Waiting for the Barbarians Characters

J. M. Coetzee

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

The Magistrate

The Magistrate, the story’s first-person narrator, an administrator of a territory belonging to an unnamed empire. He is an aging and somewhat decadent man who explains that he has lived in the remote settlement for decades and has haphazardly and inefficiently carried out his administrative duties on behalf of the empire. Although he admits to his laziness, his fondness for young native girls, and his satisfaction with the old ways of imperialism, he still emerges as an admirable and sympathetic character. When he comprehends the full extent of the cruelty condoned by the new regime, which is determined to save the empire at any cost, he regrets his initial compliance with the Third Bureau’s orders and rebels, then becomes a prisoner himself. At the same time, he searches for some significance in his own wasted life. In the light of the novel’s allegorical overtones, the character of The Magistrate represents all men and women who face not only their inherent weaknesses but the forces of totalitarianism as well. At the story’s conclusion, The Magistrate simply goes on living, however uneasily, and continues his struggle to find a clear pattern in the complexities of life.

Colonel Joll

Colonel Joll, an official in the mysterious Third Bureau, an arm of the Civil Guard that was created to protect the empire, which is threatened by barbarians. This young officer specializes in torture and...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The most interesting and complex character in this novel is unquestionably the magistrate. Although the other characters are fairly conventional and one-dimensional, they are skillfully drawn and somewhat perplexing as well. Colonel Joll and Warrant Officer Mandel are stock villains: sadists who are weak at the core, men who are “unsatisfied and unsatisfying,” who have been told that “one can reach the top only by climbing a pyramid of bodies.” Coetzee merely sketches Joll and Mandel, but he chooses his details carefully. These men are convincing petty tyrants. While the appearances and the actions of these Third Bureau officials are familiar, even predictable, Coetzee offers no satisfactory explanation for their efficient and righteous racism and brutality. Just as the evil of Macbeth or Iago or Adolf Hitler is finally a mystery, the ability of these “new men” to return from the torture chamber “to everyday life—to sit down . . . and break bread with family or comrades” is an enigma. It would be comforting to dismiss these men as monsters, deficient in basic human qualities, but Coetzee does not allow the reader that luxury. Joll and Mandel are human and distinctly modern in their ignorance of the past and commitment to the status quo, their cynical devotion to practicality and self-survival, and their spiritual and emotional emptiness.

The barbarian girl seems to be a simple, one-dimensional character as well, but perhaps her simplicity is not so much an indication of the childlike nature of barbarians as it is a comment on the unnatural and self-conscious complexity of civilized men. The girl is an alien in the world of the Empire, a “stranger” from “so remote a kingdom” that no one can understand her. She is ironically so open, so natural, so genuine, that she confuses and infuriates the congenitally disingenuous officials of the state. She is a compliant yet resilient woman, who somehow retains her integrity in spite of being uprooted from her culture and severely abused. She resists both the torturer’s and the lover’s efforts to know her “secret,” perhaps because she has no secret. She is simply what she appears to be: an intelligent but...

(The entire section is 897 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Brink, Andre. “Writing Against Big Brother: Notes on Apocalyptic Fiction in South Africa,” in World Literature Today. LVIII (Spring, 1984), pp. 189-194.

Daymond, M. J., et al., eds. Momentum: On Recent South African Writing, 1984.

Howe, Irving. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII (April 18, 1982), p. 1.

Reed, S. K. Review in Saturday Review. IX (April, 1982), p. 59.

Steiner, George. Review in The New Yorker. LVIII (July 12, 1982), p. 102.