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Explore the ways in which relationships are shaped and influenced by traditional cultural expectations in the short stories you have studied.
Relationships – platonic and intimate – are sometimes built from cultural expectations; but to what extent are people willing to go to uphold those traditions? I will discuss two short stories “Country Lovers” by Nadine Gordimer and “Veronica” by Adewale Maja Pearce, in which both focus on close relationships which are condemned from the start due to strict and uncompromising cultural expectations.
Cultural influences are portrayed strongly by the non-British writers; one is set in an unnamed African village, and the other Apartheid South Africa. Both stories tragically show the destructive effect on relationships, when a tenacious fixation with tradition causes them to be obeyed beyond the point of humaneness, and everything else – including love – is disregarded.
In “Country Lovers” the protagonists Paulus (heir to wealthy farming business) and Thebedi (a black farm worker) form an inter-racial relationship in the period of Apartheid rule in South Africa.
During Apartheid the divide between blacks and whites was immense. Skin colour determined every aspect of social life. Whilst the affluent whites had their own well-equipped facilities, living in large houses and having well-paid jobs, blacks had to manage with a much lower standard of life. “Apartheid laws prohibited most social contact between races” (Microsoft Encarta 2006) and inter-racial sex and marriage were strongly opposed by law making it virtually impossible for a blossoming relationship such as Paulus’ and Thebedi’s to progress.
They stood at two different sides of the track, whilst Paulus was son of a rich farmer, Thebedi worked on his farm.
The contrast between them is great; and so their economic and social differences would be deeply frowned upon. An instance of the contrast, is the scene after Paulus and Thebedi met at the riverbed it says “and each returned home with the dark – she to her mother’s hut, he to the farmhouse”. A hut in comparison to a house proves the extent of Apartheid and the blacks living conditions. Njabulo, also a slave labourer would have lived here, and he had feelings for Thebedi.
Njabulo’s relationship with Thebedi is also dictated by the expectations of a black man in that time, and also his limitations because of it. For example, Paulus returned from school, and brought Thebedi gifts, because he could afford to, although “Njabulo said he wished he could have bought her a belt and earrings” (line 35). He couldn’t display his love for her, because he didn’t have the means. When Njabulo made arrangements to marry her, he couldn’t offer her parents the customary cow that should have been given in place of Thebedi. This also shows that the customs of the blacks could not be taken under consideration whilst segregation that was going on. Also, when the “very light” (line 114) baby was being born it simply states “Njabulo made no complaint”.
The preceding sentences had been very long and descriptive with many clauses, but this contrasting short simple one gives it importance and could show that he didn’t care, but could also show that he couldn’t do anything about it and so just accepted it. Despite the fact that it had been proven that Thebedi had had an intercourse with a white man, Njabulo maybe couldn’t ask her about it because he was a second-class citizen and couldn’t do anything. Also, maybe he felt uncomfortable to question her in regards to the baby, because it wasn’t uncommon for white men to rape black women in those times. Cultural expectations forced Njabulo to keep quiet, and so it impacted negatively upon their relationship. There was no trust or compassion between them as he had “no complaint” when Thebedi had another man’s child.
Despite Thebedi’s marriage, the love between Paulus and Thebedi seemed very pure. In line 1 of the story it sets the scene for what the whole story is based upon – “The farm children play together when they are small; but once the white children go away to school they soon don’t play together any more, even in the holidays”. It immediately drags us into the harshness of living under Apartheid. The entire tone of the narrator is cool and unemotional, perhaps to show the thoughts and feelings of the time. Most white people didn’t really care about the inequality during the Apartheid system, and so had no compassion towards the blacks or to what they were going through.
The unemotional tone of the story could also reflect the harshness of the people that were for apartheid or unsympathetic towards the experiences of black people, as the writer Nadine Gordimer was a strong activist in the anti-apartheid movement. The opening line shows how there is no discrimination when the children are young, but as they get older they discover the divide, and so blacks begin to call whites “missus and baasie” and blacks drop further and further behind in schooling. The story uses country specific words to show that it is not set in England such as “koppies” – small hill in South Africa.
The story sharply contrasts the everyday relationships between whites and blacks as they get older to say “The trouble was Paulus Esendyck did not seem to realise that Thebedi was now simply one of the crowd of farm children down at the kraal”. He goes against the norm and continues to entertain their relationship, rather than just stop his feelings for her. The language used here such as “the trouble” shows that it was a problem that Paulus could not just forget Thebedi. Even when he grew up and out of childhood and experienced the things of adulthood, it did not discourage his love for her. Although it was expected of Paulus to like these white girls as it suggests in the story “the sight of their dazzling bellies and thighs in the sunlight had never made him feel what he felt now”, “The head girl of the ‘sister’ school was said to have a crush on him he didn’t particularly like her” he had stronger feelings for Thebedi.
In the story, Paulus and Thebedi both go on a walk but unaware of each other but then meet whilst on the walk. This could symbolise that they each want to follow their own paths, but it leads back to one another, “they had not arranged this, it was an urge each followed independently”. They then go into deep conversation, and during this scene the writer uses lots of descriptive language and imagery to depict their surroundings, such as, “twisted and tugged at the roots of white stinkwood and Cape willow trees that loped out of the eroded earth around them” and “old, and eaten trees held in place by vigorous ones, wild asparagus brushing up between the trunks, and here and there prickly-pear cactus sunken-skinned and bristly”.
This technique may have been used prolong Paulus and Thebedi’s scene of happiness and contentment with each other – “she laughed a lot…sharing her amusement with the cool shady earth”. Another view is that nature is the only thing around them, it is not discriminatory and doesn’t judge them allowing them to be happy. The turning point in the story is when Paulus and Thebedi have intercourse and it is a blissful time, it says “they were not afraid of one another…this time it was so lovely, so lovely he was surprised”.
Although, due to the segregation of the time inter-racial relationships were forbidden (as they were illegal) and so their meetings had to be secret, for being found out would have incurred harsh punishments and being socially shunned. Paulus and Thebedi hide their love from others, specifically by making excuses for Thebedi’s gift “she told her father the missus had given these (gilt hoop earrings) as a reward for some work she had done”, and by sneaking in and out of the farmhouse “she had to get away before the house servants, who knew her, came in at dawn”. They both lead double lives. Paulus leaves for veterinary school and Thebedi marries Njabulo – the lives they “should” be leading if they stuck to the cultural expectations.
Once the baby is born everything changes. The writer constantly refers to childhood, during the key scene when Paulus searches for Thebedi and their baby, “He drank a glass of fresh, still-warm milk in the childhood familiarity of his mother’s kitchen” and also “For the first time since he was a boy he came right in the kraal”. Children are usually associated with innocence and naivety, and so maybe this was used to contrast with the act of murder he will commit, or maybe to remind the readers of the relationship he had with Thebedi when he was younger. In lines 132-134, the long sentences used increase the suspense and tension for the reader, as they are eager to find out what happens next, whilst the writer rambles on about non-essential information.
There is a change in Paulus as he no longer enters into long conversations with Thebedi; his language is short and clipped as he says “I want to see. Show me”. After Thebedi shows him his child, she uses an anecdote which corresponds to the situation, “the gang of children had trodden down a crop in their games or transgressed in some other way…and he the white one among them must intercede with the farmer”. This shows that the baby was the product of some “transgression” and the responsibility befell on him, Paulus to put it right. You can see that he felt some sorrow or regret as it says “he struggled for a moment with a grimace of tears, anger and self-pity”.
The relationship between Paulus and Thebedi had been destroyed because of the cultural expectations, as it says “she could not put her hand to him”. Thebedi could not even console her young lover, as she had no idea how he would react, maybe in anger he could hurt her, and he was confused “I don’t know… I feel like killing myself”. This was now no longer an intimate relationship although they shared a close moment, a chance to reconcile their love Paulus walked out, because the traditions had made it impossible for them to try and rekindle their affection for one another – “For a moment there was the feeling between them that used to come when they were alone down at the riverbed”
Others opinions and views of Paulus are that the prospect of being prosecuted outweighed his love for Thebedi and his child. He had to reassure that she had never been near the farm house, and willing her to take it away and finally did the only thing he could to make sure he was not found out. The last line summarises the whole story, even though they continued a relationship from childhood it was doomed from the beginning due to the pressures and harshness of living in a segregated society, “It was a thing of our childhood, we don’t see each other any more. “
Adewale Maja-Pearce depicts the tragic story ‘Veronica’ in which two members of a rural African village born and raised together, begin to lead very different lives on the ground of hampering cultural expectations. The narrator Okeke recollects his experiences in the village, and his platonic relationship with a fatalistic childhood friend Veronica.
Set in the middle of the last century, views of the roles of men and women were rigid and unyielding. The story shows how African women of the time were subjected to constant pressure and mounting responsibilities which in turn leads to fatal consequences. In Afrcian society, men were traditional “breadwinners” and it was a woman’s role to do childrearing and house work.
Veronica automatically adopted the responsibilities of her entire family as ‘since she was the eldest child…bringing up the other children had fallen on her’. The adjective “fallen” does not show the responsibility in a good light, as it suggests that a heavy burden has been dropped onto her. It also describes her family situation as she had to take on tasks stereotypically associated with men- such as “chopping firewood”, as well as taking on maternal roles such as catering for her siblings. Her father abuses her “listening to her scream”, and is described as a “brute”, and her mother described as “weak”. Maja-Pearce may have used the characters as allegory for the political views of the African country. Veronica is a symbol of the abused and mistreated citizens whilst her father symbolises the government and their indifference and apathy towards the citizens deprivation, and her mother could symbolise the “weak” bystanders that can’t do anything due to their lack of means.
This view also ties in with the fact that historically during this period a civil war would soon be in progress, and also that Maja-Pearce had written several stories that challenge the principles of African society.
The relationship between Veronica and Okeke is told solely from Okeke’s point of view as he gives a background, until he talks of his leaving the village. The writer could have done this to show that Veronica’s situation was probably much worse than Okeke knew about, and so the reader would imagine terrible things would happen to her whilst Okeke heard “screams in the night”, and so empathise with her more. This technique could be seen as building tension and anticipation for when they meet, or to show that this crucial dialogue is a very important part of the story.
A turning point in the story when Okeke and Veronica’s friendship is ended by Okeke’s plans to leave his home village and make a life for himself in the city, whilst Veronica refuses to abandon her family.
The parting conversation shows just how much cultural tradition has been impressed on Veronica. When Okeke suggests that she leave the village, she replies “Me!”. This could be vewed as mock indignance, because she feels that Okeke is telling her to forget her set role in society, or it could be seen as genuine surprise at him suggesting that she should give up everything near to her. Okeke then asks for her reasons for staying and she says ‘I can’t just leave my family’.
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