The Role Of Realism And Allegory In The Story Of An African Farm By Olive Schreiner

“I object to anything that divides the two sexes ... human development has now reached a point at which sexual difference has become a thing of altogether minor importance. We make too much of it; we are men and women in the second place, human beings in the first.” (Olive Schreiner, 1884). The story of an African Farm is a South African based Novel that is told in many narrative modes, including dream, sermon, confession, polemic, allegory, song, letter, etc. but most focused on in this essay will be realism and allegory. These modes are mended together through a series of events, ideas and allusions. The Novel places us and provides us with parts of the novel that are formed through artful truths. Artful truth is the notion of a truth that is artful in the sense of showing not only imaginative skill but also artifice and deception. In African Farm we are presented with three parts that each unpacks the growth and development of the three protagonists in the novel, namely Lyndall, Em, as well as Waldo. Each character has their own values and beliefs that are their notion of truth, and carry them throughout their individual journeys. In this essay, we will discuss how these different narrative modes of realism and allegory when brought together create multi-meaning for truth and produce artful truths.

In the Novel we are first introduced to Lyndall. Lyndall is a skeptic and non-conformist who does not easily accept information as it is but questions it as it comes. She questions the gender politics and behavioural constraints which are enforced on her by adults of her community, Similar to that of Olive Schreiner who was also self-educated and rejected the accepted stereotypical gender roles. Lyndall plans to go to school and tries to achieve personal freedom and sexual liberation in the repressive colonial society. Lyndall learns rapidly that if power is now not solely associated with “maleness” but, for lack of a better word, landedness (Waldo is male but landless and therefore powerless), then she is doubly excluded from the systems of power and she needs to be content. Like so many different women in history, 'who, having power, but being denied the right to workout it openly, rule in the dark, covertly, and by stealth, through the men whose passions they feed on, and through whom they climb'. Schreiner's methodology right here is curious: the supplementary of 'having power' is quickly destabalised with the help of the terms 'denied', 'covertly' and 'stealth'. The sort of strength women need to obtain from their ride as female is no power at all; it is sickly, false and parasitic. It is no surprise that Lyndall is unable and unwilling to effect a relationship with a man, sanctioned by regulation (marriage), that will find the money for her 'climb'. Conventionally, unpropertied young women used their sexuality to make upwardly mobile marriages. they failed to attain felony unions and resorted to abortion and/ or illegitimate births. This is indeed the route that Lyndall follows (there is no other) but even when she is offered the criminal sanction of marriage, she refuses. Instead Lyndall travels with her lover but denies him the right to continue to be with her whilst she carries the child full term. The infant - inevitably - dies and Lyndall, debilitated through a difficult birth, locates herself in the area of the gravesite. This is neither unintentional nor merely melodramatic. The buried toddler (like the giant's grave) signifies an order of repression, not only the repression of female sexuality or fertility but, by extension, the repression of all structures of otherness that are excluded by the dominant, landed male power relation. In the unique eschatology associated with illegitimate births, the child can't survive. If it did, it would survive as a totem of exclusion and denial, an image marker of otherness. Lyndall understands this battle between the weak and the strong; early in the novel, as a young girl, she remarks, 'When that day comes, and I am strong, I will hate everything that has power, and help everything that is weak'.

Allegory is described as a story in which characters and events represent qualities that relate to ethical, political or religious Ideas. In the Novel Schreiner makes use of traditional ways of doing things and fragments them into different narrative artful truths. The astonishing attribute of all the three death scenes in the novel is, firstly, the 'mirage-like' discussion that Schreiner uses to effect resolution. All of the three death scenes portray linguistic features or representational flaws, but secondly, and perhaps more significantly, the failure to affect a meaningful burial ritual is conspicuous and falls through. The pledge held out by burial is only partly recognised in some and not at all in others. Otto is indeed buried but what is prominent is Schreiner's portrayal of this burial. The normal mediating tradition of burial is lost (and indeed the act itself is not portrayed at all). The final redemptive ritual is erased and in its lead is a distinct; performative 'We've buried him'. Waldo cannot be involved in the event neither can he be involved in the equally redemptive ritual of mourning. Instead, the principle feeling is one, which is not of sorrow, but more chillingly, of fear. The entire representation is privative, marking the lack and absence, and Bonaparte's intentional ambivalence speaks to the withering of both language and ritual in the rural colonial setting. The failure to represent a meaningful burial for the old man reveals once again the space at the heart of Schreiner's novel: none of the protagonists can achieve a significant relationship with the land, with Africa. This is underlined and emphasized by the fact that all three of the protagonists (Otto, Waldo and Lyndall) are themselves in a space of profound ambivalence.

In this space of ambivalence each character has their own realistic truth that they live by but that can be present in a form of artifice and deception. The theme of Christianity or Religion as a topic is a major one in the Novel and in each section we see characters inner most thoughts and feelings around it and views on it change and fragment. Waldo who is first introduced as a young self-examining boy growing up with an unhealthy awareness of sin and predestination, and experiences increasing disenchantment with the religious teaching he has been associated to all his life by his father. He goes from being a Christian fanatic to drawing himself near atheism. Each character wishes to express their innovations and visions is represented on a very stylistic level, through the use of allegory and philosophical thought. Lyndall imagines an absolute future of freedom and culture for women. And Waldo continues to clutch the meaning and understanding of his endless search for truth. The language even used by the narrator is separated into dreamy and reality, and goes from portraying and expressing normal situations of everyday life, and the most conceptual reflections, parables and fantastic dreams. The Linguistic sources of the novel are South African English as well as the Biblical language of the Old and New Testament. The effect of the South African linguistic oddity is eased by the presence of a kind of biblical language that is used to tell the dream life and to give it a sense of magnificence.

In conclusion, truth has many meanings. The meaning of truth is never that of fact. And The Story of an African Farm presents just that. And with characters that are grounded in their own truths, which to us seem artistically compelling and sometimes not the full representation of the truth. Schreiner has used multiple stories that have their own realism within them that brings out this notion of truth that can in most cases be present and deliberately ambiguous for more room for readers to share their perspectives, as there will always be a hundred different views on the truth presented in front of us. 

09 March 2021
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