Magistrate's Identity Division in Waiting for Barbarians

Waiting for the Identity

Among the many possibly horrendous effects of colonialism, one that stands out to me in J.M. Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” is the division of the Magistrate’s self-identity caused by confusion relating to where exactly he belongs within his society.

With two sides to choose from: the colonizers (his Empire), or the colonized (the barbarians), the Magistrate deteriorates through a blend of estrangement, absence of cultural belonging, self-doubt, double awareness, and splintered aptitude affiliation that show themselves in the face of the evils of colonization.

The Magistrate finds himself half-belonging to the Empire, through his positive relationship with Colonel Joll and the conclusive feedback about his authority for the past 30 years, but also half-belonging to the barbarians, through his newfound relations with the blinded barbarian woman who suffers from disfigurement because of the calamity of colonization. We witness the regression of the Magistrate as he struggles with this burden of lost identity while he ends up enduring the torment of colonization, both physically and mentally.

Conflict within the Magistrate’s subconscious arises because of the many similarities with the barbarians that he discovers about himself such as not knowing what sunglasses are and defending the simplicity of the barbarians when they are rendered “lazy, immoral, filthy, and stupid” (p. 38) by the colonizers. On the other hand, the Magistrate also assists in the process of facilitation of colonization, enabling Colonel Joll’s violence towards the barbarians by providing him with necessary military equipment. When the Magistrate is ironically locked up for associating himself with the barbarian woman, he becomes even more compassionate with the prisoners, even referring to one of the prisoners as “father” (p.

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3). In Vytautas Kavolis’ “Post Modern Man: Psycho-Cultural Responses to Social Trends”, Kavolis characterizes post-modern personality as “one characterized by the sense that both polarities of a great many of these dilemmas are contained, in an unresolved form, with one’s own experience” (p. 445). Such predicaments include the above-mentioned estrangement, absence of cultural belonging, self-doubt, double awareness, and splintered aptitude affiliation, which can all be found within the mind of the Magistrate. Being caught between two antagonistic realities of the Empire and the barbarians, his world is split, wreaking havoc within his consciousness.

Bill Ashcroft, on post-colonial futures and transformations of colonial culture, states “the magistrate’s position is deeply “ironic.” As a magistrate, he is the representative and upholder of imperial law, yet his complacent and refined, self-indulgent but humane administration, his disdain for the gross excesses of Colonel Joll and the secret police, mean that his position is profoundly ambiguous. His face turned in two directions; he is both judge and judged, law and transgressor, protector and enemy, imperial official and imperial outcast. He is, in fact, an embodiment of the profound and disabling ambivalence of imperial rule, of imperial discourse itself (p. 104). Throughout his journey with the blind barbarian woman and being sent to jail the Magistrate grasps what is going on, realizing that the barbarians are in fact plastic, while Joll continues convincing everyone within their empire that the barbarians are aggressive and dangerous by nature. Because of the Magistrates post-modern personality, he is very indecisive. He begins emotionally reacting to the torture that the barbarians are put through. He feels shameful about the way that they are treated, “as if they were indeed animals” (p. 20). As a result, the Magistrate is broken, and in pursuit of refinement, sanity, and cohesion, he states “I am the same man I always was; but time has broken, something has fallen in upon me from the sky, at random, from nowhere” (p. 43).

Escapism, because of the absence of recognition, soon becomes the Magistrate’s only solace, as he disengages from the spectacle involving Colonel Joll’s roped-up prisoners, and attempts to liberate himself through sleep. But even something as simple as sleep cannot be attained by the Magistrate, and he exclaims “I sleep whenever I can nowadays and, when I wake up, wake reluctantly. Sleep is no longer a healing bath, a recuperation of vital forces, but an oblivion, a nightly brush with annihilation” (p. 21). The Magistrate attempts to find condolence while sleeping with a girl who doesn’t reciprocate the same feelings back to him. The Magistrate displays compassion as he takes in a disfigured barbarian girl (as a result of the torture she received from the Colonel), and treats her by massaging and rubbing her skin and muscles at night. This action is one of innocence and guilt after what the girl had been through at the hands of his Empire. “I lose myself in the rhythm of what I am doing. I lose awareness of the girl herself. There is a space of time which is blank to me: perhaps I am not even present” (p. 28). The Magistrate is unaware of what he wanted from the girl in the first place. He is certainly divided between the abuser and the abused as he worships every inch of her vandalized body.

Eventually, the Magistrate must choose a side or risk the impending insanity that comes with a broken identity. He confronts Colonel Joll, exclaiming that the barbarians’ intent has been wrongly perceived, and Joll replies you think we are dealing with small groups of peaceful nomads. We are dealing with a well orgwell-organized(p. 114). It is now that the Magistrate realizes that Joll and the Empire in order for him to have a purpose in life have fabricated this idea of the threatening barbarians. In this liberating scene, the Magistrate says “I have set myself in opposition, the bond is broken, I am a free man” (p. 78). At this point in the novel we are under the impression that the Magistrate has finally found peace, but this temporary solace is too good to be true, as the Empire proceeds to lose control, and its soldiers turn against it to loot the Empire.

Chaos ensues, and although ethical change has been brought upon the Magistrate, he is unable to keep up with his self-identity in his constantly changing colonial world. “This is not the scene I dreamed of. Like much else nowadays I leave it feeling stupid, like a man who lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere” (p. 156).

Works Cited

  1. Ashcroft, B. (1998). The irony, allegory, and empire: Waiting for the Barbarians and in the Heart of the Country, 100-116. In Kossew, S. (Ed.), Critical essays on J. M. Coetzee. New York: G. K. Hall & Co.
  2. Coetzee, J. M. (1980). Waiting for the Barbarians. Middlesex: Penguin Books.
  3. Kavolis, V. (1970). Post-modern man: Psychocultural responses to social trends. Social Problems, 17 (4), 435-448

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Magistrate's Identity Division in Waiting for Barbarians. (2022, Aug 16). Retrieved from

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