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Original Essays | September 15, 2014

Lois Leveen: IMG Forsooth Me Not: Shakespeare, Juliet, Her Nurse, and a Novel



There's this writer, William Shakespeare. Perhaps you've heard of him. He wrote this play, Romeo and Juliet. Maybe you've heard of it as well. It's... Continue »
  1. $18.19 Sale Hardcover add to wish list

    Juliet's Nurse

    Lois Leveen 9781476757445

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trentonpersing has commented on (1) product.

Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee
Waiting for the Barbarians

trentonpersing, May 4, 2010

The novel Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee brings up multiple questions of morality. He creates a mysterious, unnamed Empire and an unexplained group of barbarians. He never lets the reader know if they actually exist or if they are created by the Empire. The novel’s background may lead to interesting discoveries and open up the novel to a larger interpretation.

The book was written by J.M. Coetzee. He is a white man born in South Africa and the book was published in 1980. For these reasons it is possible that he was writing about a much larger issue: apartheid. He also describes the landscape of the novel to be barren and unforgiving, which suggests the African desert. From this African feeling landscape, a morally twisted character emerges.

The main character is an unnamed magistrate, who rules the colony for the Empire. At the beginning, he is confronted with an unfamiliar culture and through the opening paragraph most of the book’s plot is foreshadowed.

I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire. Is he blind? I could understand it if he wanted to hide blind eyes. But he is not blind. The discs are dark, they look opaque from the outside, but he can see through them. He tells me they are a new invention. “They protect one’s eyes against the glare of the sun”… We do not discuss the reason for his being here…Instead we talk about hunting. (1)

Through this paragraph, he talks about blindness and hunting. It is very interesting how he does this because later, the man with the sunglasses, Colonel Joll, blinds a barbarian woman. The hunting is symbolic of searching and desire. After the magistrate meets Joll and discovers what he is doing, he begins to question the morality of his so called civilization. After Joll tortures a prisoner, the magistrate passes by the hut thinking, “I enter the hut holding the lantern high, trespassing, I realize, on what has become holy or unholy ground, if there is any difference” (6). He brings up again this question of morality and how the Empire seems to think its actions are justified. Next, Joll finds barbarians.

Colonel Joll goes out into the harsh wilderness in search of the barbarians. He does find people but they are harmless. When he brings them back he questions them and uses force to get the answers that he wants. When he leaves, the magistrate finds a barbarian woman in the streets begging for food. He then takes her to his home where he begins to wash her.

I wash slowly, working up a lather, gripping her firm-fleshed calves, manipulating the bones and tendons of her feet, running my fingers between her toes. I change my position to kneel not in front of her but beside her, so that holding a leg between elbow and side, I can caress the foot with both hands. (28)

His constant washing of her represents his need to clean his past. Even though he never laid a hand on her, he still aided in her torture. He allowed it to happen and did not attempt to stop it. This was his way of washing his hands clean, but he could not clean this from his slate.

Along with washing her, he began to search her nude body. This can be seen as him searching for an answer. Although he searched, he never found an answer.

All this erotic behaviour of mine is indirect: I prowl about her, touching her face, caressing her body, without entering her or finding the urge to do so…In the year I have known her, I have not for a moment had to interrogate my desire…But with this woman it is as if there is no interior, only a surface across which I hunt back and forth seeking entry…I behave in some ways like a lover – I undress her, I bathe her, I stroke her, I sleep beside her – but I might equally well tie her to a chair and beat her, it would be no less intimate. (43).

He begins to compare himself to Colonel Joll. Even though he is not beating her, he is only trying to search her for answers while trying to find forgiveness. In the end, he cannot find it and is left sleeping next to a woman that he cannot love.

Overall, the novel does a wonderful job of asking questions of morality and terror. Coetzee is able to create the unknown and also describe the fear of it as well. The main questions the reader will face is: Do the barbarians exist and when are they going to arrive? Coetzee gives plenty of clues for the reader to figure out these questions and are answered at the end of the novel. I highly recommend this novel but be prepared to have your morals evaluated and also to seek out the unknown.
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