Themes and Meanings
“The Train from Rhodesia” deals with the contrast in the lives between the people on the train and those in the station and also between the young wife and husband. The passengers on the train represent those who have both leisure and money: The young wife on the train is on holiday; other passengers throw unwanted chocolate to dogs at the station, or sit in the dining car drinking beer. The people in the station represent the working poor: The vendors at the station squat “in the dust”; the stationmaster’s children are “barefoot.” The children and animals beg for handouts while the vendors nearly do so: “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 toward the faces on the train.”
The physical setting places the white passengers above the local inhabitants: They sit inside the comfortable train and reach down to throw scraps to the animals or to exchange money for the crafts being held up by the “gray-black” hands. The interior of the train suggests luxury, but also a lack of life; artificial flowers adorn tables in the dining car, and the wife, the only passenger whose internal feelings are revealed, feels a void in her life. The train station suggests poverty but also life and creativity; the land is poor and the animals are malnourished, but the crafts of the artisans are beautiful. The meeting between the passengers and the local inhabitants is brief and unsatisfactory. The train itself is presented negatively. Each reference to the train emphasizes harsh sounds, negative power, or a lack of connection between the train and the landscape. The train brings together the two groups only briefly while actually keeping them isolated: The “few men who had got down to stretch their legs sprang on to the train . . . safe from the one dusty platform, the one tin house, the empty sand.” The brief meeting highlights the disparity between the lives of both groups and suggests that such disparity is harmful to both. The young wife who lives in luxury bears internal scars, while the creative vendors live in poverty.
The young husband and wife are also contrasted. They share the same lifestyle, but apparently not the same values. The husband appears happy until the contretemps with his wife over the lion, but the reader who has access to the wife’s thoughts and feelings knows that she is not content. She feels an emptiness and questions the place of her new husband in her life. When the husband proudly relates his success at buying the lion at a much-reduced price, his wife thinks not of the lovely lion but of the artisan. In anger she tries to explain her view, but her husband does not understand, and she gives up trying to explain, as if she believes the disparity in their values too large a gap to be bridged by words.
In "The Train from Rhodesia," a train's short stop in a poor African village highlights the racial and class barriers that typify South African life in the 1950s. Though only a few pages long, Gordimer's story encompasses several themes besides racial inequality, including greed, poverty, and conscience.
Race and Racism
In South Africa, apartheid, the legal separation of races, became law in 1947. It is not necessary for Gordimer to mention the race of the characters in the story. Readers in the 1950s understood that the "old native" was black and the rich tourists were white. In a society so harshly divided, Gordimer writes of an instance in which the two races interact, thus revealing the patronizing attitudes of whites towards blacks and the blacks' virtual enslavement and dependency on the whites. The whites, moreover, are not native to the country; just as the train passengers are merely "tourists" in the village that exists frozen in time before and after the train leaves. The villagers are shown as belonging to the land: "the sand became the sea, and closed over the children's black feet...
(The entire section is 1,408 words.)