Justice and Morality in Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians”

Where are the borders between the truth and lies, between justice and injustice? Should the world be considered being civil and civilized, if it is based on the principles of law? What is the connection between law and justice, between civilization and the barbarian world? J. M. Coetzee has discussed these controversial questions in his novel Waiting for the Barbarians. The analysis of these contrasting aspects is presented in the form of the opposition between two characters of the novel, the Magistrate and Colonel Joll, and their visions of the problem of justice, humanity, and civilization. Power can reveal all the hidden personal features.

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Moreover, every object and phenomenon has two sides. Therefore, the power of the Magistrate and Colonel Joll is their way to demonstrate their contradictory visions of the role of justice and morality in society as two sides of one phenomenon or different approaches to the situation.

The peculiarities of the characters’ attitude to the problems of morality and justice are depicted by J. M. Coetzee with the help of language devices that emphasize the positions of the Magistrate and Colonel Joll and the nature of their relationship. Their conflict develops according to several stages. However, it is not only a conflict of characters but a conflict of approaches to the principles of morality and ideologies.

Thus, “we also realize that this is to be a novel not about nuances of character but about a clash of moral styles, a drama of representative ways of governing” (Howe). This drama is described in the form of a vivid and emotional story with a lot of allegories and images which is told in a first-person narrative. The narrator is the Magistrate who had the power, but now he has to experience the changes in his community and to face new approaches to the authority provided by Colonel Joll.

The first interaction between the Magistrate and Colonel Joll can be described as the opposition between two men. However, this opposition is hidden because it is based on their different social status and powers of the Magistrate and Colonel Joll, but not on their different outlooks. Readers can feel the tension between them, but it is not obvious. It is possible to observe with paying much attention to the phrases which are presented in the form of the Magistrate’s thoughts about Colonel Joll.

Thus, he is rather confused with this person because “Colonel Joll is from the Third Bureau”, and “the Third Bureau is the most important division of the Civil Guard”, and “that is what we hear, anyhow, in gossip that reaches us long out of date from the capital” (Coetzee 1). The tensions are almost impossible to avoid in this situation because they touch the problem of power and influence in society.

Nevertheless, the relations between the Magistrate and Colonel Joll begin to acquire definite and obvious features of the conflict. J. M. Coetzee uses the concept of truth for depicting the contradictions between the characters:

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“What if your prisoner is telling the truth,” I ask, “yet finds he is not believed? Is that not a terrible position? Imagine: to be prepared to yield, to yield, to have nothing more to yield, to be broken, yet to be pressed to yield more! And what a responsibility for the interrogator! How do you ever know when a man has told you the truth?” (Coetzee 3).

The author portrays all the features of a real dialogue with the help of word repetitions, the chain of emphatic questions, and by using exclamation marks. To depict the difference between the character’s understandings of the notion of truth, J. M. Coetzee concentrates on determining the character’s social positions. Their descriptions help to explain the Magistrate and Colonel Joll’s further actions. Colonel Joll is quite strict about his vision of truth. That is why the Magistrate concludes that for Colonel “pain is truth” (Coetzee 3). This phrase has a rather metaphorical meaning which is revealed by the author through his depictions of the tortures against the barbarians as the typical way for Colonel Joll and his people to know and state the truth.

That is why, even though the Magistrate tries to hide his thoughts and considerations about Colonel Joll behind the phrase that “the Empire does not require that its servants love each other, merely that they perform their duty”, the reader can observe the increase of the tensions between the characters whose visions of such important aspects as morality and responsibility are extremely contradictory (Coetzee 3). Thus, they cannot love each other or even understand each other because their opinions on the question are rather conflicting. “Unable to control the emissaries of the Third Bureau, the Magistrate wants to dissociate himself from their methods even as, in honesty, he has to admit that he and they are both servants of the Empire” (Howe).

Nevertheless, what does the Magistrate mean when he speaks about justice? Is there a correlation between justice and truth? In his speeches, the Magistrate focuses on the fact that all people are inclined to think that they know the nature and roots of justice. “You think you know what is just and what is not. I understand. We all think we know … all creatures come into the world bringing with them the memory of justice” (Coetzee 73).

Thus, people’s considerations about justice and injustice depend on those ideas with which they began to learn the world with its rules and norms. However, is it possible to say that truth can be considered as the base for justice? According to the Magistrate’s words, Colonel Joll has his visions of truth and justice, thus, “in his quest for the truth he is tireless” (Coetzee 12). However, Colonel Joll is also tireless in his providing violent actions against the barbarian population because it is his way to find the truth. Nevertheless, are these actions just about the barbarians? Thus, Colonel Joll’s borders of truth differ from his borders of justice.

On the other hand, the Magistrate’s attitude to justice and truth is based on the principles of morality and humanity. The author uses the protagonist’s initial monologue to express the depth of the character’s feelings. The monologue is characterized by a lot of short simple sentences that reflect the thoughts of the character. For instance, the Magistrate states, “The joy has gone from my life” or “I sleep like a dead man” (Coetzee 12). There are also many metaphors, similes, and allegories in the text of the novel which are used to imply the emotional state and attitude of the character to the individual situations.

In his novel, the author also depicts the development of the Magistrate’s opinion on the question of justice. If at the beginning of the novel the Magistrate discusses justice in its connection with truth concentrating on the aspects of morality, at the end of the novel the character makes accents on the principles of law as the base for justice. It is possible to think that the chain of events depicted in the novel influenced Magistrate’s vision of the concept of justice. Now it is necessary to find the balance between justice and law because the reality of life proves the fact that justice does not always lead to truth.

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“…We live in a world of laws,” I said to my poor prisoner, “a world of the second-best. There is nothing we can do about that. We are fallen creatures. All we can do is to uphold the laws, all of us, without allowing the memory of justice to fade (Coetzee 73).

An open confrontation between the Magistrate and Colonel Joll depends on the changes in the positions of the characters. Thus, the situation is altered and the Magistrate is not a representative of the authorities anymore. He is considered by Colonel Joll and the community as an enemy. It can even seem that the Magistrate only states the facts, but the level of the tension is also presented with the help of the peculiarities of print. “I read the words upside down: ENEMY… ENEMY… ENEMY… ENEMY He steps back and folds his hands. At a distance of no more than twenty paces he and I contemplate each other” (Coetzee 56). The author depicts the controversial fact of injustice directed toward the Magistrate with the help of using emphatic sentences and repetitions of the words in which the thoughts of the Magistrate are expressed.

To depict the difference between Colonel Joll and the Magistrate’s visions of justice and morality, the author uses the description of the Magistrate’s tortures. It is emphasized that the torturers were interested only in demonstrating to the Magistrate “what it meant to live in a body, as a body, a body which can entertain notions of justice only as long as it is whole and well” (Coetzee 61). It was possible to do through the Magistrate’s feeling pain, but it is accentuated that the torturers also wanted to show the Magistrate “the meaning of humanity” (Coetzee 61).

The repetition of the word ‘body’ helps to pay attention to the fact that tortures aim to make a person suffer from pain, and after his sufferings, he could betray his views and ideals. However, physical pain is not as intense as moral sufferings which can be a result of betraying personal viewpoints. The Magistrate had to understand the price of humanity in society through the pain caused by the tortures.

The question of morality in the novel can be discussed as rather controversial. In Waiting for the Barbarians the notion of morality is associated with the peculiarities of the attitude toward the barbarians and toward the Magistrate, and with the problem of morality or immorality of Colonel Joll’s actions. Analyzing the elements of the development of the ‘civilized’ and ‘barbarian’ societies and the aspects of their opposition, J. M. Coetzee also examines the problem of a moral decline of the society. The vision of this moral decline is expressed with the help of depicting the Magistrate and Colonel Joll’s positions.

Reacting to the consequences of civilization for the Empire, the Magistrate states that “where civilization entailed the corruption of barbarian virtues and the creation of dependent people, I decided, I was opposed to civilization” (Coetzee 20). The issue of moral decline is also discussed in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Thus, a moral decline can be associated with a person’s physical state and be a result of physical and mental diseases. Moreover, a moral decline can be considered as a social phenomenon in which origin is the social diseases from which the whole society and individuals in it suffer.

J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians is a complex picture of the colonial world in which definite rules and laws are based on the specific understanding of the notions of ‘justice’ and ‘morality’. Those principles which are common for the Empire’s organization reflect the principles which are typical for the whole colonial world. That is why it is possible to say that the nameless Empire is also timeless and is connected with the space of South Africa’s territory. Thus, Waiting for the Barbarians is “the story of one man’s efforts to break from the terrorizing ranks of his superiors, to make up in some way, shape, or form for the crimes committed with his passive consent” (Blyn).

The novel’s organization helps to describe the peculiarities of the conflict between ‘civilized’ and ‘barbarian’ worlds through the development of the conflict between two men whose visions of justice and morality are too opposite to each other. In his work, Blyn focuses on the fact that Coetzee in his novel does not allow readers’ confusing “the desire for expiation with something called “justice” (Blyn). Furthermore, the usage of lively dialogues and the narrator’s monologues helps readers to perceive the depicted story as true to life and the narrator’s voice as distinctive and convincing.

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The conflict in relations between the Magistrate and Colonel Joll reveals their opposite visions of such phenomena as truth, justice, humanity, morality, and law. In his novel Waiting for the Barbarians, J. M. Coetzee has depicted the contradictory visions of the characters on the main aspects of life by paying attention to their attitude to the problem. If the Magistrate determines such main values as truth, morality, and humanity, and his vision of justice is based on these aspects, Colonel Joll discusses justice predominantly as connected with the principles of law. In this situation laws contribute to the needs of the state, but not the personal ones.

Thus, the concepts of justice and morality can be discussed from different points of view in society. One of the most controversial questions on which two men’s visions of justice depend is the issue of truth, its absolute nature, and moral aspects. It is important to pay attention to the fact that the Magistrate, after all his tortures, understands that justice is not always associated with truth, and morality is not the base for those laws which determine the realization of justice in society. Power is the origin of justice in that society where the main accent is made on laws, but not on morality.

Works Cited

Blyn, Robin. Something Called Justice: J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. n.d. Web.

Coetzee, John Maxwell. Waiting for the Barbarians. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2010. Print.

Howe, Irving. A Stark Political Fable of South Africa. 1982. Web.

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StudyCorgi. "Justice and Morality in Coetzee’s “Waiting for the Barbarians”." January 22, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/justice-and-morality-in-coetzees-waiting-for-the-barbarians/.


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