Nadine Gordimer (born 1923) has made her career under difficult circumstances. Born an English-speaking Jew in South Africa, she resented and resisted the pressure to conform to the white supremacist attitudes embodied in the system of apartheid. She has been politically active most of her life, and has often written about the relationships among white radicals, liberals, and blacks in South Africa. Her most widely-read works are novels like The Conservationist (1974) and Burger’s Daughter (1979); but many people believe her finest writing to be contained in her short stories. In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although she is one of the most distinguished of modern women writers, she has resisted being classed as a feminist. See what you think of her portraits of men and women in the following stories.
The Bridegroom (1960)
“Ou Piet, ek wag.” “Hey, old Piet; I’m waiting,” in Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch-descended whites.
Note the tone with which the protagonist addresses Piet, whom we are told later is “a good cook.”
Koeksusters are crullers, deep-fried sugared strips of dough.
“Kaffir” is an insulting term for South African blacks.
“Baas”=”Boss.” Note how all blacks are called “boys,” regardless of age. Why is he anxious that the blacks not “hang around?”
Look for passages which reveal his attitudes toward the blacks. Note his characterization of the night noises they make. Two of the musical instruments being played are common in sub-Saharan Africa: the mouth-bow and the kalimba or mbira. What is his reaction to their music?
“Satchmo” was the nickname of the great American jazz trumpet player Louis Armstrong, probably not what he had in mind when he spoke of “real music.”
Note the description of the music that he listens to for a long time. How would you characterize it?
Why do you think the story ends where it does? What have we learned about him? About the blacks? What do you think is likely to happen when his fiancée arrives?
The Gentle Art (1960)
This story could be read as a sort of reply from a woman’s point of view to Ernest Hemingway’s story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”
Rhodesia is the British colonial name of the country now known as Zimbabwe.
What kind of a person is Jimmy Baird? What kind of a person is Vivien McEwen? Can you characterize her relationship with her husband at the beginning of the story? How do her feelings and perceptions change during the story?
“Donkey’s years”=many years.
A souk is a bazaar, a tangled, close-packed cluster of shops and stalls.
Saurian: reptilian, associated with the age of the dinosaurs.
A primus stove is a tiny portable device for cooking on camping trips.
Why do you suppose Gordimer has waited so long to describe Vivien’s appearance? What do you think Mrs. Baird means by “I waited”? How does the story contrast her with Vivien? What do you think is the meaning of the title?
Six Feet of the Country (1956)
Anton Chekhov was famous for his stories and plays about impoverished nobles living ineffectual lives on their country estates, notably in The Cherry Orchard (1904). Like Gordimer, he is noted for his ability to convey vividly delicate shadings of feeling. Try to identify some of the passages in which she accomplishes this particularly well. Characterize the husband’s feelings towards his wife at different points in the story.
What do the Johannesburg people mean by “tension”? The narrator says his relationship with the black people is “almost feudal.” What do you think he means? How would you characterize it?
“Piccanins” is somewhat condescending slang for small black children, ultimately derived from the Spanish word for “little ones,” pequeños (compare with American “pickaninny.”)
Zoot suits were wide-lapelled, high-waisted outfits worn by “hip” urban blacks in the forties.
Why does Petrus think white men can do anything? What do you think of the contrast the narrator draws between the attitude toward death of the poor and of people like himself and his wife? The donkey who carried Mary and the Christ child into exile in Egypt is often depicted in art as gentle and meek.
What do you think the blacks felt like at the end of this story? What do you think the narrator feels like? Why do you think he was chosen to be the narrator of this story? What is it meant to tell us about the society he lives in? About him as an individual?
What do you think the title means?
Which New Era Would That Be? (1956)
“Coloured” in this context means “of mixed race,” a group distinguished from both blacks and whites under the apartheid system. The phrase from which the story derives its title is on the second page. What do you think is its significance?
The Edwardian period is named after Edward VII of England, king between 1901 and 1910.
“Congress” is used in many countries as a name for gatherings and organizations which are not necessarily legislative bodies like the U.S. Congress. Why does Jake object to white women who persist in regarding blacks as their equal? What exactly does he object to about Jennifer?
“Bushmen” is a term for relatively light-skinned indigenous hunter-gatherers in South Africa such as the San who originally lived according to traditional ways in the “bush,” far away from the cities. Most are now urbanized, and the term “bushman” generally has pejorative connotations. “Batrachian”: frog-like. A “public school” in South Africa as well as in England is what Americans call a “private school,” reserved for the wealthy and privileged. Why is Jennifer living in Cape Flats? Why is it significant that she uses the word “job?”
Why does she speak so negatively of Cape Flats? What are the emotions, attitudes which separate the blacks from the whites in this scene?
A shebeen is an illegal tavern selling home-made liquor (originally Irish slang). The “colour bar” is segregation.
Why is Alister able to be on more comfortable terms with Jake than is Jennifer? What is the significance of the incident of George’s lunch, and why do the listeners react to it as they do? Why does Jennifer interrupt Maxie’s story to discuss the way he speaks? What does it reveal about her? Why does she react as she does to Maxie’s story? What does this sentence mean: “There was absolutely no limit to which that understanding would not go”? What is Gordimer trying to convey about a certain kind of well-intentioned white person?
Note that Jake celebrates her departure by defiantly turning up the gas Jennifer had earlier officiously turned down.
Is There Nowhere Else Where We Can Meet? (1951)
“Chemist ” means pharmacist, drugstore owner. Try to explain the feelings of the woman. What is this story about? How does the title affect your interpretation of it?
The Train from Rhodesia
“Kraal,” Afrikaans for corral. Anthony van Dyck was a 17th-century Flemish painter who worked for most of his life in England, where he painted many men wearing fashionably pointed beards which came later to be called “vandykes” after his work. Therefore the lion’s teeth are broad and pointed. A meerkat is a South African relative of the mongoose. Three shillings and sixpence would be a decent sum for the impoverished sculptor, but a negligible amount for the white couple. Why do you think she resists buying it? In what sense is the man selling the lion unreal? Why is she angry with her husband? Why is she feeling alone? Why is there no answer to the train’s cry?
More Study Materials for World Literature in English of India, Africa, and the Caribbean
- Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart
- Buchi Emecheta: The Joys of Motherhood
- Wole Soyinka: Selected Plays
- Athol Fugard: “Master Harold”. . . and the Boys
- George Lamming: In the Castle of My Skin
- R. K. Narayan: The Guide
- Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses
- Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things
- Anita Desai: Baumgartner’s Bombay Translations and notes
- “Postcolonial Literature”: Problems with the Term
- The Irrelevance of “Postcolonialism” to South Asian Literature
- About African Literature, by Azfar Hussain
- Postcolonial Literature Journals List
- World Literature Syllabus
Last revised December 9, 1998