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Gordimer and Walker
Race and gender have been shown to be major social issues throughout the world as demonstrated through short stories written by Nadine Gordimer, who writes from a South African perspective, and Alice Walker, who writes from an American perspective. Gordimer's "Country Lovers" (1975), takes a look at South African apartheid and allows the reader insight into the discrimination that was prevalent in society. Likewise, Walker's "The Welcome Table" (1970), takes a look at discrimination within American society. Gordimer and Walker's short stories analyze racial discrimination and the impacts that it has on the female protagonist in each story.
Nadine Gordimer was born in South Africa on November 20, 1923 and has lived there her entire life (Nadine Gordimer, 2005). Gordimer published her first work at 15 years old and since then, she has written numerous short story collections and novels. Although Gordimer contends that she is not a political person, "her writings document, decade by decade, the impact of politics on personal lives and what an increasingly radical white South African woman felt, thought, and imaged during the rise and fall of apartheid" (Bazin & Gordimer, 1995, p. 571). Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991 (Nadine Gordimer, 2009).
Alice Walker is an American novelist, poet, and essayist born in Eatonton, Georgia on February 9, 1944 (Alice Walker, n.d.). Walker is "one of the few black writers of the mid-60s to remain steadily productive for the two ensuing decades…and as a poet…and a novelist…Walker has always had a small but enthusiastic following, while her many essays…have kept her name current, albeit in rather limited circles" (Petry, 1989, p. 12). Walker was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for The Color Purple (Alice Walker, n.d.).
"Country Lovers" (1975) analyzes the relationship that develops between a white man named Paulus Eysendyck and a black woman named Thebedi. The two develop a relationship early in childhood and it is further developed as the children move through adolescence into adulthood. "Country Lovers" (1975) also highlights the racial discrimination that arose through apartheid in South Africa. Racial discrimination was formally institutionalized through the passage of a series of laws beginning in 1948, which "touched every aspect of social life, including a prohibition of marriage between non-whites and whites," an issue that is hinted at in the story (The History of Apartheid in South Africa, n.d.). Gordimer often focuses on "the effect of apartheid on the lives of South Africans and the moral and psychological tension of life in a racially-divided country, which she often wrote about by focusing on oppressed non-white characters. She [is] an ardent opponent of apartheid and refused to accommodate the system, despite growing up in a community in which was accepted as normal" (Writers: Nadine Gordimer, 2011). Gordimer's opposition to apartheid is evident in "Country Lovers" as she focuses on the injustice that Thebedi suffers at the hands of a white lover and a white judicial system.
In "Country Lovers" (1975), Gordimer explores how Paulus Esyendyck and Thebedi came together and the factors that drove them apart over time. Gordimer (1975) writes from an omniscient perspective and states, "The farm children play together when they are small; but once the white children go away to school they soon don't play together any more, even in the holidays" (p. 44). It is during this time that the difference in race becomes more pronounced and black children have to adjust how they interact with their white counterparts. Eventually, black children learn "to call their old playmates missus and Basie -- little master" (Gordimer, 1975, p. 44). Despite the social and racial differences between them, Paulus and Thebedi begin to develop a relationship that appears to defy the odds, especially considering that Paulus has been sent away from the Esyendyck family farm in order to complete his schooling. Initially, when Paulus returns home during a holiday visit, he brings her back "a painted box he had made in his wood-work class" (Gordimer, 1975, p. 44), however, Paulus eventually stops bringing home gifts for Thebedi and instead brings back experiences that he wishes to share with her. Because of her social status and race, Thebedi is not given the same opportunities to learn and experience the things that Paulus does and it may be argued that Paulus takes advantage of this during his visits with her. One of the experiences that Paulus seeks to share with Thebedi is sexual in nature and he not only engages in sexual activities with the women that he goes to school with, but uses the knowledge and experience that he gains through these sexual encounters with Thebedi. It is evident through Paulus and Thebedi's behavior during their sexual relationship that they know such a relationship is frowned upon. Paulus and Thebedi attempt to keep their sexual relationship a secret and Thebedi often sneaks up to the main house when the Esyendyck family is away to be with her beloved Paulus. It is interesting that Paulus would never engage in sexual activities in his own room, but rather preferred to sleep with Thebedi in an unoccupied room, as though he was ashamed of her presence. Gordimer (1975) writes, "It was in one of these that she and the farmer's son stayed together whole nights -- almost: she had to get away before the house servants, who knew her, came in at dawn. There was a risk someone would discover her or traces of her presence if he took her to his own bedroom, although she had looked into it many times when she was helping out in the house and knew well, there, the row of silver cups he had won at school" (p. 46-47).
As time passes, it is evident that Paulus begins to view Thebedi more like an object and someone that is inferior to himself. Not only does Paulus use Thebedi sexually, but he also ends up being the father of her illegitimate son. Paulus and Thebedi's son is born while Paulus is away at college and the newborn child is kept from everyone's sight because it is obvious that the child is half-white. Thebedi must hide her son from the community because she knows that there will be a backlash from the community and the Esyendyck family if it is revealed that the child is Paulus'. Paulus' reaction to finding out that he and Thebedi had a child emphasizes the fact that Paulus recognizes that their relationship, and the resulting child, was not socially acceptable. Instead of accepting the consequences of his actions and taking responsibility for his child, Paulus takes matters into his own hands and aims to destroy any evidence that he and Thebedi were ever in a relationship. It also appears as though the infanticide is not sufficient and Paulus needs to destroy the evidence of his involvement in the murder. This can be seen as Njabulo, Thebedi's husband, [B]uried the little baby where farm workers were buried, in the place in the veld the farmer had given them…He was going to make a cross but before it was finished the police came and dug up the grave and took away the dead baby: someone -- one of the other labourers? their women? -- had reported that the baby was almost white, that, strong and healthy, it had died suddenly after a visit by the farmer's son. Pathological tests on infant corpse showed intestinal damage not always consistent with death by natural causes. (Gordimer, 1975, p. 49)
Given the evidence, Paulus was accused of murder and at his trial, Thebedi testified that Paulus "had threatened to shoot her if she told anyone" of what she had witnessed him pour an unidentified liquid into the infant's mouth that would later cause him to die (Gordimer, 1975, p. 49).
It is during the trial against Paulus that the reader is able to see society's treatment of blacks during the time. This is also the only time that the reader is able to see how Thebedi interacts with other white people aside from Paulus with whom she has a very intimate past. Thebedi's isolation from whites in society is hinted at as Gordimer states that going into the country town was the first time that Thebedi ventured away from the Eysendyck farm. This is also the first time that Thebedi personally experiences blatant racial discrimination.
Racist attitudes can be seen in how Thebedi is treated during the trial and how her treatment is different than that of Paulus. The first illustration of racial discrimination occurs when the defense attacks Thebedi's character as they argue "there had been a love relationship between the accused and that girl, or that intercourse had taken place, but submitted there was no proof that the child was the accused's" (Gordimer, 1975, p. 49). Additionally, the judge appears to favor Paulus as he declares there was "strong suspicion against him but not enough proof that he had committed the crime" (Gordimer, 1975, p. 49). Furthermore, the…[continue]
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