Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 221

You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town is a collection of connected stories written by South African author Zoe Wicomb. The characters are biracial and living in South Africa under the system of apartheid, a system that has left black people marginalized and oppressed and forced biracial people into an...

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You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town is a collection of connected stories written by South African author Zoe Wicomb. The characters are biracial and living in South Africa under the system of apartheid, a system that has left black people marginalized and oppressed and forced biracial people into an endless struggle to deny their blackness and disguise their African American traits.

The main theme in the book is racial inequality, but more than that, it is the search for identity and the struggle for self-acceptance that many people of color faced while living under the system of apartheid. The stories in the book are separate tales, but they contain familiar scenarios and problems, which speaks to the commonality of experience among black South Africans and the commonality of their identity crisis that characterized their struggle for happiness. Most importantly, the author explores the complex dynamics inherent in a system that encourages racial oppression and normalizes the racial divide. A crucial theme in the book is the prejudice that took place behind the scenes and was not always obvious—prejudice that black people came to accept as normal but that compromised their self-esteem, their values, their experiences, and their ambitions. Wicomb shows segregation to be more than just a practice, but a way of life and a state of mind.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 366

One of the strongest themes throughout the narrative is that of betrayal, related through imagery that refers both directly and indirectly to the biblical story of the betrayal of Jesus Christ by Judas. While watching the fat woman on the bus discuss her relationship with her employer, the narrator’s thoughts flow from the bone the woman waves to the cross of Jesus’s crucifixion, and from there to Judas howling in remorse, and finally to Judas’s purse containing the payment for his treachery. At the start of the story, the narrator has been obsessing on the cheapness of her handbag, and the unadorned purse she carries within it, which belongs to Michael and contains the money for her operation. When she thinks of Judas, she describes the purse that holds the thirty pieces of silver in the same terms. When she prepares to leave after her abortion, Mrs. Coetzee kisses her on the cheek, as Judas kissed Christ. She almost leaves the purse behind but decides to take it. In the morning, she feels that God has gone. Who represents the Judas figure is not totally clear; is it the narrator betraying her unborn child, Michael betraying their love, the abortionist, or all of them? Certainly the narrator is struggling with her choice to rid herself of this unwanted pregnancy, when, as Michael points out, she wishes to have a family.

Another theme running throughout the story is that of the color system in South Africa, particularly the peculiar position of the Coloured under apartheid: not as totally separated as the black population but decidedly not privileged like the white, rather tolerated at best. The narrator is in this middle state. She can pretend to be white with Mrs. Coetzee, who wants her money and who is unable to see past her educated demeanor, but not in any way is she an equal to whites, though she is obviously not in the same position as the women on the bus. She is also less privileged than the daughter of Tiena’s boss, who like the narrator, has been having sex with her boyfriend but who will be regarded as virginal on her wedding day.

Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 223

Below are several relevant themes in the book You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town.

Racism. The central theme in this story is the role racism plays in shaping the trajectory of our lives. The narrator, who is nameless, is at a bus station when she overhears a conversation between women about the differences between black and white people. The narrator is caught in the center of their conversation as someone who passes for white but is black. This comes up again when the narrator goes to have an abortion. She is asked if she is white, and it is presumed that if she is not white, she would not be permitted to have the operation.

Apartheid. Highly relevant to the theme of racism is that of apartheid. There are structural barriers put in place that limit the movement of the narrator and other people of color. The story highlights how racism becomes institutionalized legally and socially through apartheid.

Decision making. The narrator is forced to make a life altering decision. She becomes impregnated by her white boyfriend. He offers move with her and to marry. However, she feels that he does not love her. She chooses to have an abortion. She feels haunted by the fetus growing inside her and makes the decision to rid herself of what feels like a burden.

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