The relationship between the Magistrate and the barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians is not at any point in the novel, a typical relationship. The Magistrate’s guilt for having been involved in a government that has for so long mistrusted and mistreated the barbarians manifests itself in his attraction to the barbarian girl. The affair begins on his part, as an innocent infatuation with the barbarian girl. Throughout the novel, he becomes more and more aware of the subconscious reasons he has for having such an attraction to the girl.
From the time when he first begins the relationship with her to the time, he leaves with her people is a progression of the clarity with which he views the relationship.
The Magistrate begins to be intrigued by the girl in a fairly natural way. As he sees her, a blind barbarian girl begging on the streets, left behind by her people, he feels an attraction for her. They begin their relationship (if such a one-sided relationship can be labeled one at all) in a completely physical way.
The Magistrate is content with only dealing with her body. He massages her, bathes her, and sleeps next to her. He is completely satisfied with this seemingly normal relationship. So I lie beside this healthy young body while it knits itself in sleep into ever sturdier health, working in silence even at the points of irremediable damage, the eyes, the feet, to be whole again. (33) As a combination of a lover and healer, the Magistrate feels comfort in being with the scarred, broken, barbarian girl.
While he may not know yet why the washing and massaging of the girl’s body brings him a certain healing effect. The Magistrate easily succumbs to the feeling of peace he receives from pampering her.
Even more strange than the mystifyingly calming effect that the Magistrate receives from massaging the girl is the nature of the sexuality between them. While no blatantly sexual acts occur, there is an unmistakable eroticism about the way they interact. No longer satisfied with this unnamed, superficial craving for the girls body, the Magistrate becomes frustrated (both with her and with himself) because he feels unsure about the nature of his infatuation with her. Partially due to his age, which brings with it a decrease in sexual drive, and partially due to her insecurity with him, he has no desire to be any more intimate with her than he has already been. He has completely lost the calming, almost drug-like effect that he felt from bathing and rubbing the girl.
He states in his frustration, These bodies of hers and mine are diffuse, gaseous, centreless, at one moment spinning about a vortex here, at another curdling, thickening elsewhere; but often also flat, blank. I know what to do with her no more than one cloud in the sky knows what to do with another. (34) These thoughts from the Magistrate illustrate very clearly two feelings of his: one he is aware of, and one he may not be. His most obvious frustration is the fact that he feels uncomfortable and does not know what to do with the girl. Revealed also by his words, however, is how he views girl’sher. He uses the word blank to refer to himself, the girl, or both of them. The Magistrate repeatedly refers to the girl in this way. Later, that blankness escalates to a point of reflection.
With a more concentrated effort and unceasing persistence, he searches for a typical, straightforward physical attraction to the girl. Due to their sporadic appearance and disappearance, the desires of true, benign attraction that he feels for the girl are more likely hallucinations than veritable feelings of love. There are moments I feel the onset of one now, when the desire I feel for her, usually so obscure, flickers into a shape I can recognize. (40) Desperate for relief from his confusion about the girl, the Magistrate succeeds at times, in making himself believe that he has found the type of relationship he seeks.
After failing to mold his mass of confusing feelings into a recognizable affection for or attraction to the girl, the Magistrate becomes once again angry and frustrated. He withdraws from the girl and looks for excuses not to see her. Choosing himself with his former pastimes and less disturbing young lovers, he tries to forget about his previous escapades with the barbarian girl. He is confused by the fact that he can so easily become sexually intimate with other girls, but desires only platonic physical contact with the girl he keeps in his bed. He does, however, realize that he is still able to find pleasure with his cheerful, simple bird woman. Smiling with joy, sliding into a languorous half-sleep, it occurs to me that I cannot even recall the other oneone’sce. She is incomplete! I say to myself. Though the thought begins to flat away at once, I cling to it. (42) This is also an example of the Magistrate forcing himself to find problems with the girl, to find excuses not to deal with her.
Unable to completely put her out of his mind, the Magistrate begins to equate his interactions with the barbarian girl with those of the white men and the barbarians as a whole. He may begin to see the truth behind his infatuation. I behave in some ways like a lover I undress her, 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) This is when the Magistrate begins to see what he is doing to the girl. Having come to the point of full realization, he can fully face what he is and whom he acts like. Just as Colonel Joll does as he pleases with the barbarians, regardless of their wishes, so does the Magistrate with the girl.
The more he strives to find pure love between himself and the barbarian girl, the more he sees himself as Colonel Joll, using her for his whims as the Colonel used all the barbarians. Instead of seeing them for who they truly are, Colonel Joll turns the entire scenario into what it would be in his fantasy world. The evil barbarians are threatening the way of life of the peaceful white man, and Colonel Joll must make sure they are stopped, no matter the cost to them. In the same way, the Magistrate puts himself in a fantasy world where he, the only white man sympathetic to the barbarian’s plea, makes his best effort to right the wrongs of the white men by caring for the barbarian girl. In his fantasy, the girl is grateful and looks to him as a hero. Not able to understand why she does not make her gratitude known to him, the Magistrate looks into her eyes. and with a shift of horror behold the answer that has been waiting all the time offer itself to me I!
n the image of a face masked by two glassy insect eyes from which there comes no reciprocal gaze but only my doubled image cast back at me. (44) This imagery has two meanings. The most obvious is the fact that there exists no reciprocal gaze. The Magistrate is concentrated on the girl and emotionally tied. She, however, seems disinterested. All of the wounds that the Magistrate longs to heal in her are wounds that he has projected onto her for his benefit. He still has a chance to make up for what has been done to the barbarian people, as long as he projects their misfortunes onto the girl.
Upon his realization of the truth about his infatuation with the barbarian girl, he is upset to the point where he is even longing to be in denial. He wants so much just to be a Magistrate with an undisturbing attraction to a girl, that he makes up excuses for himself, about why he suddenly feels less attracted to the girl (when, in truth, it is because he knows what has drawn him to her). In one instance, however, he faces the truth in a frustrated outcry, Is it then the case that it is the whole woman I want that my pleasure in her is spoiled until these marks on her are erased and she is restored to herself; or is it the case (I am not stupid, let me say these things that it is the marks on her which drew me to her but which, to my disappointment, I find, do not go deep enough? (64) Were the marks to go as deep as the Magistrate once thought they did, the girl (in his opinion) would have outwardly been much more grateful to him, the only man who cared enough to save!
Feeling rejected and useless, unable to help the only person for whom he cares, the Magistrate decides to take the barbarian girl back to her people. It is during the long journey to find them that he gets to know her. Their relationship does not, however, reach its full potential, according to the Magistrate. He repeatedly looks back upon the time he has spent with the girl, thinking about the time he wasted on her physically, when he could have been talking to her cheerfully (instead of using the gloomy tone to which he was so accustomed). It is only after seeing her interactions with the other men on the trip with them, that the Magistrate sees the beauty of the person he has been falsely intimate with, over the past months. Only then does he come to be attracted to her sexually and as a whole person. Still, my heart continues its affectionate glow towards this girl who so briskly falls asleep in the crook of my arm. There will be another time, and if not, I do not think I mind. (66) Although the Magistrate is not able to fulfill his desire to do good for the barbarian people through the girl, he can understand that desire and let go of it.