The Train from Rhodesia

by Nadine Gordimer

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Discussion Topic

Main ideas and conflicts in "The Train from Rhodesia"


The main ideas in "The Train from Rhodesia" include social inequality and the exploitation inherent in colonialism. The story highlights the economic disparity between the wealthy tourists and the impoverished locals. The central conflict revolves around a moral dilemma faced by a young woman who witnesses the demeaning bargaining for a carved lion, which symbolizes the broader issues of power and exploitation.

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What is the main idea of "The Train from Rhodesia"?

The story protests the policy of apartheid (complete racial segregation) as it existed in South Africa during the middle and latter part of the 1900s. "The Train from Rhodesia" shows the damaging effects of apartheid on whites and natives alike.

The premise of the story is the arrival of a train full of white tourists at a rural station far from the city. The natives who greet the train are impoverished, powerless, and hungry. Barefoot children beg for pennies. Dogs forage for scraps. The adults, desperate for money, try to sell hand-carved souvenirs to the tourists on the train. The racial policies of their country have consigned them to a hand-to-mouth existence, devoid of human sympathy.

The white people on the train are exemplified by a young couple. The young man bargains with an old native over the price of a carved lion his wife had admired but rejected because of its price. He continues to bargain "for fun" until the train starts to pull out and the old man in desperation sells the lion for far less than its value. His wife is angry and appalled by his behavior. She puts the lion aside. Her conscience bothers her that the old man was forced by poverty to accept so little. Her husband understands nothing about her feelings, what he has done, or what he has witnessed at the station. See the enotes links below for a complete summary of the story and other study aids.

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What is the main conflict in "The Train from Rhodesia"?

The main conflict in "The Train from Rhodesia" is the tension that exists between social classes. The train itself pulls up to a poor village next to the train station. The train is full of wealthy white people, and the village is full of poor natives.

As the train sits in the station, the villagers desperately try to sell their handicrafts to the people on the train. The train itself emphasizes this divide, as the villagers never get on the train, but simply run up and down beside it. The text says "all up and down the length of the train in the dust the artists sprang, walking bent, like performing animals, the better to exhibit the fantasy held towards the faces on the train" (Gordimer). The people in the village can smell the food being cooked in the train, although the people in the village are starving. The people in the village desperately try to sell their goods and make a living, while the people on the train are only thinking of getting a bargain (although they can certainly afford the wares being offered).

The story focuses on one interaction in particular, that of a young woman considering buying a wooden lion from an old man. She concludes that she doesn't need the trinket and that it is too expensive. She also thinks about how absurd the lion would look once she takes it out of its own context and tries to find a place for it in her foreign home. Her husband, however, runs back and buys the lion at the last minute for a drastically reduced price.

The woman in the story is starting to recognize the class conflict, and these actions from her husband make her feel ashamed and uncomfortable. After her husband buys the lion, she exclaims "If you want the thing, she said, her voice rising and breaking with the shrill impotence of anger, why didn’t you buy it in the first place? If you wanted it, why didn’t you pay for it? Why didn’t you take it decently, when he offered it? Why did you have to wait for him to run after the train with it, and give him one-and-six? One and six!" (Gordimer).The woman in the story is starting to realize how terrible and absurd the situation is. She feels uncomfortable with the fact that for her, she and her husband are just haggling for a useless trinket, while for the old man each penny could represent the difference between life and death.

The woman struggles with her own internal conflict about these feelings, and the larger conflict for everyone is the drastic divide in social class.

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