Waiting for the Barbarians

by J. M. Coetzee

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 828

The narrator, the Magistrate, administrates a town on the frontier of an unnamed empire. He looks forward to a quiet retirement and spends some of his free time excavating the site of an old town buried in the dunes, where he has found a cache of wooden slips covered with mysterious writing. Colonel Joll travels to the Magistrate’s town from the imperial capital to investigate attacks by indigenous people whom the empire calls “barbarians.” Joll interrogates and tortures two prisoners captured on the road, a boy and his grandfather. After killing the grandfather, he continues the torture until the boy confesses that his people, the barbarians, are preparing an attack against the empire. Troubled by these acts of torture and skeptical about the barbarian threat, the Magistrate gives Joll supplies, men, and horses to conduct a raid on the nomadic barbarians.

Joll returns with more prisoners, whom he interrogates over five days. The Magistrate spends his nights with a prostitute, but he is troubled by dreams. Joll eventually returns to the capital, and the Magistrate releases and feeds the brutalized captives.

The Magistrate takes in a young barbarian woman who was maimed and partially blinded by the interrogators, then left behind by the surviving barbarians. He initiates a nightly ritual in which he rubs her body with oil until he falls asleep. The girl works as a kitchen maid in the Magistrate’s house during the day and comes to his rooms every night. The Magistrate is fascinated by the scars left by the torturers.

The Magistrate begins to have a dream that recurs later, in which he approaches a group of children playing in the snow. He associates one of the children with the barbarian girl. In waking life, he finds the barbarian girl impenetrable—a blank surface—and wonders if that is what the torturers felt as well. Through the girl, he begins to discover his complicity with the torturers. Failing to find the desire to have intercourse with the barbarian girl, he resumes his visits to the prostitute. The Magistrate learns that the government plans to launch an offensive against the barbarians in the spring.

In early March, the Magistrate sets out with three men to return the girl to the barbarians. On the journey, they suffer from treacherous terrain and bad weather. They finally encounter a group of barbarian men. The Magistrate asks the girl to return to the town with him, but she refuses and leaves with the barbarians.

Upon his return, the Magistrate is met by an officer named Mandel who accuses him of treason and imprisons him in the building where the other prisoners were tortured. The Magistrate feels that he is becoming like an animal. Escaping, he eventually wanders out to the excavation site in the dunes, but since he will die if he remains outside the walls of the settlement, he finally returns to his cell on his own.

Joll returns with a group of barbarian prisoners who are tethered together with a wire that runs through holes in their hands and cheeks. As the townspeople crowd around the spectacle of torture, the Magistrate comes forward and yells, “No!” Soldiers strike him to the ground, breaking his arm.

The next day, Joll summons the Magistrate and asks him to read the slips of wood. The Magistrate pretends to read the slips, making up a story that indicts the Empire. Then, he says that the slips are a kind of allegory; they can be read in many ways. Joll mockingly calls him the “One Just Man” and turns him over to Mandel, who tortures and humiliates him over a period of weeks. Finally, Mandel forces the Magistrate to wear a woman’s dress and hangs him from a tree, stopping just short of execution. One day, Mandel unexpectedly tells the Magistrate that he is a free man.

Rumors circulate about the second expeditionary force, which has failed to return. Many townspeople are leaving. Resentful soldiers are breaking into the empty houses and looting them. In time, two soldiers from the expedition are seen to approach the settlement, but they are corpses that have been braced upright in their saddles. At nightfall, the remaining soldiers flee the town with horses and as much loot as they can carry.

The Magistrate returns to his old apartment. The townspeople, still anticipating a barbarian attack, prepare as well as they can for winter. One night, Joll returns seeking horses and supplies. The Magistrate and Joll stare at each other through the glass. The men start to leave, but the Magistrate detains one man, who tells him that the army was not beaten by force. The barbarians simply led them out into the desert and then disappeared.

The Magistrate returns to his old hobbies. He attempts to write a history of the place but fails. He decides instead to wrap the slips of barbarian writing in oilcloth and rebury them at the excavation site.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 421

Waiting for the Barbarians is narrated by a man known only as the Magistrate, who administers an outpost of an unnamed empire. The time and place of the novel’s plot are also unspecified, and these indeterminacies allow the reader to perceive the events as universal. The novel begins with the arrival of Colonel Joll from the Third Empire, which has declared war against the “barbarians,” the natives indigenous to the area. Among the captives, the Magistrate witnesses the killing of an old man and the torture of a young boy. Later, he encounters a young woman whose body bears the visible cruelties of the empire.

It is in his relationship with the young woman that the Magistrate begins to reexamine the goals of the empire. Before Joll’s arrival, the Magistrate had lived without incident among the natives; some of his leisure time was spent excavating and deciphering the artifacts of those who had lived there before him. In the young “barbarian” woman, the Magistrate begins to understand that he, along with those in the service of the empire, helped to destroy an innocent and peaceful civilization. After the Magistrate embarks on a journey to return the woman to her people, he is perceived as an enemy of the state, and, upon his return, is tortured, humiliated, and imprisoned. This process allows the Magistrate to recognize his body’s vulnerability; the honesty and authority of his body’s pain expresses essential realities ignored by his surface personality

The military expedition fails to engage the barbarians successfully and disintegrates; the barbarians have made themselves utterly inaccessible, frustrating Joll, whose failed campaign has turned the outpost into a wasteland devoid of the vegetation of human life. As the novel comes to a close, the Magistrate and the remaining inhabitants of the outpost are left to await the barbarians, but in point of fact no one is coming; it is the barbaric Joll, who, at last, is leaving in disgrace. The last words the Magistrate speaks to Joll are of the crimes latent in the empire itself, which he tells Joll must not be inflicted on others. He has come to understand that the empire’s citizens cannot depend on invading barbarians to justify the monsters they have made of themselves; the barbarians in this regard are an elaborate misdirection. Alone once again, the Magistrate watches children happily build out of the snow a “not bad” image of a man; this reasonably decent snowman can also describe the Magistrate’s own developing character.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access