Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

Toby is a stranger to the apartheid way of life. Yet precisely because he is a stranger, he can objectively observe South Africa’s two distinct and nearly mutually exclusive worlds. He comes to realize that black and white South Africans are strangers to each other. Indeed, Toby sees that for...

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Toby is a stranger to the apartheid way of life. Yet precisely because he is a stranger, he can objectively observe South Africa’s two distinct and nearly mutually exclusive worlds. He comes to realize that black and white South Africans are strangers to each other. Indeed, Toby sees that for most white South Africans, blacks are something less than human. For example, the authorities abruptly evict an entire African village when miners find uranium on the villagers’ land; a white woman, Stella Turgell, becomes ill from simply thinking about returning to Africa, the continent of savages; and Guy Patterson, Toby’s miner friend, tells Steven that blacks are limited, that they do not have much brain power, and that they are actually “not more than one jump out of the trees.” Furthermore, Cecil is appalled upon learning that Toby’s closest friends in Johannesburg are black men and that Toby actually dines with these blacks: “You know, I can’t imagine it—I mean, a black man next to me at table, talking to me like anyone else. The idea of touching their hands.” Cecil, without thinking, but in a revealing remark, labels her maid “a pet.”

Gordimer uses vivid descriptions to add simultaneously to the theme of separateness and to protest the squalor in which South Africa’s blacks live. Accordingly, in the townships, Toby watches as “filthy black children, ragged and snot-encrusted” scuttle about “like cockroaches.” Moreover, Toby learns that most black adults cannot even afford to buy enough drinking glasses. After attending a township party, Toby remarks that “as usual, there were not enough glasses to go round, and we politely drank up so that the others could get a drink in.” Juxtaposed to these scenes of immense poverty are portraits of High House’s tremendous luxury. At High House there was never any shortage of glasses; instead, “flowers, glasses and food covered luxury with abundance.”

Thus, as first-person narrator, Toby becomes a mouthpiece for Gordimer’s scathing protest against apartheid (the Dutch word for separate), which deprives people of dignity and reduces them to the status of things. Sensitive readers will undoubtedly be moved by Gordimer’s compelling narrative voice and by the novel’s vivid imagery and, therefore, will share Toby’s increasing repugnance for apartheid.

Finally, while the negative effects of apartheid are the novel’s principal theme, Gordimer also carefully satirizes South African sexism. Because of the country’s sexist laws, Toby and Anna must drink at a bar lounge since “bars are for men only, all over South Africa.” Later, Toby discovers that Guy Patterson collects women’s stockings as trophies of his conquests, and that Steven wants to have beautiful Dorothea Welz because she is that type of white woman whom white South African males value as ornaments for their superiority and purity. Ultimately, Gordimer wants her reader to realize, as Toby comes to understand, that apartheid dehumanizes all, regardless of hue or sex.

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