Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies (Edna St. Vincent Millay). Young children to the pre-teens are the years where fantasies come to life; nothing can or will ever go wrong. One is the creator and conqueror of his own world. Similarly, the protagonist in this short story believes himself to be the master of his world. Doris Lessing, the author of “Sunrise on the Veld,” demonstrates that an adolescent’s innocence can easily be taken away by an encounter with death. The three literary devices she uses to achieve her thematic objective are characterization, the imagery of the setting, and symbolism.
Characterization plays an important role in achieving Lessing’s thematic objective through this story. Characterization is the manner in which an author develops characters and their personalities. The protagonist is a dynamic character. The young man begins the story, arrogant in his ability to control everything around him. “I can control every part of myself…there is nothing I can’t become, nothing I can’t do” (1, 3). Even time. Every morning, he “triumphantly” presses his alarm-knob. “…and he felt the years of his life with his hands, as if he were counting marbles, each one hard and separate and compact, each one a wonderful shining thing” (2). From this mindset, he transitions to “I can’t stop it. I can’t stop it. There is nothing I can do” (4). This is the turning point in the story. The buck is slowly dying in front of him and he realizes that not everything is in his control. “…if I had not come it would have died like this: so why should I interfere?”(4) After the death of the creature, he comes to a realization, The knowledge of fatality, of what has to be…That is what living is” (4). He is humbled by his guilt. This stoic acceptance of the horrific reality of life marks the boy’s beginning maturity and the realization that he is not an adult but a child after all. Dynamic characterization depicts the protagonist’s initiation from youthful arrogance to the maturity of experience.
The imagery of the setting is effectively used to communicate to the reader/ audience the protagonist’s loss of innocence. This literary device refers to language that appeals to the five senses about the time and place of the story. In the beginning, as the adolescent is starting his hunt, the veld appears to be the epitome of beauty to him.
“The grass stood to his shoulders; and the trees
were showering a faint silvery rain. Near him thick
swathes of grass were bent with the weight of water,
and diamond drops sparkled on each frond. He
rushed down the vlei under a tumult of crimson and
gold, while all the birds of the world sang around him” (2).
This boy is completely entrenched with a feeling of invincibility and grasps the world around him with an adolescent wonder and excitement. However, upon his discovery of the dying buck, he is faced with a multitude of emotions. Hereafter, all he sees are black ants and flesh pink. “The ground was black with ants…hurried and scurried towards the fighting shape, like glistening black water flowing through the grass…ants trickling back with pink fragments in their mouths, and there was a fresh acid smell in his nostrils.”(3, 4). It reveals to the audience the abrupt and prevalent shift in the protagonist’s perception. He does not like what he sees. (At first) he is even filled with, a swelling feeling of rage and misery and protest (3) This imagery of the setting is a notable element utilized to fulfill Lessings thematic objective.
This story makes good use of symbolism as a way to depict death taking away an adolescent’s innocence. Symbolism is an object, person or place used to represent an abstract idea. Lessing uses the dying buck and sunrise not only as plot-points, but also to represent uncontrollable events (specifically death) and new beginnings. Through the protagonist’s state of exuberance, his celebration of life, he is interrupted by the small cries of a creature in pain. As he moves in for closer inspection, the young man decides against shooting the buck to put it out of its misery. Although he does not regret his decision, he is not satisfied. “…he found that the tears were streaming down his face, and his clothes were soaked with the sweat of that other creature’s pain” (4). The adolescent must face the reality that he does not have the power to alter the course of life, that he cannot interfere with Nature itself. While watching the buck suffer, he realizes that: “All over the bush things like this happen; they happen all the time; this is how life goes on, by living things dying in anguish” (4). He also recognizes that the bucks death is a direct consequence of his actions. He understands that a few hours ago, he and the buck were experiencing the same things:
…this small creature had been stepping proudly and
free through the bush, feeling the chill on its hide even
…exhilarated by it. Proudly stepping the earth…it had
sniffed the cold morning air. Walking like kings and
conquerors it had moved through this fee-held bush,
where each blade of grass grew for it alone, and where
the river ran pure sparkling water for its slaking…as he
himself had done (4).
Meanwhile, the sun rises immediately after the creatures passing. On this new dawn, the boy changes his perspective. As he examines the bucks skeleton he notes, the back leg that lay uppermost and strained out in the tension of death, was snapped midway in the thigh, so that broken bones jutted over each other uselessly…Limping into the ant-masses it could not escape, once it had sensed the danger. (4). The adolescent tries denying his responsibility in the crime for some time but arrives at the inevitable conclusion that it was indeed his fault. As he walks home, he decides he mustand willthink about this experience in more detail. This is his new beginning: learning that not everything can be controlled and one must always take responsibility for their actions. This signifies a coming of age. The symbolism used in this narrative is an element of supreme importance to Lessings impactful writing.
In the short story “Sunrise on the Veld,” the three literary devices Dorris Lessing uses to show the audience how death can eradicate an adolescent’s innocence are characterization, imagery, and symbolism. One can conclude, Lessing’s purpose behind the writing of this story is: life is uncertain. At any unpredictable moment, a sudden shift of fate could lead to the termination of a fragile existence. The arrogance of time with which children grow up and carry with them is unrealistic. The cycle of life always goes on.