Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507
Oxford graduate Toby Hood has left London and is traveling to Johannesburg to become a publisher’s agent. Toby, however, becomes much more. With the novel’s first sentence, “I hate the faces of peasants,” the reader senses that Toby is not too socially conscious. By the end of chapter 1, Toby...
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Oxford graduate Toby Hood has left London and is traveling to Johannesburg to become a publisher’s agent. Toby, however, becomes much more. With the novel’s first sentence, “I hate the faces of peasants,” the reader senses that Toby is not too socially conscious. By the end of chapter 1, Toby confirms his apathy: “Let the abstractions of race and politics go hang. I want to live! And to hell with you all!”
Toby’s year in Johannesburg dissipates this apathy as he repeatedly comes face-to-face with the shocking horrors of apartheid. For example, Anna Louw, a black rights lawyer, escorts Toby to a party and introduces him to the black man who soon becomes his closest friend: Steven Sitole. When the shrieks of police cars and “the heavy running of police boots” abruptly end the party, Toby and Steven escape to a pumpkin field, “panting and laughing in swaggering, schoolboy triumph.” Unfortunately, Toby’s future encounters with apartheid are not quite as pleasant.
His typist, Miss McCann, decides to find another job when Toby has the audacity to lunch at the office with black men. Later, Toby has to do the leaving, when his landlord discovers that he is entertaining blacks: “Yoo can’t bring kaffirs in my building.... The other tenants is got a right to ’ev yoo thrown out.... Wha’d ’yoo think, sitting here with kaffirs.”
Toby has other unpleasant experiences as well. Among the most disturbing incidents are his arrest after eating Christmas dinner at the house of a black couple, Sam and Ella Mofokenzazi, and his hunting trip with John Hamilton and Guy Patterson, two miners. Though he has no desire to hunt, Toby nevertheless lets John and Guy talk him into accompanying them. Once in the bush, the gothic, nightmarish, miasmic surroundings combine with deafening silence to make Toby uncomfortable. John and Guy periodically pierce the silence by barking demeaning commands to their African servants, and the hunting dogs bark as they chase their prey. Yet the barking actually exacerbates Toby’s discomfort, a discomfort which culminates when he hears the sad cries of the wounded guinea fowl. Consequently, Toby has one of the servants help him escape to the bush’s outskirts. Then, sitting silently, Toby gets a chill when he becomes aware of his loneliness and isolation, and of the servant’s. The two men sit within hand’s reach of each other, but—as if separated by an impenetrable wall—they cannot touch.
Most of the novel consists of Toby alternating between his wealthy white acquaintances at the “High House” and his impoverished friends in Sophiatown and the other townships. The novel ends, coming full circle, with Steven again fleeing the police. This time, however, there is no pumpkin-patch haven, so the police finally win. Toby learns that Steven was killed in a car crash while making a getaway from the Indian club that the police were raiding. Now Toby is no longer innocent, naive, or apathetic; his journey into knowledge is complete, and he leaves Johannesburg.