The Symbolism of the Girl

Coetzee sets up a parallel between the magistrate’s understanding of his life and circumstance and his relationship with the girl.  “It seems appropriate that a man who does not know what to do with the woman in his bed should not know what to write,” the narrator posits (66).  The girl has a power and control over the situation of the magistrate and surrounding individuals that she is unaware of.  In many instances, although the magistrate ponders on the influence of the girl on his life, he, too, is unaware of her control.

While on their journey to the barbarians, the magistrate and the girl finally find themselves in a mutually-desired sexual encounter, and for the first time they have intercourse.  Through this interaction, the magistrate notes, “in a minute five months of senseless hesitancy are wiped out and I am floating back into easy sensual oblivion” (72).  The magistrate’s human, sexual self is revived with his connection with the girl, and he attributes to this experience his rejuvenation from an old man fighting impotence back to the self he was recently distant from.  However, very soon after, the magistrate is sent once again into anxious, ponderous thoughts about his life and relation to the girl, stating, “I am with her not for whatever raptures she may promise or yield but for other reasons, which remain obscure to me as ever. . . is it she I want or the traces of a history her body bears?” (73).  The man obviously seeks some greater purpose for her being in his life, and seeks to define himself and his position in life through his involvement with her.

When the magistrate and the girl make love again, the magistrate offers, “When we begin I am sure that the time is right” (75).  However, his confidence in his timing and performance wane as he continues, and this reflects his certainty of his relationship with the girl—he begins to realize that he won’t know what to do with the girl if they ever reach the barbarians, if he will want her to stay or will okay to let her go.  When the time does come, he expresses her desire to return with him, but she refuses.  He sorrowfully states, “She is going, she is almost gone.  This is the last time to look on her clearly face to face, to scrutinize the motions of my heart, to try to understand who she really is. . .” (83).  In the magistrate’s efforts “to understand who she really is,” he seeks to understand himself and his true identity.  She serves as a portal through which he can journey to discover the person he is becoming or the one he denies he has already become—a man who has lost touch with the world, who is distant from his youth, and who may pass away from the world without much uproar from the people of the “civilization.”

–Amani Morrison

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