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Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

Describing the development and the collapse of civilizations, one would always touch upon what makes a man. Searching the answer to the famous “Are you a man or a mouse?” question, people try to find the difference between the mankind and the humanity. With help of the two protagonist civilizations, the Barbarians and an empire of no name, Coetzee suggests that it is not only the so-called grandeur that makes people civilized and decent.

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Barbarians and the Empire: Where Humanity Begins

Because of the striking contrast between the Barbarians and the citizens of the Empire, it becomes obvious that the prisoners of their own prejudice, the dwellers of a great state can prove even less worthy than the crowd of people labeled as Barbarians.

Thus, it can be suggested that the Empire and the Barbarians oppose each other not only in terms of the political issues and in the specifics of their culture, but also in their moral principles. Surprisingly, it turns out that the so-called “Barbarians” prove even more worth of respect than the civilized people of the Empire!

Depicting the terror of the colonization, Coetzee makes it evident that evaluating the level of culture, one can be mistaken to a considerable extent. Because of the significance of the notion, it can be applied to a variety of lifestyles. Moreover, it might prove that being civilized does not necessarily mean being humane.

Such invention as colonialism, whuch actually belongs to the civilized people can never be compared to any cruelties of the Barbarians. “Waiting for the Barbarians is about language and about the body in pain,” claims Eckstein (70), getting the gist of the story. All shot through with the feeling of despair and sorrow, Waiting for the Barbarians is much more than merely the story of two nations – this is the tragic ship’s log of colonialism.

It is evident from the very beginning that the “Barbarians” are the people of South Africa, deprived of their dignity, of the rights to live a full life and belong to the country where they were born and where now they are neglected and despised. Although they have the culture of their own, they are strangers, which is why their culture is worth hating, and they must be neglected – that was the course of thoughts of an average white man at the times of the Apartheid.

A solution of the problems of the civilized world, the Barbarians are the people to lay the blame for all the miseries of the “civilized” people. Taking advantage of them, the Empire will feel stronger and more certain. A kind of entertainment for the civilization hungry for new impressions, this could be another piece of fun:

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Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,

everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.

And someone who have just returned from the border say

there are no barbarians any longer. (Cavafy 19)

This is what makes the town wait for the barbarians’ arrival, and they will wait as long as they need this very kind of solution. Without these victims, there will be no one to pay for the mistakes of the “civilization”, which the citizens of the Empire know too well. Another altarage for the vanity of the Empire, the barbarians are indispensable to the life of its dwellers.

Breathing the Air of the Empire: The Setting

In spite of the fact that Coetzee created the specific world almost parallel to the reality, depicting the town and the civilization which never existed, it is clear that the author was aiming at the history of South Africa in the colonialist epoch. A tribute to the people who suffered the sorrowful times of the foreign invasion, this book takes the reader on a time travel to the times when South Africa was sinking in the blood of those who resisted to the blind rage of colonialists.

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Written by South African novelist J. M. Coetzee during South African period of apartheid, Waiting for the Barbarians is not set in South Africa, but rather broadly conveys events taking place during the sunset years of an (unnamed and unspecified) “Empire”. The scene of this decline is alternately marked by extremes of violence and torpidity as the Empire battles to keep the “Barbarians” at bay. (Bloom 213)

Thus, it is beyond any reasonable doubt that the Empire embodies the colonialists who came to enslave the people of South Africa, considering them uncivilized savages. Despite – or, perhaps, because of – the settings shifted to the place which has not been spotted on any map, readers understand perfectly well what countries the author speaks about.

Creating the vision of the place which is completely isolated from the rest of the world, Coetzee is free to depict all the cruelties of the colonialists. Coetzee would not have been half as that convincing if he had merely described the cruelties of colonialists in a documental novel. Allowing readers to speculate on their own, Coetzee makes the novel ever more impressive.

What Stands Behind the Plot: Shaping the Images of Protagonists

The protagonist of the novel, the Magistrate, is, perhaps, one of the examples of decent people among the population of the “Empire”. Coetzee chose him as the protagonist and the narrator of the story mainly because of his unusual viewpoint on the situation. Without this character, the story would have lost its genuine sincerity and the air of hope in the center of despair.

He quietly develops his own understanding of the “Barbarians” through private excavations of their ancient dwellings, and even though he fails to decipher the scripted slips of wood he covets, he comes to understand that they are quiet people – fishermen, nomads and tent dwellers – far from the bloodthirsty Barbarians the official stories and associated rumors describe. (Bloom 214)

Delicate and sympathizing with the Barbarians, Magistrate commits even more serious crime in the eye s of the dwellers of the Empire – he falls in love with the Barbarian woman! With his liberal ideas of what makes a human and who is worth love and appreciation, he seems the eyes and the heart of the Empire, but the latter prefers following what its mind says. It seems that the sunset of the Empire began with the sunset in their souls and hearts.

On the other scale there is Colonel Joll, the cruel and merciless hunter. In spite of all the violent actions of his, he can be somewhat justified; being nothing but a beats in human’s skin, he is guided by his instincts and serves as a perfect specimen of a real savage in the novel.

Opposed to the Barbarians who show genuine feelings of love, trust and sympathy, he is the weapon for fighting, a man with no soul and no feelings behind the fearless face. An empty shell, he will never be able to understand the absurdity of his actions – he has been designed to kill and to give orders.

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Colonel Joll and his soldiers, through the infliction of burns, cuts and beatings (with a hammer, a domestic tool of construction), degradation, and the ever-present question invert the practices of medicine and law, destroying the world, the civilization, of his prisoners. (Eckstein 80)

Representing the face of the Empire, the two characters embody its virtues (Magistrate) and its vices (Colonel Joll). Like a coin with the obverse and the reverse, the Empire had all the positive and negative features concentrated in those two characters. The Magistrate and the Colonel still split the Empire in two separate parts which make the ocean of violence with a few teardrops of mercy in it.

Taking the Fundament of the Empire apart

It seems that the Barbarians were only the pretext for the Empire to take advantage of their less experienced in martial art neighbours. Because of the necessity to win ever more territories and subdue more people to the Empire to show its power and force, Colonel Joll, who embodies the brutal power of the Empire, decides to conquer the peaceful people.

However, the citizens of the Empire never thought of the emptiness which came with the victory. Once trampling on the culture of the others and using the Barbarians for their own purpose, the citizens of the Empire devoured a piece of their own souls, leaving a hole within:

(How serious people’s faces have become.)

Why are the streets and squares empty so rapidly,

everyone going home so lost in though?

Because the night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.

And some who have just returned from the border say

there are no barbarians any longer. (Cavafy 19)


Creating the novel about the fate of the Barbarians and the unknown, detached from the rest of the world Empire, Coetzee managed to make readers see the terror of South African colonization. Because of the feeling of despair which the entire novel is ridden through with, the story provides the impression of something extremely, terrifyingly real. With help of the specific plot and significant characters Coetzee depicted the fear and the woes of the South Africans at the time of the apartheid.

It is evident that the story is a double-sided sword, a riddle for readers to solve. However, apart from the story which is concealed between the lines of the novel, the moral values which the author speaks of are also of great importance.

Raising the issue of the rotting morals of the civilization in the period of its sunset, Coetzee implies the fall of the empire which splits people into “the civilized” and “the barbarians”. With help of his novel, Coetzee spoke in the open about the inhumanity of racial discrimination and about the danger of racial prejudice. An incredible masterpiece, waiting for the Barbarians established the ideas of equality which Africa needed so much.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Exploration and Colonization. New York, NY: Infobase Publishing, 2010. Print.

Cavafy, Constantine and Edmund Keeley. Collected Poems. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992. Print.

Eckstein, Barbara. The Language of Fiction in a World of Pain: Reading Politics as Paradox. Philadelphia, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 1990. Print.

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