Friday, May 4, 2018

Nadine Gordimer - An Intruder (Overview)
The short story An Intruder was incorporated in Nadine Gordimer's short story collection Livingston's Companions, published in 1970. As such, it must be read and viewed through the prism of her somewhat earlier works which dealt with South African society's inequality and the problems arising from the diseased status quo of the times.

An Intruder focuses on relationships between characters and how perceptions of a situation differ in the eyes of each individual based on a combination of nature and nurture, or at the very least that is what Gordimer would have the reader gauge. What made James Seago what he is? Why is Mrs Clegg, Marie's mother, such a typical depthless wishful socialite with an exaggerated respect for higher social status? Couldn't Marie judge the merit of the man who treats her like a child or is she turning a blind eye to his behavior because it suits her? Whatever the answers to these questions, the one certainty we have is that the notion of love is nowhere to be found in this story even though the central relationship examined is one that ought to be based on love.

The splendor of the story lies in the nuanced characterization, typical of Gordimer's writing, which leads to an enigmatic end (a full 3,330-word interpretation of which can be found here).

Gordimer never preaches, never interprets, never spells out. Characters unfold slowly through direct and indirect speech and actions, as do incidents leading up to the story's climax. If we are slapped with a grand question mark at the end through the inexplicit details given, it is because we are invited to re-examine evidence and not leave the story with the feeling of smugness we would have after solving a murder-mystery. No, Gordimer's stories are not a form of entertainment but a means of scrutiny.

Reading this story on your own or teaching it as part of a syllabus is highly recommended. The characters take on a life of their own beyond the South African reality they were meant to inhabit, and become the acquaintances we once met, the neighbors whose lives we catch glimpses of through flimsy curtains and Venetian blinds, the latest news sensations gossip magazines and TV shows are bombarding us about. Is this story set in mid-20th century South Africa, or is it as contemporary as last night's dinner discussion about the young pretty girl who married the 'mature' upper class inveterate bachelor with the long history?

Nadine Gordimer – An Intruder

  • life
      • 1923-2014, South African
      • Nobel Prize for Literature 1991
      • political activist
      • helped Nelson Mandela work on his famous trial speech "I Am Prepared to Die"
      • her writing dealt with moral + racist issues (especially apartheid)
      • in post-apartheid S. Africa, she became involved in HIV movement
      • some of her works were banned by the S. African government (pre-1990's)

  • plot
      • James meets, courts and marries Marie
      • Marie is pregnant
      • they move to a shabby flat
      • one morning after a night out, Marie wakes up to find the flat in a mess (we suppose an intruder broke into their house)
      • they move to a new flat
      • Marie realizes the previous flat wasn’t broken into – she suddenly realizes sth that made her grow old overnight

  • characters
      • Marie Clegg 
        • extremely young, innocent 
        • frail little "marmoset" (small S. Amer. monkey), teenage doll, angel, kitten petted by James on his knees
        • is an only child 
        • importance placed on appearance: always fixing make-up & hair in bathrooms of night clubs 
        • completely unknowing to the point of being dumb 
        • non-reactive, has no mind or will of her own: marriage licenses gotten one morning, no big wedding or preparation
        • no first wedding night: morning after = she’s happy that they’re alone together 
        • he changes her: she knows how he’ll call her if they divorce 
        • pregnancy

      • James Seago 
        • inveterate bachelor, 'pedophile', hedonist
        • ruddy, clear-skinned face, lively eyes 
        • parties, old black Lancia, crocodile-skin wallet 
        • has upper-class candor 
        • drinks (wine), pretends not to remember 
        • married twice, hates both wives, says they’ve taken his furniture
        • charmer: seems to pay attention to Marie at the start (“… don’t breathe your damned brandy on her, Carl, she’ll wilt.”), has nice manners 
        • lives in a shabby room in an abandoned-looking house rented by friends 
        • never keeps any job he gets
        • business he does is always shady (and always falls through): job connected with Angolan diamond-mining company  
        • saddened but delighted by Marie’s pregnancy (“precocity”)

      • Mrs Clegg 
        • artist, earned living for her & her daughter doing pastels for rich families + of African women for souvenir shops
        • plays the part of the liberal, bohemian, open-minded artist 
        • accomplice to Marie’s drama:  
          • knows Seago has been married twice 
          • likes him because of his manners (opens doors for women, flatters her) 
          • likes this man with his “dinner-jacket among the smart set” 
          • likes him because his name was often on the social page
          • ignored rumors about his reputation
          • makes excuses for his talking to her about his and Marie’s sex life

      • Seago’s friends 
        • example of social class (privileged white S. Africans)

      • Manolis + Giovanni 
        • owners of the night clubs James & friends go to
        • example of how social class (lower/lower middle) is treated by upper class: they have to wait up till clients leave on a weekday
        • brief portrayal of migrant community in S. Africa

      • Colin 
        • from the Golden Horn Inn, Basutoland (Kingdom of Lesotho after 1966 when it got its independence, now has one of the highest HIV rates in the world) 
        • Seago pretended not to know him
        • Colin smiles coquettishly, knowing: it is understood that they were intimately involved 

  • point of view
      • third person limited multiple point of view (we see what Marie or Mrs Clegg thinks but are kept out of Seago’s mind)
      • this allows an aura of mystery to linger
      • makes the reader work to find the meaning of the ending
      • creates tension / suspense as the reader guesses what kind of man Seago is and why he likes Marie
      • ambiguity in Gordimer’s works created by unreliable + incomplete narrative perspective

  • themes
      • decadence of the upper class (those of English descent Seago had English accent)
      • power shifts in human relationships
      • male sexual repression: whose fault is it?
        • joint responsibility of husband + wife: since couple are shown as a unit, both are implicated in latent violence + repression 
        • Seago: paternalistic + misogynistic 
        • Marie: colludes by staying passive (possible critique by Gordimer)
        • both Marie & James go about the house surprised by what has happened, but we know Seago pretends not to remember what he’s done/ Marie realizes that he lies about not remembering

  • title
      • symbol of 
        • the unknown character we have in us
        • the realization of truth 
        • Marie herself (she’s been the outsider at parties, among James’s friends and is now an intruder in the marriage because she's matured) 
        • maturity itself which brings the end of innocence & soap bubble existence
      • pregnancy (the unborn child was the intruder)

      • creates tension throughout story (we know from the start that sth will break the rosy picture of happiness)

  • ending (what facts are we given to work with?)
      • slime of contraceptive jelly
      • hair combings taken from bedroom bin
      • toothpaste, razor blades
      • mucous, half-rotted vegetable matter peelings, tea leaves, dregs
      • bathroom: cosmetics spilt, underwear arranged in collage, 2 cotton gowns in bath with liqueur emptied on them

Nadine Gordimer 01.JPG
Photo: Bengt Oberger - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Click the picture for explanations of literary terms

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