"The Train from Rhodesia" by Nadine Gordimer

Poverty, prejudice, racism, and white-supremacy, are all controversial topics that Nadine Gordimer, an eminent South African writer, touches on through her writing. Being part of the anti-apartheid movement herself, her writing establishes a lot of the hardships that the native Afrikaans people underwent. The short-story, “The Train from Rhodesia”, is a perfect example of the manner in which Gordimer discusses controversial topics in her writing.

Throughout the story, she elaborates on the great contrast between the white and the native Afrikaans people living in South Africa during the time of the apartheid.

By reading this short-story, readers are able to gain an insight on the lives of the natives in contrast to the lives of the wealthy white South Africans. By contrasting the white, the natives, as well as the husband and wife, Gordimer communicates her intention of emphasizing the harsh realities of the natives’ lives and their roles in society through the use of the literary technique of characterization.

By utilizing the characters in the story, Gordimer is able to express how powerless in society the natives are in addition to the severity of their living conditions.

In the beginning of the story when “the stationmaster’s barefoot children [wander] over”(41) down to the track, they are referred to as “picannins”(41). Not only is referring to the children as picannins pejorative, but the detail included by Gordimer that they are barefoot suggests their poverty and inability to obtain the bare necessities to live sufficiently. As the paragraph progresses, Gordimer writes how the sand “close[s] over the children’s black feet softly and without imprint”/

The choice of the diction used to illustrate the children’s feet as “black” emphasizes that Gordimer is forcefully trying to stress how dirty, thus poor, the natives really are.

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What Gordimer also deliberately implements is the imagery of the children leaving no imprint in the sand. Suggestively, the image created represents how powerless and non-existent they are in this society as they leave without an imprint in the sand.

Similarly, new characters are introduced from the train and station to signify the helplessness of the natives and show their astringent lives. Desperately trying to sell their products, “all up and down the length of the train in the dust the artists [jump about], walking bent, like performing animals”. To begin with, the way in which the artists have to perform like animals insinuates that the natives are in great need of money in order to survive. Again, a derogative indication is made when they are referred to as “animals” which puts stress on their position in society. Seeing as the people that they are performing to are white, they have to act as though they are cheerful although in reality they are starving and unhappy.

An example of the mock happiness is represented in the phrase, “[t]he old man held it up to her smiling, not from the heart, but at the customer.” The old man is just another native trying to sell his products; however, he holds great pride in his work unlike the other desperate natives who hold money as their greatest concern. Thus, this sentence accentuates how hard the natives’ lives are as they have to try so hard to receive such a small amount of income. Since they do not have the means to survive in the environment they live in, they are so helpless and rely on the white people for hope of money.

Moreover, many of the natives that are on the platform are young children who say “give me penny” when they have nothing to sell. Their incorrect English indicates that they are not educated which is the result of their impoverishment. Also, readers feel more sympathy and truly see the privation of the locals as it has come to the point where even young children are begging for some source of money to survive in their infertile environment.

Furthermore, Gordimer describes the station master’s children as “career[ing] over the sand, clutching the bread…through the garden in which nothing [grows]”. Since food is so scarce for the locals, Gordimer emphasizes the “clutching” of the bread to prove just how protective they are of the food they have. As the children cannot afford to lose the loaves of bread as they live in “the garden in which nothing [grows]”, it displays how they live in an uncultivable environment which specifies how much struggle the natives go through.

Additionally, the powerlessness of the natives is further emphasized through the old man’s character. When he bargains with the lady and her husband, he refers to the husband as “baas” meaning master in the Afrikaans language. As the natives were inferior to white people during this time period, the old man calls him “baas,” indicating the praise and politeness shown to express the due respect for him. To successfully sell his products, the old man is required to belittle himself to make known that he is of a lower status. Once the train begins to leave, “the yells of the natives, running alongside, [jets] up into the air, [falling] back at different levels”(44).

In this particular line, a strong image is depicted of the natives running with the train as a last hope for an exchange of their products. Gordimer purposefully portrays the image of the natives running to force the readers to understand their desperation. Realizing that he has no chance of selling his product for the price he has set, the old man succumbs and says “Here, one-and-six baas!”(44). He then proceeds to “[fling] his lion”(44) to the man in the moving train even though, initially, the lion is so precious to him. His pride in his work along with his dignity has been diminished as a result, displaying the lack of social power the locals possess.

In addition, after the exchange has been made between the husband and the old man, he “[stands], breath blowing out the skin between his ribs, feet tense, balanced in the sand, smiling and shaking his head”(44). The image revealed shows how thin the old man is to the point where his ribs are protruding from his body. As readers, there is a sense of understanding of how the lives of the natives are corrupt as they are malnourished and persevering for survival. The old man smiles and shakes his head because he was able to sell his product; yet, he has not gained much to survive which reverts to the former idea that white people are more affluent compared to the inhabitants. However, despite the seriousness of his reality, the man opens his palm and appreciates the little money he receives. To conclude, the natives, including the old man, play a great role in communicating Gordimer’s intention, which is to display the true difficulties of the natives’ lives in addition to their lack of power in the apartheid society.

In contrast to the natives’ poverty and suppressed position, Gordimer applies characterization through the white characters to accentuate their authority and greater wealth in society. In the story, when the old man comes to sell his products, the woman urges, “[n]o, no”(42) and leans down towards him while she commands her hand to the lion. The way she is leaning down to him and commanding her hand shows that she is asserting her power over him as she is from a higher status. Even the position of the woman being above him explicitly indicates her status which is above his. Pursuing this further, the young woman says no to the old man and explains that it is “too expensive, too much” as she “[shakes] her head and raise[s] her voice to [him]”(43).

The readers know that the young woman has enough money to pay the price the old man is asking for; therefore, it shows a great contrast in her wealth and his poverty. In the same way, the manner in which she raises her voice to him affirms the authority and control that she has over the helpless old native man. Also, the young woman’s husband loudly insists, “Three-and-six?”(43) as though he is extremely shocked with the high price of the lion. Although he is capable of buying it for its original value, he knows he has a chance to reduce the price and pay for a lesser value. Blatantly, he tries to bargain with the man which again confirms the poverty and lack of power.

With regard to the white people, it is apparent that they are not concerned with the wellbeing of the locals which puts emphasis on their irrefutable reality. For instance, in the story, “a girl [collects] a handful of the hard kind, that no one like[s], out of the chocolate box, and throw[s] them to the dogs…”(43). Although the white girl is relatively young, she is oblivious to the fact that she is wasting precious food that the natives would greatly appreciate. Instead of giving the chocolate to the native children or to the natives in general, she throws them to the dogs. Through this excerpt, Gordimer is trying to imply that the inhabitants are treated commensurate to lower life; thus, have a low status in society. Another example is when a man passing by the train notices the “faces, behind glass, drinking beer, two by two…”(42).

Whilst all the hustling, bargaining, and begging of the natives is occurring outside the train, inside the train the white people are enjoying their time by indulging in activities like drinking beer together. The contrast between the lifestyle of the white people and the lifestyle of the natives is made clearer through the actions of the white people in the train. In addition, during the train stop, “a few men who had [gotten] down to stretch their legs [spring] onto the train…safe from the one dusty platform”(44). This line stipulates that the stop is merely just a break for the white people to get off, “stretch their legs”, and have some fresh air.

For them, the stop is not meaningful; however, the natives treasure the time they have while the train is still on the platform as it is their one and only hope to make money. Detectably, Gordimer shows the white people being uncomfortable of the natives through the image of them wanting to get off of the dusty platform to further emphasize their different statuses. Evidently, the lack of care the white people have towards the native’s stresses their nonexistent importance in society.

As a final point, the difference in the value of money for the white people and the value of money for the natives are shown when the young woman’s husband “fumble[s] wildly down his pocket, [bringing] up the shilling and sixpence and [throws] them out”(44). Since the young man insouciantly holds the coins in his pocket, it indicates that the money is not extremely valuable to him which is in contrast to the old man’s view of that money. Also, the way the young man ‘throws’ the money out of the train shows how little that money is worth to him. If that money is so irrelevant to him, then it is not necessary for him to bargain for the product. This again shows the difference in position of power. The young man knows he can bargain, thus he takes advantage of his authority in order to bring down the price. Indeed, the use of characterization through the white people in the “The Train from Rhodesia” shows Gordimer’s intent, which is to stress the fortune of the white people to show the penury of the natives.

Admittedly, Gordimer’s use of characterization to show the contrast between the two main characters of the story, the husband and wife, further accentuates her intention to show the devastating lives of the natives and their misfortune. Throughout the story, readers are apprised that the young woman is the more understanding character as opposed to her husband who is inconsiderate and thoughtless. Even though at first the woman refuses to buy the lion the man was selling, she did not insist or try to bargain with him.

In fact, when she says “No, never mind…leave it”(43), she is realizing that the old man takes pride in his lion; therefore, deserves a customer who would appreciate it for its set value. She understands the importance of his dignity as she can infer that they are not wealthy. In contrast, her husband’s actions show disrespect towards the natives. After his bargain with the old man, he “[swings] in from the corridor, breathless…shaking his head with laughter and triumph”(45). The young husband’s breathlessness lays emphasis on his excitement for being able to get the lion for a cheaper price.

His feeling of triumph for getting the lion cheaper shows how insignificant the lion is to him than the actual bargaining for it. His ignorance to the reality of the struggle the natives face every day to survive shows his insensitivity. Not only does he feel triumphant in his bargain, but he particularizes by saying, “I was arguing with him for fun, bargaining – when the train pulled out already, he came tearing after…One-and-six baas! So there’s your lion”(45). The fact that he argued for “fun” implies that he cannot empathize with the natives and does not realize the sadness of the reality. He thinks it is simply a form of entertainment and acts as though he wants his wife’s approval and felicitation; however, he cannot comprehend the gravity of the situation for the man as it is a matter of survival for him. Therefore, the young husband’s insolence represents the way society treats the local inhabitants and how inconsequential their existence is.

Furthermore, the true hardships that the black people face are accentuated by the wife’s disgust towards her husband’s actions and behaviour. For example, when she realizes that the man she has just married is “for good now”(44), she feels odd as though she does not truly know him. Her difference of opinion separates her from him and all the other white members on the train. Thus, she is the only person who can truly empathize with the natives. In the line, “her face was drawn up, wryly, like the face of a discomforted child. Her mouth lifted nervously at the corner.”(45), her appearance of disfavor reflects on her feeling of guilt. This guiltiness is caused by the fact that she, being the only one, can see how her husband’s actions can be detrimental towards the old native man. Following this further, she says, “If you wanted the thing…why didn’t you pay for it?

Why didn’t you take it decently, when he offered it? Why did you have to wait for him to run after the train with it, and give him one-and-six? One-and-six!”(45). Evidently, she is extremely angry at her husband for putting the suffering old man through another distressing situation when he already has nothing to begin with. The young woman’s respectability and morals indicate that she understands the hardship of the black natives in this society. What makes her particularly infuriated and remorseful is that she knows they are much wealthier compared to the natives and still her husband chooses to bargain for the lion.

Consequently, her husband is “shocked by the dismay of her face”(45) as if he believes that he has done nothing wrong. Although she sees his callousness for being entertained by a bargain, he is confused by her shock which implies that the natives are that insignificant to him. Just like most of the white people in South Africa during the apartheid, he believes that there is nothing wrong with the corrupt black natives. Thus, his enjoyment is his prime concern instead of the awful lives the natives live. In conclusion, the contrast between the husband’s coldness and the wife’s compassion towards the natives, expresses how unimportant the natives are which emphasizes their struggle in this society.

In final analysis, Gordimer uses the literary technique of characterization as a tool to develop her intention that the natives’ role in society and their exigent reality are partial. She shows this through through the white characters and the native characters. Gordimer’s influence from the anti-apartheid has permitted her to strengthen her messages of prejudice, racism, and poverty in her writing. Through her stories including “The Train from Rhodesia”, she has been able to transfer the struggle the natives faced during the apartheid movement and illustrate how much of a contrast there was between the two races. Every day, people are spreading anti-racist messages to improve the society humans live in. Now, owing to Nadine Gordimer, readers can take this information in to fully understand the struggles of those who are victims of prejudice.

Cite this page

"The Train from Rhodesia" by Nadine Gordimer. (2019, Jan 10). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/paper-on-the-train-from-rhodesia-final-draft/

"The Train from Rhodesia" by Nadine Gordimer
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