Philemon’s character changes throughout the story. Can Themba takes us on a journey to see why he transforms. At first Philemon is a devoted husband. And then as a hard working man and a fine friend. The news of his wife’s adultery makes him become a detached, controlling and rancorous husband. He turns into a cruel man, taking pleasure in humiliating his wife. Philemon’s actions cause his own remorse and pain. We note that the language in the story and Philemon’s actions are related to religion, which can be linked to the common belief that Lucifer was an angel cast out of heaven because he wanted to take over heaven or the throne of God.
At the beginning of the story there are warnings that all is not as it seems. (80) A word such as frown and persitalsis sets a tone to the story. Philemon describes his wife as a ‘sleeping serenity,’ and a ‘mututinal miracle.’ (80) Philemon is happy ‘grinned.’ (80) He smiles at the ‘odd caprice of the heavens,’ not aware that an odd caprice will soon befall him. (80) He embraces his, ‘mood of contentment’ (81), erroneous outlook. He has a superior view of himself, ‘supremest immaculacy,’ and of his life. (82) He believes his wife is in absolute awe of him, ‘comes out of ether to behold him.’ (82) Philemon’s descriptions of himself and his wife are narsisstic.
In a life filled with poverty, overcrowding and inadequate facilities Philemon has altered his perception so that it accords with his desired world. Men were superior to women, but Philemon helped his wife with chores. The happiness in the beginning of the story contrasts the sadness to come. His seemingly harmless ritual shows he likes to have his life ordered and controlled. He believes his wife is like him, ‘lunch tin solicitously prepared the night before…’ (82).
Then we see another side of Philemon’s character, as a hard working man and good friend. For Maphikela has the courage to tell Philemon of his wife’s adultery. Philemon does notices a change in Maphikela’s attitude, yet he did not notice a change in his wife? There are none as blind as those who do not wish to see. At this stage Philemon is still compassionate and encourages confidence, ‘… you can talk to me about anything,’ (84). From Maphikela’s reluctance to tell Philemon, we expect a hurt and angry response. We share Maphikela’s compassion.
Philemon’s character undergoes a drastic change after he hears the news. He rapidly experiences a series of powerful negative emotions, ‘menacing electrical flashes were leaping from coil to coil.’ (84). He does not doubt the validity of the claim. Did Philemon subconsciously know his world was illusion? He ‘breaks down.’ The bus ride symbolises the emotions Philemon experiences in his transformation. (85) The ‘soiled laundry’ symbolizes the secret that has been exposed. He cannot control these emotions. The intimate ‘sweaty intimacies’ nauseates him; symbolically he wants to get rid of these emotions. The bus hurtles him ‘sickeningly from side to side’. He gains control of himself when the trip is over.
After this emotional outbreak he seems completely calm. (86) This marks another transformation in Philemon. His response to anxiety predicts his treatment of Mathilda. He does not attempt to fight with the man, and only really seems to notice him when he hears the ‘clap of his bedroom window.’ Mathilda, knowing her husband, is afraid because she expects violence and his calmness induces more fear than a violent outburst would. He then focuses on the suit as it is a tangible object to remind him of what has happened. Philemon treats the suit as a living person and so infuses her betrayal with life. ‘mmmm-er, my wife’s not well..’ (86) He blames his wife wholeheartedly for the situation. Philemon projects ‘very little noticeable emotion’ and even a ‘flutter of humour.’ (87) Philemon has a patronizing and superior attitude towards Mathilda and does not show how much she hurt him. ‘I’d like him to be treated with the greatest consideration (take care of your guilt.)
He will eat every meal with us (the suit will become routine) and share all we have…. if he vanishes or anything else happens to him… I’ll kill you. (let go of your betrayal and I will not have anything to remind me of it and nothing to punish you with.)’ The threat is emotional abuse. Philemon feels Mathilda is responsible for desanctifying their relationship, though he was the one who placed them on a pedestal. She ‘ducks frantically’ when she walks by him, fearing violence. ‘There’s to be no violence in this house if you and I can help it.’ (87). Philemon proceeds with his duties of posting his bosses letters as if nothing serious has happened to him and visits a beer hall, where the atmossphere compliments his emotional state. The ‘stern masculinity’ (88) indicates that the house was previously heartless and harsh.
When Philemon sets eyes on his wife he is amazed by her beauty, and refers to her looks as the ‘woman he married.’ Mathilda hid her femininity because of the way Philemon treated her in the past but Philemon does not see it that way. ‘What makes a woman like this experiment with adultery?’ (88) Philemon wonders why Mathilda committed adultery. He controls his flaring emotions and his desires to beat or love her. Any resistance Mathilda offers is summarily crushed. (88) The death of the essence implies that this emotion in him dies. There is a thin line between love and hate. After his inner battle he only replies casually: ‘I’m hungry, Tilly.’ As if to say, life carries on; we will do something completely normal like eating a meal and pretend nothing is wrong, as we have always done.
Philemon settles into his role as cruel dictator. His agrression lies shallow beneath his calm exterior. He barks at Matilda, ‘our visitor.’ (89) He wants to regain control of his life by controlling Mathilda. His fit of ‘demonical rage’ subsides gradually. Then he institutes another ritual, the ritual of the suit. He makes Mathilda nourish her guilt. Philemon does not say grace. He decides which rituals to make and which to break, and is a hypocrite. As they wash the dishes they ‘seem’ to be a devoted couple, like things seemed to be alright in the past. He further lowers self esteem with indirect threats of violence and exploits her feelings of guilt to reduce and discount his own. We now despise Philemon. Any deviance from the ritual and Philemon would ‘harass’ Mathilda, but the ritual is a continuous persecution. Philemon experiences great inner turmoil as reality tries to break into his illusion. He makes Mathilda take the suit to the dry cleaners and even for a Sunday walk.
Mathilda carries the suit, as Jesus carried the cross. To outsiders, Philemon and Mathilda seem like a normal happy couple. Philemon does not tell anyone of Mathilda’s adultery, a characteristic of an abuser. He is so self-absorbed, that he does not care for his wife’s terrible suffering. In Philemon’s opinion, he has a reason for abusing Mathilda. Philemon does suspect his behaviour is abnormal, hence him reading a book on abnormal psychology, but he persists with his behaviour, persists with the ritual. ‘Give the old chap a rest, will you Tilly.’ Ironically, Mathilda’s guilt is not allowed a rest. Mathilda is too scared to speak to him; they haven’t spoken in a long time.
She ‘asks him nicely’ is she can join the cultural club and he permit her. ‘You can’t be moping around here all day,’ he says, as if she is solely responsible for the situation. ‘The strain he himself suffered from his mode of castigation,’ implies that Philemon is also suffering. (93) He unconsciously knows he is wrong to punish her so severely. If he admits he is partly responsible for her adultery, he would have to admit his whole world view is flawed. He even allows Mathilda to host a party. The reference to ‘so many things seemed to be taking place simultaneously’ refers to the fact that Philemon’s plans are progressing in the background.
In line with the religious theme of the story, the party is on a Sunday, which is the day when God rested in the Christian religion. Philemon, the vindictive, has allowed Mathilda enough rope, and her pain is so much deeper when he declares, in front of all her guests; ‘the guest of honour.’ (94) Mathilda’s begging only elicits an aggressive response. ‘Are you ashamed of him?’ (94) He wields his power over her by forcing her to engage in the most embarrassing activity publicly. ‘You better ask my wife.’ He cannot accept responsibility for his own actions. We realise that Philemon will never allow Mathilda to forget her mistake.
This is a malevolent ritual which will carry on forever, or as long as Philemon’s demented mind decides it should continue. After the party Philemon leaves with a guest. He returns drunk, perhaps wanting to escape his terrible self with drink, to find Mathilda dead. He stands sober ‘before stark reality.’ (95) Philemon realizes he is not god, he cannot control his life, and he could not control his wife. She lies curled as if begging for a little love. While she was alive he would not love her because of her mistake and in death her greatest wish is symbolized in the position her body takes. What Philemon wanted to achieve has gone horribly wrong. From his anguished scream, one can assume he did not expect this.
Philemon had such a misconception of everything in his life, that he did not imagine the consequences of his actions would be so cruel. He turned into a wife abuser and Mathilda could not deal with the emotional abuse anymore. Philemon seriously distorted view of life, himself and his wife has ended his wife’s life. As the story ends we see a side of Philemon that is the opposite of who he was in the beginning, his immense joy has become a great tragedy. We feel a twinge of sympathy for Philemon and we leave him as a broken man.