Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.