Alan Paton | Critical Essay by Myrtle Hooper

This literature criticism consists of approximately 15 pages of analysis & critique of Alan Paton.
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Critical Essay by Myrtle Hooper

SOURCE: "Paton and the Silence of Stephanie," in English Studies Africa, Vol. 32, No. 1, 1989, pp. 53-63.

In the following essay, Hooper investigates the function and effects of Stephanie's "silence" in Too Late the Phalarope.

In every story there is a silence, some sight concealed, some word unspoken, I believe.

                            [J. M. Coetzee, Foe]

I think it might be safe to describe the affiliations of Alan Paton as liberal and humanist, and his endeavour as a writer of fiction as realist and didactic. Certainly in Too Late the Phalarope his concern is to investigate the implications of an "iron law" for the lives of individual people, and to demonstrate its destructive effect. Yet, in the voicelessness of Stephanie, the story contains a "silence", the functioning and effects of which I would like to investigate.

In Too Late the Phalarope Paton sets up a narrative frame behind which his own position may be veiled: he has Sophie—and less importantly the captain—to speak for him. Sophie's character is quite carefully developed. She is physically deformed, hence has never married, hence remains something of an outsider even within the socially important and emotionally close-knit Afrikaner family to which she belongs. She says of herself,

Yet because I am apart, being disfigured, and not like other women, yet because in my heart I am like any other woman, and because I am apart, so living apart and watching I have learned to know the meaning of unnoticed things, of a pulse that beats suddenly, and a glance that moves from here to there because it wishes to rest on some quite other place.

She has quite definite opinions about matters such as the Smith case, but these are moderated by a perspective on human nature which is sympathetic and accommodating to experiences such as that of Maria Duvenage. She is able to draw connections that do not isolate or condemn, and in general she avoids making judgements. Yet her attachment to her nephew is excessive, as he knows; in his terms, she desires to "possess him". If the novel is a tragic one, the tragedy is hers as it is Pieter's: it is her life that is "at the turn", and it is she who is deprived of the peace she anticipates with age. So her act of narration is an attempt to regain that peace, as well as an attempt to render the interiority of Pieter to those who would judge and condemn him. She says …,

And if I write it down, maybe it will cease to trouble my mind. And if I write it down, people may know that he was two men, and that one was brave and gentle; and they may know, when they judge and condemn, that this one struggled with himself in darkness and alone, calling on his God and on the Lord Jesus Christ to have mercy on him.

Yet Sophie fairly frequently steps into her narrative to comment on the action and events she is describing. She acts in the role that Robyn Warhol has termed an "engaging narrator":

Using narrative interventions that are almost always spoken in earnest, such a narrator addresses a 'you' that is intended to evoke recognition and identification in the person who holds the book and reads, even if the 'you' in the text resembles that person only slightly or not at all.

A case in point is her description, with its built-in judgement, of the consummation of the relationship between Pieter and Sophie. She says, "And there, God forgive him, he possessed her". Another instance occurs … when, in making her disclaimers about judgement, Sophie foregrounds the act of judging: if she claims the characters cannot be judged she indicates at least that larger social units must be. At points like these the veil slips, and the writer behind the narrator steps forward to speak to his readers.

Although the narrative is predominantly Sophie's, Pieter is allowed to speak for himself through the diaries to which she gains access, and out of which she recreates the course of events. He is given, in other words, a voice. The first time we hear this voice is in the comment he makes in Afrikaans after his encounter with Dick, "O God wees hom genadig. Here Jesus wees hom genadig", and "O God wees my genadig. Here Jesus wees my genadig". These words anticipate and predict the confessional nature of the diary entries. Significantly, the first of these entries is given immediately after his encounter with Stephanie in the kloof. If Sophie is endeavouring, as I claimed earlier, to render the interiority of Pieter to those who would judge and condemn him, then giving his reaction at this point is clearly crucial.

To serve her function in the plot Stephanie is equipped with certain attributes. In contrast to Pieter she is uneducated, hence illiterate, hence keeps no diary. Besides the 'black woman's burden' of two indigent relatives whom she supports single handed and with unquestioned acceptance, she has no family, as Pieter has, to sustain or morally circumscribe her. Her father and her mother are unknown, as is the father of her child. She has "a good deal of lightness in her colour", and, caught as she is in a cycle of unemployment, poverty and 'crime', her social contacts seem to be limited to random sexual encounters. Sophie says of her, "It's a lost creature … that will go with any man that comes …". Yet her evident amorality is qualified by a powerful 'maternal imperative'. Sophie remarks how "she has a passion for that child", and says later, "I saw that she was like a tigress for the child". This attachment is the key to her integrity, and to her relationship with Pieter. It is also the key to her 'career' which includes collisions with the law and, ultimately, with Japie and the Women's Welfare. (It is harshly ironic that in passing her "gentle sentence" on Stephanie, Pieter's mother effectively passes sentence on her son.)

Perhaps Stephanie's most significant quality, however, is knowledge. It is this that sets her in contrast with Pieter's wife Nella, who is shocked into knowledge "by the hard hand of Fate … only after we had been destroyed". Pieter's question to Stephanie when she comes to ask him "to tell the Government" she has found work is, "how did you know [I would do it for you]?" Soon after, when she comes to his house:

she smiled at me, and the mad sickness that I hate and fear came over me, and she knew it, it being one of the things that she understands

If she has knowledge it is not such as to take away her innocence, however. Her habitual expression is a combination of smile and frown, and Sophie says of her, "she had a queer look of innocence also, though she was no stranger to those things which are supposed to put an end to innocence".

I said above that Stephanie is equipped with these attributes so as to serve her function in the plot. What is this function? I would like to identify it indirectly by assessing her impact on Pieter: by comparing Pieter as he is at the start of the novel with Pieter as he is at the end, and by considering his reactions to the relationship as it develops.

Pieter is described as a boy by Sophie as

a strange son, who had all his father's will and strength, and could outride and outshoot them all, yet had all the gentleness of a girl … Had he been one or the other, I think his father would have understood him better, but he was both.

And growing out of this, he becomes "two men":

The one was the soldier of the war, with all the English ribbons that his father hated; the lieutenant in the police, second only to the captain; the great rugby player hero of thousands of boys and men. The other was the dark and silent man, hiding from all men his secret knowledge of himself, with that hardness and coldness that made men afraid of him, afraid even to speak to him.

Other critics have examined Pieter's relationship with his father as more and less significant for his relationship with Stephanie. For my purposes, his motives in entering into this relationship are less important than the effect it has upon him, which is to strengthen, not to trigger, the tendency in his nature towards schism. Hence I must, in passing, take issue with Ian Glenn's claim, that

All of Tante Sophie's portentous division of the selves of Pieter boils down, it seems, to the description of a man whose marriage is sexually unfulfilling in the most obvious physical way.

After his arrest, Pieter's mother provides confirmation that Pieter's conflicts predate both marriage and acquaintance with Stephanie: "… from the years of childhood she had feared for him, and had known that he was hiding away, in some deep place within, things that no man might safely conceal".

… [After] seeing (and touching) Stephanie in the kloof, Pieter writes as follows:

If it shocked me to see myself, it shocked me no less to see my danger. It was like a kind of shadow of myself, that moved with me constantly, but always apart from me; I knew it was there, but I had known it so long that it did not trouble me, so long as it stayed apart. But when the mad sickness came on me, it would suddenly move nearer to me, and I knew it would strike me down if it could, and I did not care.

This archetypal formulation is interesting, as John Cooke has pointed out. Desire for Stephanie is "mad sickness"; but "mad sickness" is not what threatens him. What threatens is his "danger", which has been with him over a long period of time, and which thus predates Stephanie. This danger is like "a shadow" of himself which moves closer when he succumbs to desire for Stephanie and threatens to strike him down. This perception should be enough to dismiss as misplaced Pieter's quest for safety in his wife's love. The "danger" is a part of himself, suppressed, projected outwards, and associated with desire for Stephanie. Yet, as my students have pointed out to me, "Pieter is looking for something he doesn't get, even from Stephanie. Stephanie is not an object of desire because she doesn't satisfy him."

His comment after their first sexual encounter is thus illuminating.

In those twelve hours the whole world had changed, because of one insensate act. And what madness made a man pursue something so unspeakable, deaf to the cries of wife and children and mother and friends and blind to their danger, to grasp one unspeakable pleasure that brought no joy, ten thousand of which pleasures were not worth one of the hairs of their heads? Such desire could not surely be a desire of the flesh, but some mad desire of a sick and twisted soul. And why should I have it? And where did it come from? And how did one cure it? But I had no answers to these questions.

He cannot expect to, because his pleasure is "unspeakable"—in more than one sense. In his earlier interrogation of Dick, Pieter asked four times why he "did it". Dick could only answer "I don't know". Pieter, likewise, cannot verbalise his desire for Stephanie in terms other than those his society supplies: and these are imprecise and extremely hostile.

What he is able to predict, and with some accuracy, is the effect that discovery would have on him.

It would seem to me that every act, every word, every gesture, would fit only and could fit only into the pattern of my offence; that every reasonable man would see it, and I being also reasonable could not deny it.

And if I denied what they could see to be the truth, then something within me would be broken, and I would cry out, or break down and weep, or something within me would break, so that they, knowing that I had never been so before, would know beyond doubt that I lied.

He acknowledges how tenuous is his hold on secrecy. If once a minute piece of evidence leads to his exposure then the pattern of events will reveal itself as the only reasonable explanation. It is 'their' discovery of his actions that he foresees leading to the breakdown of "something within" him.

After his final encounter with Stephanie, "he bathed himself from head to foot, trembling with the secret knowledge of the abject creature that was himself". This knowledge is distinguished from his earlier "knowledge of himself" in bringing humility and gentleness to his dealings with his wife, his aunt, and his children.

Then he sat alone by the fire, and the thought, the hope, came to him that this strange mood of humility and gentleness might be some turning point, and that this perhaps might be the finding of that which was sought, and the opening of the door that was knocked on.

As I see it, this is precisely what it is: he finds what he sought, the door is opened. After the exposure he has foreseen, he is rescued from suicide by Kappie, and once in Kappie's house he breaks down. Sophie and the captain arrive to overhear him,

… saying that he was cleansed, once and for ever, and that this blow that had struck him down had cleansed him for ever, but why must a man be struck down to be cleansed, and why could not the man who had struck him down have warned him, for by this very warning he would have been cleansed for ever, and why could not God have warned him, and why must God strike him down so utterly, and why must the innocent also be struck down, and why and why and why.

His protest contains a moving if indirect indictment of the system which has brought him to tragedy. Yet his questions are surely rhetorical. He has in fact been "warned"—three times if one counts the examples of Dick and of Smith, and Japie's note saying "I saw you". He has at least once broken the law "of his own will and choice". He has known all along the consequences of his actions, and predicted his own response to them, as I have shown. His rhetorical questions underline how in fact "a man must be struck down to be cleansed", if by "a man" he refers to himself. His formulation is still couched in the terms available to him: if he has been suffering from a "mad sickness" he has now been "cleansed", and the catharsis which has "cleansed" him is his exposure.

For Sophie his outcry confirms that he has "been destroyed". But the last word must surely be that of the other voice which veils and at times reveals Paton's. The captain comments as follows on Sophie's reluctance to give the diaries to Nella:

You surely don't think, mejuffrou, that some other woman could save him? And if you are thinking, she couldn't help before, don't you see this is quite another man?

From the two men whom he was Pieter has become one man, "quite another man". The transformation is effected by his relationship with Stephanie, and by its public exposure.

I have noted above that, if anyone's, the novel is Sophie's and Pieter's. Yet I would like to examine in more detail the narrative treatment Stephanie receives, because, as outlined, her defining characteristics are largely given by her function in the plot, and because, in contrast to Pieter, these defining characteristics act to prevent a sense of interiority. Her social and moral isolation, her knowledge and innocence, her smiling and frowning, make her an enigmatic figure: and the enigma she presents to Pieter generates a response on his part that is morally ambiguous and inadequate. As a prominent and respected member of his community, as a policeman, is he not simply exploiting someone weaker than himself, disadvantaged, and voiceless? If it is Stephanie who is manipulating him then is he not collaborating in this abuse, instead of carrying out his "duty"? If he does 'love' her, then why does he not care for her, or even get to know her better than he does?

In the kloof this interchange takes place:

—I'm here, called the lieutenant, the girl's here too.



—Can I see the child before I go?


The smile of irresponsibility left her face, changing it and surprising him.

Dis my enigste kind, it's my only child, she said.

She was filled with some hurt pride of possession, so that he, knowing her life, wondered at it.

—It's my only child, she said, and looked down at the ground again, waiting hopelessly. He, feeling pity for her, was suddenly purged of the sickness of his mind, and stood up and put on his cap.

Paton treats with sympathetic humour the power of her sexual effect on him and its implications for his official position. Earlier, "he, shaking with shame, went and sat on a stone, and took off his cap and wiped his brow, hot and cold and trembling". Yet what Pieter's gestures underline, significantly, is how pity for her as a mother is able to vanquish desire for her as a woman. In pitying her he is "purged of the sickness of his mind". Because the terms of his perception of her are socially prescribed for him he does not see or respond to her whole. The money he gives her later seems less a payment for services rendered than a vague benevolence to someone suffering hardship, as is the loan he makes to young Vorster. Yet (again as my students have pointed out) "if she is his mistress he doesn't look after her very well". Perhaps it is such a disjunction in expectations that leads Stephanie finally to pass "sentence" on him and become involved in his entrapment. But her motives are left unclear, since even here Paton refrains from passing judgment on her. Her words are quoted to Pieter at his arrest but the details of her collaboration with Sergeant Steyn are not revealed, and she is effectively removed from the action after Pieter's last contact with her. This narrative protection from judgement serves to prevent a sense of her interiority.

There are, however, three points at which Stephanie seems to me to transcend the closure of her character. After the first court case we witness, at which she learns she may lose her child if she continues to brew liquor, she surprises Sophie into empathy and a sense of maternal community.

She did not smile any more. She left the dock and followed the policeman to the door, but half way there she halted, as though she would not go, as though something must be done or be said, as though it were unbelievable that her offences, for which she had been willing to pay without complaint, should suddenly threaten her with such a consequence. She turned and looked at me and my nephew as though she would say something to us, but she knew that she could not do such a thing in a court.

So then she went out.

—It's a lost creature, I said, that will go with any man that comes, but she has a passion for that child …

—Perhaps even as your mother and I had a passion for a child.

Of course, even this event is functional in revealing Sophie's relative enlightenment. Yet her speculations and interpretations here are for once able to convey something of Stephanie's inner feelings.

The last time Pieter goes to Stephanie it is to give her the money she has requested "to make a case". Of course, we have just had Sophie observe her leaving the court "not like one on whom sentence is passed, but like one who passes it". Of course, it is this encounter which entraps Pieter, despite the relief and optimism which her ironic "this other case will also be for the child" inspires in him. These things he cannot know; yet he does recognise in her a sense of intention. He comments afterwards,

And it was my purpose, made in prayer, to keep the law. And it was her purpose, for what reason I did not know, to break the law. And I carried out her purpose, and not my own which was made in prayer.

Alerted as we have been, we are conscious here of Stephanie exerting her will to shape the course of events.

In analysing Paton's use of landscape, John Cooke has observed how Paton gives to Pieter's encounter with Stephanie in the kloof a pastoral and lyric force, and how this animates his memories of childhood. He observes,

Prior to his first confrontation with her, Pieter is clearly attempting to recapture a childhood world in which separation from such qualities [feminineness, gentleness] was not demanded.

Pieter's own description goes further.

… and why and why, why no one knew, it was the nature of man and of creation, that some sound, long remembered from the days of innocence before the world's corruption, could open the door of the soul, flooding it with a sudden knowledge of the sadness and terror and beauty of man's home and the earth.

His associations are with Eden, with the lost world of innocence before the fall, before the door to the soul was shut and knowledge excluded. Given this, his encounter with Stephanie carries the added weight of biblical allusion, and makes her flight from him an act of enticement and temptation as well as one of escape.

But seemingly she did not want to ride, for suddenly she had fled by a little path at the side of the fall, that came to another, with no way up except over the rocks of the fall itself, green and slippery. He followed her at leisure, and came to where she was standing.

—Why did you do that, he asked.

She made him no answer, except to smile in her strange and secret way. Then she heard the sound of the men above, and drew back. And as she drew back, she touched him. And he did not move.

He did not move, neither forward nor back, nor did she. It was all silent but for the sounds of the men above, and for his breathing and the racing of his heart. Then she turned round and smiled at him again, briefly, and moved forward an inch or two, standing still with her eyes on the ground; while he, shaking with shame, went and sat on a stone, and took off his cap and wiped his brow, hot and cold and trembling.

She runs from Pieter so that he may pursue her. She initiates physical contact; she breaks it off. She retains her composure. Pieter does not: his response to her leaves him trembling and perspiring. Sophie's description of the consummation this looks forward to is, "he possessed her". It is inaccurate. Pieter may 'possess' Stephanie physically, he may 'know' her biblically: but never longer than transiently. Stephanie may be allowed to 'transcend' her character at points such as these, but ultimately Pieter cannot reach her because she is closed to him as she is to the reader of her story.

The true story will not be heard till by art we have found a means of giving voice to Friday.

So says Susan Barton in J. M. Coetzee's Foe. In this novel, consciousness is located within the character, and the attempt made by the character's self is to reach outside its consciousness. Susan Barton says,

The story of Friday's tongue is a story unable to be told, or unable to be told by me. That is to say, many stories can be told of Friday's tongue, but the true story is buried within Friday, who is mute. The true story will not be heard till by art we have found a means of giving voice to Friday.

In his paper on the novel, Paul Williams asks, "How then are Susan and Foe going to get Friday's story? By making him speak or by speaking on his behalf?" Friday cannot be made to speak because his tongue has been cut out and the world he inhabits is one of silence. And neither Susan nor Foe is willing to speak on his behalf.

In contrast to Friday Stephanie has a tongue; yet she has no voice. Paton neither makes Stephanie speak, nor speaks, to any great extent, on her behalf. This could be because he is not aware of her silence. Yet in Cry, the Beloved Country he does attempt to give voice to a black character. It could be because her voice would interfere with his didactic purpose, which is focused on Pieter and Sophie and the community to which they belong. Thus in contrast to Coetzee's, Paton's endeavour is not one that allows consciousness to be problematised in a dominating or alienating way. Yet it seems to me there is something more. With all the attributes she is given, with the narrative restraint from judgement upon her, Stephanie's silence remains, ultimately, closed to 'penetration'. Her elusion of Pieter in the Edenlike setting of the kloof is metaphoric for her elusion of both author and reader.

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