Style and Technique
Most of the story is told dramatically; its events are presented as if picked up by a camera and a microphone, with relatively little narrative intervention. Only occasionally the connotations of words—such as the negative ones describing the train—suggest interpretation. Two passages are important exceptions to the dramatic point of view: Twice the reader is allowed glimpses into the wife’s thoughts and feelings. In the first passage, the reader discovers that the wife does not buy the lion only because she already has many such memorabilia from her trip. Her thoughts also suggest that she is unsure about her feelings for her new husband. In the second passage, the reader discovers a discrepancy between how the husband and wife think and what they value. The implication of the husband and wife’s failure to understand what the other feels about the carved lion suggests that these two people have different values and may therefore be incompatible. The wife finds the lion a wonderful piece of art but does not buy it because, after buying so many other pieces already, she feels that this purchase—not necessarily its price—would be extravagant. The husband believes that she would like the lion at a lower price and does not mind haggling with the vendor for a bargain. The wife is disturbed at her husband’s actions. For her, the beauty of the lion is lost at the price of what she views as the humiliation of the vendor. As she is filled with shame at her husband’s actions, she feels again a void inside that she expected to be filled by marriage.
Because the train is presented negatively and the inside of the train reflects a kind of sterile luxury, the implication is that the void inside the wife may be caused not by the lack of a husband but by the lack of a life with any real meaning. Her joy at the vendor’s lion suggests that perhaps she has the potential for a finer existence and that she would better rid herself of the void by participating in all of life, not just the sterile leisure life the train symbolizes. The separation of the wealthy and the poor is not a satisfactory arrangement for either group.
Nadine Gordimer builds her story on a series of contrasts: white and black, leisured and working, rich and poor, comfort and pain, above and below, sterility and creativity. Because of its dramatic point of view, most of the story is revealed through the contrasts, but on the two occasions when the reader is allowed glimpses into the wife’s mind and heart, the themes suggested by the contrasts are confirmed.
Legal Separation of the Races
When Gordimer published "The Train from Rhodesia" in 1952, South African society was legally divided along racial lines by apartheid. The all-white National Party won control of the government in 1948 and dominated South African politics for much of the next two decades. Black Africans and other non-whites, including those of mixed-race heritage, were denied the most basic human rights and forced to live apart from whites in substandard living conditions. They were allowed only disproportionately small representation in government, and by 1960 they were denied all representation. This political exclusion insured a monumental divide in the respective standards of living between whites and non-whites. While whites enjoyed excellent hygiene, health care, food, education and transportation, non-whites, like the old man and the stationmaster's family in the story, suffered from malnutrition, disease, and severe poverty. In accordance with the Population Registration Act of 1950, all South Africans were divided by their race and treated accordingly. Members of each of the four established ethnic groups (Asian, African White and Coloured, or mixed-race) were strictly segregated in all aspects of their lives. Interracial sex and marriage were prohibited and the Group Areas Act of 1950 divided all cities and towns into segregated districts of both residential and business property.
(The entire section is 1,998 words.)