Waiting for the Barbarians

by J. M. Coetzee

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What theories of postcolonialism, power, violence, and language are present in the second half of Waiting for the Barbarians?

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J.M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians explores ideas of postcolonialism, power, violence, and language throughout the book as its protagonist, the Magistrate, comes face to face with some startling truths. Let's look at how the novel presents these ideas.

The novel itself can be considered postcolonial in that it is a product of a South African writer who knows the struggles of colonialism firsthand. The novel explores the relations between an undefined empire and the "barbarians"—that is, the native inhabitants—that the empire has long oppressed. Colonel Joll is sent to the Magistrate's frontier town with the intent to wipe out the barbarians once and for all or at least end their “attacks” on the empire. Yet it turns out that the barbarians only want to be left alone. The novel leads us to reflect on which group are really “barbarians”: the relatively peaceful native people or the representatives of the empire, who rely on torture and violence to maintain their power.

We can see, then, how power and violence come into the novel. Joll tries to show the power of the empire through brutality. He is willing to torture the barbarians to see if he can discover their plans to overthrow the empire, yet they remain silent. He is willing to attack them to prevent them from attacking first, yet they have no plans to do that. In fact, we might argue that the barbarians are, in some ways, more powerful than the empire. They remain firm and steadfast, no matter what Joll throws at them. Instead of killing the empire soldiers, they merely lead them off track and into the desert and leave them there as they fade into the distance. Clearly the empire, for all its violence, does not have the power it thinks it does.

Finally, this novel explores the idea of civilization through language. The Magistrate is intrigued by the barbarian writing he has found. He cannot decipher it, so the barbarians remain a mystery, yet he realizes at the end of the novel that the barbarians have a civilization of their own, one that is probably far more advanced in many ways than that of the empire. As a symbol of respect for that civilization, he reburies the writing at the end of the novel.

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