Meanings of History in Coetzee’s ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’

Analysis of Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

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Meanings of History in Waiting for the Barbarians

J.M. Coetzee sets the story of Waiting for the Barbarians far from the center of its fictional empire, yet the “history” of the Empire is powerfully present in the desert outpost town. The novel’s narrator, the Magistrate, ruminates on his attachments to this history and he desires escape.

In a book about obscure desires, it is this desire alone that is rendered with perfect clarity – the Magistrate wants to break free of the culturally determined perspectives of the Empire. It’s a desire articulated through a strange and strained relationship with an unnamed “barbarian” girl and codified in the particular usage of the term “history” in the Magistrate’s first-person reflections.

As the novel closes with reflections on this notion of history, we might give it special consideration as a central theme in the text. For the Magistrate history – more than Colonel Joll or his sycophant Mandel – is the antagonizing force of the narrative: “I wanted to live outside of history. I wanted to life outside the history that Empire imposes on its subjects, even its lost subjects. I never wished it for the barbarians that they should have the history of Empire laid upon them” (154). The failure of this project is at the heart of the novel’s philosophy.

What does “history” mean?

The way the Magistrate uses the term tends to remove it from typical understandings of history. The Magistrate is not talking about a set of facts, dates, and names when he evokes the concept of history. Instead, he is talking about a loosely defined set of perspectives. He is talking about an ideology, a way of understanding the world that places emphasis and importance on a society’s starring role in its own story.

The analogy here may help to clarify the critique Coetzee is bringing in Waiting for the Barbarians. The Empire subscribes to a point of view that sees itself as the sole enduring figure of history, beset by enemies but destined to exist forever just as an individual might see himself as the central figure in his own narrative. The individual does live forever, but only within the limits of his own story. He exists from the beginning to the end. He is, in effect, the whole story.

But people die. The world goes on. While this notion is obvious, it is also impossible to fully process. The individual is confined to this “history” because he is inextricable from it.

This is the Magistrate’s rather ironic and damning conclusion. He struggles and suffers to remove himself from the perspective that characterizes the Empire. This is the perspective that labels the “barbarians” and the fisher folk into the same category, ignoring differences and constructing instead a stark divide between the Us of the Empire and a Them that includes the ethnically identifiable “Other.” This is the perspective that dehumanizes the “other” in ways that justify torture. And it’s the perspective that explains why when the Magistrate tries to recall how the unnamed barbarian girl came into town and to re-create his own sense of history, he fails.

This detail is notable in light of the novel’s interest in this particular understanding of history. The Magistrate enters an intimate relationship with the barbarian girl where he pursues an obscure desire. A portion of his desire is directed toward recalling his first sight of her. He lies beside her at night, “trying to recover an image of her as she was before. I must believe that I saw her on the day she was brought in by the soldiers roped neck to neck with the other barbarian prisoners. I know that my gaze must has passed over her when, together with the others, she sat in the barracks yard waiting for whatever was to happen next. My eye passed over her; but I have no memory of that passage” (33).

Read in light of Coetzee’s sense of “history,” this passage gives special meaning to the line that immediately follows: “I have not entered her” (34). The Magistrate has failed to expand his own history to include the girl. He has failed to inhabit the girl’s interior life both physically and metaphorically. He cannot imagine her as anything but separate and “other.” History, as the conceptual totalization of one culture’s point of view, functions as a barrier to such a project.

Later, when the Magistrate has become one of the Empire’s “lost subjects,” he escapes from his prison cell and finds himself free to leave the walled town. But in his freedom he realizes “[t]here is nothing for me outside the walls but to starve” (101). The Magistrate is dependent on the Empire, subject to its ideology despite his rebellion, incarcerated in its history. There is no way out.

Made by History – No Way Out

In the end, this is his realization. The new perspective that would be attained by escaping the history of the Empire is beyond his reach. He notes that after his experiences with the barbarian girl, after his imprisonment and torture, after his alienation from the townspeople, he is still confined to this history without alternative. He gives up the quest to achieve a new perspective and admits, “There has been something staring me in the face, and still I do not see it” (155).

History is the antagonizing force set against him and history is victorious. This conclusion is communicated almost explicitly in the final pages of Waiting for the Barbarians, but there is no statement made as to what this means.

One implication seems to be a commentary on the determinative power of culture. An individual cannot choose by dint of will alone to remove himself from the ideas, perceptions, and biases of his culture. It’s not possible because these ideas, perceptions and biases are what constitute the individual. To escape these would be to nullify oneself.

Again, if “[t]here is nothing…outside the walls but to starve,” there is no philosophical alternative to occupying (and being occupied by) the mentality of the “history” one belongs to.  

If the individual cannot evade history in this sense, we are left to wonder how the damaging aspects of a cultural ideology can be corrected. If the individual cannot remove himself from history, how can he go about changing his history?

On a meta-textual level the novel itself provides one answer to this question. As we leave the Magistrate at the end of the novel, he is also doing this literary work, writing a record of his time in the frontier town. The episode that has taken up the space of the novel is one that he would hope to see forgotten, to fall out of history. But the Magistrate and Coetzee both present this narrative of resistance to bigotry and dehumanization while admitting some complicity.

This complicity stands side by side with resistance. But the unwavering ethicist in J.M. Coetzee insists that one cannot be taken from the other. They are part of the same history.

Works Cited

Coetzee, J. M. Waiting for the Barbarians. Penguin Books. 1981.


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