Waiting for the Barbarians Themes
by J. M. Coetzee

Start Your Free Trial

Download Waiting for the Barbarians Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Waiting for the Barbarians can be read as an oblique parable of South Africa’s predicament and a prophecy for its future, as a retrospective account of the end of empire in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, as a portrayal of the twilight of colonialism and colonial power, and as a revelation of the inadequacy and sterility of masculine consciousness. Coetzee took his title from the poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” by Constantine P. Cavafy. Coetzee uses the poem’s notion that the barbarians “were a kind of solution” for the Romans, as a starting point for his examination of the Empire. The barbarian lands surround and thereby define the Empire; the barbarians, or rather the myth of barbarians, proves that the Empire exists and gives it a purpose. The Third Bureau, in order to justify its existence, attempts to locate and make war on barbarians, but inevitably, if ironically, Colonel Joll proves to be “in his heart a barbarian,” proves to be “the enemy.” The Empire’s perverse insistence on fighting barbarians is seen as a clear indication of its inability to accept change, its desperate resistance to the forces of social and political evolution.

The magistrate has accepted the fact that all human beings and all empires are transient. He is not naive about what course the future will or should take; he offers no solutions to the political, economic, or sociological dilemmas faced by this or any other empire; he knows that the Empire cannot simply open “the gates of the town to the people whose land” it has “raped.” Yet he is able to accept calmly the fact that the Empire too will pass, will become a moment in history, a curiosity, perhaps, for some future official of some future empire, no more important than the strange wooden slips which he has found in ruins outside his town. The magistrate’s thoughtful conclusions are quite disturbing and do not augur well for the future of South Africa or the West; he believes that human beings are committed to nothing so much as to their “life-giving illusions”:In all of us deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable. No one truly believes, despite the hysteria in the streets, that the world of tranquil certainties we were born into is about to be extinguished.

The success of this novel is largely a result of Coetzee’s craftsmanship. He is a skilled and meticulous writer who uses his first-person narrator and the present tense very effectively. The prose style is perfectly suited to the character of the narrator; it is clear, precise, somewhat austere, literary, and old-fashioned. The vivid presentation of unfolding events is quite compelling, and the revelation of the magistrate’s musings on his situation and of his inner state is equally engaging. One literary device which Coetzee uses quite successfully is the motif of a recurring dream vision through which he gives the...

(The entire section is 733 words.)