The pet is a bulldog, and between the dog and the Nyasa a muted hostility develops. The dog never does develop into the watchdog he was intended to become— he is altogether too docile and yielding. The story ends with the dull realisation by the Nyasa of the exactness of the parallel between them, and there emerges a faint sympathy within him for the dog. The story is not primarily concerned with the Nyasa, but the constraints and determining factors that operate on him.

The years 1960 to 1966 were years of open violence, ‘‘the false start of the South African revolution, the outright victory of the counter-revolution.’’ Repression, politically, socially and culturally produced finally the stunned silence that was regarded officially as the return of law and order. From this point onwards, Gordimer seems to have turned to novels in order to express herself—since that time (1966), she has had five novels published and only two collections of short stories. Her horizon stretched—A guest of honour is set outside of South Africa, as are eight of the sixteen stories in Livingstone’s companions. It is almost as if nothing more at that time could be said about South Africa. The stories that do deal with racial attitudes in a South African context have a complex texture of irony to them. ‘‘Open house’’ becomes almost a parody of the genuine interaction of White and Black people. Frances Taver sets up a meeting for an American journalist with some Blacks, but ‘‘unfortunately, under the tougher apartheid laws of the 1960s, Frances can only provide introductions to time-servers, phoneys, Black collaborators with the regime.’’ But the American doesn’t mind—he gets what he wanted. The irony is that while that lunch party was going on, a visitor does turn up, in secret, ‘‘an African friend banned for his activities with the African National Congress, who had gone underground,’’— and of course he does not stay even to announce himself. The American doesn’t come to realise that he was not meeting the people he should have met—he can’t understand Frances when she phones him, and says, ‘‘You mustn’t be taken in . . . You must understand . . . Even they’ve become what they are because things are the way they are. Being phoney is being corrupted by the situation and that’s real enough. We’re made out of that.’’ His realisation from the note of urgency in her voice was, ‘‘that something complicated was wrong, but he knew, too, that he wouldn’t be there long enough to find out, that perhaps you needed to live and die there, to find out.’’

The other important race story in Livingstone’s companions is ‘‘Africa emergent’’. This story, based in part on the exile and death-in-exile of Nat Nakasa, deals with loyalty and betrayal. The unnamed central character is suspected of being a police spy, but he gains credibility at the end when he is arrested and held in solitary confinement. Although the first person narrator is White, and so the complexities of narrative stance reveal aspects of his White context, the central concern explored by the story is the unnamed Black’s experiences and how difficult normal human interaction becomes in atmospheres of internalised restraint, suspicion and legally imposed repression. Again the emphasis is on the external social contexts which determine people’s attitudes and actions. Elias Nkomo, in exile and hence supposedly ‘‘free’’ of the context of apartheid, cannot escape the demands of the influences that shaped him. He dies because he was ‘‘sick unto death with homesickness for the native land that had shut him out forever.’’

The short stories of the seventies, published in A soldier’s embrace, present a wide range of topics, and of narrative techniques. Race is central in four of them, but these stories do not have the same proportionate importance that the earlier stories had in Gordimer’s ongoing output. They present intense moments, and refer to central features of the South African syndrome, but the major statements are being made in the novels. The two stories that linked under the title ‘‘Town and country lovers’’ are stories which present people trapped into inhumane situations by the perverted values and perceptions imposed on them. Both stories deal with relationships of people of different race and class. The Immorality Act—the legal restraint—is the consequence of the application of the ideology of racial purity in law. Loving becomes a crime, if it is between people of different races. What each story presents is a classic case of alienation. The tone is flat, unemotional (almost as in a police dossier), which betrays the intensity of the emotional context. The relationship in each story is an unequal one, yet there seems to be a genuine personal involvement of each with the other. For the town lover, the raid—imposition of this alien and violating intrusion into their privacy—abruptly terminates the relationship. Dr von Leinsdorf’s comment betrays the girl. ‘‘Even in my own country, it’s difficult for a person from a higher class to marry one from a lower class.’’ The girl’s mother says, ‘‘I won’t let my daughter work as a servant for a white man again.’’ People have lost their humanity because of an unhuman law, and so people become things. In the story of the country lovers, the pressures on the White farmer’s son, when he is aware that he has fathered a child to a Black mother, are such that he feels he has to kill the child, rather than the natural response of loving it. The farmer’s response when his son is acquitted of murder is, ‘‘I will try and carry on as best I can to hold up my head in the district.’’ It is the social opprobrium rather than the moral guilt that is his primary concern. They are all suffering from their alienation from their own humanity.

Radical themes
By the time that A soldier’s embrace was published, Gordimer had already published The conservationalist and Burger’s daughter. Both these major novels reveal the nature and the extent of Gordimer’s view of broad development in South Africa. ‘‘Prophetically The conservationist is situated at the point where White history ends and Black history resumes.’’ Burger’s daughter deals with the challenge to White radicalism and the role it was to play in the light of the rise of the Black consciousness movements of the seventies. Rosa returns to South Africa to play a secondary, supportive role—but this is the destiny of Whites now. Gordimer has quoted Mongane Wally Serote’s poem in a number of articles: ‘‘Blacks must learn to talk, whites must learn to listen.’’ This idea is given concrete substance in July’s people, where the White family, the Smales, have to learn to depend entirely on their former servant, July, for their existence.

Taking a wide view of the stories on the racial theme, they can be seen as forming fragments within a whole. They are responsive to the historical developments, and they reflect the ideological shifts which are more readily apparent in the novels. The fall-off in importance vis-à-vis the novels by no means invalidates the stories—they remain masterful compositions whose insights and reflections continue to inform us of the ‘‘ideas, values and feelings by which men experience their societies at various times.’’

Source: Michael King, ‘‘Race and History in the Stories of Nadine Gordimer,’’ in Africa Insight, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1983, pp. 222–26.

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Critical Overview