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Critical Essay by J. B. Thompson
SOURCE: "Poetic Truth in 'Too Late the Phalarope,'" in English Studies in Africa, Vol. 24, No. 1, March, 1981, pp. 37-44.
Below, Thompson explains how Too Late the Phalarope manifests universality despite the contemporary relevance of the novel's historical aspects.
Instead of entitling this essay as I have done, I might simply have said an 'interpretation' of the novel, or more confidently (and, probably, more honestly) 'its meaning' or 'its value for us'. But what I wanted to stress were the limitations of focusing on the mere 'historic truth' of the novel. By historic truth I mean of course something much broader than what Aristotle had in mind in his Poetics and what historiographers aim at. Any novel offers itself not as fact but as fiction, but it is nevertheless possible to limit its significance to a particular time and place, to the social situation it purports to describe, or the one out of which it grew. (The two are of course the same in the case of Too Late the Phalarope.) This circumscription of literature happens not only when one adopts an explicitly historical approach, but also when one places too much emphasis on its historical aspects, or for that matter on its anthropological, sociological, economic or political aspects. The immediate relevance of a novel may in fact obscure its universality.
Too Late the Phalarope is, no less than Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, a great classic that will be read long after the Immorality Act has been blotted from the statute book as completely as Pieter's name was from the Van Vlaanderen family bible; long after apartheid has really 'died' and the Afrikaner has taken his rightful place in our society. But Alan Paton's fame as a champion of liberalism and the current world preoccupation with racialism in South Africa may well result in excessive emphasis being given to the novel's political or sociological aspects.
It certainly is a bitter attack on the Immorality Act, the "iron law" of "a people of rock and stone in a land of rock and stone" and the ferocity of it is brought home by the case of Smith, "an ordinary man, quiet and inoffensive" as his name implies and "a religious man after his own fashion" who is driven so far as to drown his partner in crime, chop off her head and bury it and sink her body in the river with weights. Similarly when Pieter's guilt is made public, it is realized immediately by Kappie, the captain and his aunt that he might very well be driven to suicide. But it would be absurd to say that the novel was about "Act 5 of 1927" or even about the mores of the community which imposes a "sentence for life" on people who contravene it.
Had this sort of propaganda been the author's purpose, he would surely have adopted a very different strategy. He might for instance have shown how ordinary members of the police force—and good Christians too—are compelled by the Act to become professional voyeurs: I remember a case of a policeman climbing a tree outside a bedroom in a Johannesburg suburb (armed with binoculars, I think) for a purpose as obscene as May's when she climbs the tree in Chaucer's Merchant's Tale. More important, however, than the sort of ammunition the author neglected to use is the sort of material he does use, the quality of the relationship with which he confronts us. To bring home the iniquity of the act and the sickness of the mentality behind it, he would surely have depicted a decent, upright man like Pieter falling foul of the tyrannical law, as a result of a noble passion for a soul mate whose skin pigmentation happened to be black; a case of "mind-forged manacles", imposed, in the name of a highly selective, arbitrary and hypocritical morality, upon true love (the sort of thing I read of as having happened once in Beaufort West which is perhaps the Cape equivalent of Venterspan as far as cultural deprivation is concerned, where a Brown middle-aged Anglican priest fell in love with the White spinster who was the village librarian and they were subjected to the indignity of a court-appearance). But Stephanie is no soul mate of Pieter's and not even a 'playmate', but is joylessly used by him as a sexual object for sinister psychological purposes of his own, and certainly not in a spirit of heroic defiance of a law that would fetter love.
It seems to be a proof of the author's integrity or honesty that he presents this sort of relationship, which, given the stratification or compartmentalization of our society, could probably be proved, statistically, to be typical of contraventions of the Act. I feel, however, that it is typical only in a negative way, that is as regards the absence of 'true-love' or a meaningful relationship. Pieter's complex motivation is, surely, far from representative (in a sociological sense, at any rate). His desire for Stephanie—one hesitates to call it sexual—is condemned by him as a "sin" and he clear-sightedly diagnoses it as a "mad sickness" and as "some mad desire of a sick and twisted soul". He is pained and perplexed to find himself tempted by something "unspeakable … that [brings] no joy" and that he hates. Not that he hates Stephanie herself: all he feels for her, apart from his temptation, is the sort of benevolence he feels towards all members of "the black nation".
The nature of this "mad sickness" which he himself cannot understand is, I feel, the crux of the novel, the question of universal significance that it raises. What makes him do it? The narrator's description of him as being "denied" and her image of the "man who is robbed of a jewel and goes seeking it amongst the dross and filth" refers of course to his wife's sexual reticence. Here one must indeed pay tribute to Alan Paton's integrity as an artist, his refusal to indulge in mere 'finger-pointing', his deep sense of the delicacy and complexity of human relationships. Nella is certainly not portrayed as frigid or unloving, though Pieter's mother perhaps goes too far when she declares in her charity: "she has no blame". Timid country-girl though she is, she was the one who, during the courtship that was so "long and shy and protracted" took the initiative that led to their marriage, and we are given two vivid and moving scenes in which their "joy" of their love is "complete" and in which she takes the initiative. The first is after the new dominee's sermon, when Pieter is self-conscious and hesitant on sensing her nervousness about any love he shows her, and the second is on her return from their temporary separation when she, not he, makes up a bed for them in front of the symbolic fire. We are left in no doubt that such generosity in love would make Pieter safe but we are also left in no doubt that these experiences are the exception, not the rule, that what is safe for him is seen by her as dangerous, for she very soon starts "withdrawing, to some safer ground, to some world where she was safe and sure". As her husband explains it, her idea of love, one that is "good and true but twisted in some small place" is that, "the love of the body, though good and true, was apart from the love of the soul, and had a place where it stayed and had to be called from, and when it was called and done, then it went back to its place and stayed till it was called again, according to some rule and custom". No wonder he has to ask her "to love [him] more often". Here again the author's integrity is apparent, in that we do not have to take the word of one of the parties involved: the shortcomings of her basic attitude to sex are cogently and impartially dramatized by the letter she writes from her parents' farm. In his letter, he has explained that it is not just 'sex' that he is after: "my love of you is a love of everything about you, and not just a love of your body" and "my love of your body is part of my love of you yourself" and on this basis has made a delicate and tactful appeal. Hurt by his implied criticism, she defends herself in terms that lend support to his accusation. Talking, for instance, of her loneliness without her husband, she concedes that she does "have the children" with her but adds that "that is not quite the same". This suggests a serious underestimation of the importance of sex in marriage. And her sarcastic rejoinder "Do you think that Frikkie and Greta came straight from heaven?" proves nothing more than that they have had sexual intercourse twice—in how many years?—and leaves one wondering about the spirit of her participation, if that is the word. And as for the way she feels towards it, the most she thinks of claiming in arguing the normality of her attitude is that she "accept[s]" the kind of love he writes about. Acceptance is usually a response to something unwelcome or unpleasant, a resignation to a necessary evil. And this impression that she generally puts up with love-making for his sake or to be 'kind' is confirmed by her subsequent affirmation that "a woman's nature is different from a man's" and that "for a happy marriage each must give up something, which I try to do". No wonder he reads her letter "with a face of stone".
Pieter's relationship with his wife is far from ideal, but Paton makes it clear that his problem goes much deeper than sexual frustration as a result of his wife's somewhat puritanical attitude. The very fact that he needs her love to make him "safe" suggests dangers whose origin lies elsewhere. What brings home most dramatically that his sickness does not stem in the last analysis from marital difficulties is the strategic placing of his fall in the narrative chain of the novel: it comes immediately after he has been picked up by his cousin Anna, and has enjoyed a drinking session with her at the local hotel. Here, one would think, would be the perfect opportunity for someone suffering from sexual deprivation. Anna is, after all, the one "who wears the yellow trousers" and "talk[s] in English"—both pointing to moral laxity of course. She adores Pieter and declares quite openly that he is the reason why she never married. She is thoroughly bored with her holiday in Venterspan (her parents would not trust her in Durban and regarded her proposed trip there in the light of a journey to the devil), his wife is away, he has been confiding in Anna, and they are in the precarious situation of having drunk too much. But Pieter does not commit adultery with her and more important is not even tempted, and their outing ends with her "lean[ing] over the gate" and chastely kissing him. This gate, I might mention, is, like the many doors in the novel, a symbol of a barrier between people, this time one that is not being broken down. And, if I may digress a moment, I might mention here the subtlety with which these and other related details of body language are consistently handled by Alan Paton in a manner reminiscent of Dickens and even of Conrad at his best. Immediately after this, for instance, we see Pieter "bump … against the iron standard at the corner of the fence" as if in anticipation of his crime, and, within a page, he is depicted symbolically taking off his uniform, carefully refraining from looking at the beds of his wife and children, "lock[ing] the front door after him" and standing "a moment" at his own gate, before disappearing into the still darkness.
It is not, then, a simple "desire of the flesh". He lusts after someone with very few personal charms, who is a member of a generally despised race and of an inferior social class, who is not only dull and destitute but is also an habitual criminal (Stephanie is forced to brew and sell liquor illegally and is in and out of jail). If his aim were to bring the maximum disgrace upon his family, he could not have made a better choice, and that, I feel, is precisely the point. It is a sort of blind irrational retaliation. His father, he realizes, has never really loved him and has, in fact, been ashamed of "the woman" in him, his tenderness and gentleness and his fondness for books and flowers. No wonder Pieter implies to Kappie that the "trouble" started when he was born. Hurt by this rejection, the sensitive child "armour[s] himself against hurts and the world" by withdrawing into himself. But he was always "eager to please" and later speculates that his trouble might be that he had "perhaps been too obedient as a boy, too anxious to please and win approval, so that [he] learned to show outwardly what [he] was not within" and that "perhaps when you were too obedient, and did not do openly what others did, and were quiet in the church and hard-working at school, that [sic] some unknown rebellion brewed in you, doing harm to you". Or again "Had I had too great a hunger for praise so that I turned in on myself, and hid all my weaknesses?" The consequence is an eruption of defiance that is tantamount to saying: "Since you cannot accept me for what I am, I'll give you good reason to reject me." His friend Japie the social welfare officer who "tinkered in his merry way with this problem and that, and saw nothing of the greatest problem of them all", unwittingly puts his finger on the root cause of his friend's problem when he declares rather pompously in the "university words": "We begin to think that lack of affection is one of the greatest causes of juvenile delinquency in a child".
Pieter's deprivation of paternal love is not merely asserted by the narrator in the abstract but is vigorously dramatized in concrete detail. For instance, Jakob never once smoked the pipe his son chose for him for a birthday present, and, before this, imposed on his sensitive son the unimaginative and severe penalty of forbidding him to go on with his stamps just because he once failed to come top of his class. The difference between his wife's understanding and compassion and his "unsmiling" and unloving justice is effortlessly established in two brief lines. "The boy wasn't well, said my sister … I said put them away, he said". Nor is this just a case of excessive sharpness on his part: one senses here a resentment of a part of his son's nature and an attempt to obliterate it. Later, when a professor at Stellenbosch pays his son a glowing tribute, he does not even bother to tell him. Worse, the DSO he won in the war is contemptuously dismissed as "uitheemse kaf".
The constraint in the relationship on both sides, even when overtures of friendship are being made, is neatly and unobtrusively conveyed. Pieter's response to his aunt's anxious reminder: "you won't forget his birthday" is "As if I would dare", and when Jakob and Pieter happen to meet in Kappie's store, he approaches his own son "determined to be friendly". The sequel is that Pieter is "caught" and starts like the guilty child his father still treats him as. The psychological and moral complexity of this scene, where the existence of a barrier is brought home to the reader by means of a well-meant attempt to break it down, points to the same sort of authorial integrity as was manifest in the portrait of the wife. The father is no mere villain or tyrant: in fact he has all the virtues except, unfortunately, the one that matters most of all. And in the period covered by the narrative he is frequently seen reaching out to his son, the pattern culminating in his buying for his son a set of special stamps, of all things. His delight in the book so carefully chosen by his son for his birthday strengthens the sort of impulse that made him determined to be friendly in the shop, so much so that he actually proposes an outing or picnic with his son, ostensibly to prove the book wrong about phalaropes being restricted to coastal areas. In fact he is "looking for no phalarope, but for something he had lost, twenty, thirty years ago". He cannot, however, propose an outing with his son "carelessly and naturally", despite or rather because of the earnestness of his effort, and so "the unusual words that his wife had never thought to hear spoken, but which she had prayed to hear these many years", "cry themselves out aloud in the room".
The overture has come 'too late'. Pieter has not yet broken the law but he is already deeply compromised with Stephanie and the insidious and relentless advance of his "mad sickness" to this stage has been forcefully dramatized. At the fall we remember—and this setting seems highly appropriate after the powerful evocation of the Eden-like "freshness of the day … the cleanness of the grass country [and] the purity of the great bowl of the sky"—while the two of them are alone, there is a moment of intimate physical contact, at first accidental but deliberately indulged and prolonged. And we are given a subtle hint of his own evaluation of this seemingly trivial incident when, just afterwards, he sees young Vorster "jump[ing] like a cat, softly and easily" and observes wistfully, "I could do that once", as if he has lost his youthful exuberance. The next step, placed just after it transpires that the book interests and delights his father (such scenes evoking hope are skilfully interposed between the steps of his downfall, for an effect of tragic inevitability) is when she calls at his father's house to ask him to "tell the government" that she has found a job. When he asks why she has come to him and not to the social welfare officer, she replies: "because the baas would do it for me". He fails to dismiss her suggestion of intimacy as he could so easily by saying "in a voice of every day": "how can you know such a thing?" or "do not be foolish" but confirms it by saying "quiet and trembling, how did you know?" At this juncture they are interrupted and she puts up a poor pretence of discussing police matters; but what is most significant is that he is "angry and afraid too", "not so much because of the boldness of the look as of the poor pretence that followed it". Like Macbeth he is worried not so much by his sin as by the chance of its being found out. The next step is even more drastic: she calls at his house in his wife's absence and suddenly comes past him into the kitchen. And, momentously, he "shut[s] the door". Throughout the novel doors are invested with great symbolic significance and the closing of this one acknowledges and increases the intimacy between them at the same time as it reduces the chance of discovery. And when she offers to let him know about the job, he replies rather irresolutely, "do not come any more to this house", thereby leaving open the possibility of meetings elsewhere. This is how she takes it and in telling him "when I am working I go home at eight o'clock past the place where the baas saw me running" she has arranged a tryst. Instead of his closing the door on her, she herself opens it and lets herself out. His doom is thus virtually sealed before the picnic is arranged.
On the outing itself, Jakob is "more gentle" and seems to lavish on Pieter's son some of the tenderness that Pieter himself had so desperately needed. When the phalarope appears, Jakob "rest[s] his arm on his son's shoulder to point" and so unprecedented is even this degree of tenderness that Pieter is "moved in some deep place within and something welled up within him that, if not mastered, could have burst out of his throat and mouth, making him a girl or child". But the intimacy associated with the father's discovery of the phalarope has come after Pieter has broken the law a second time "of his own will and choice". And it is a subtle touch, not always fully appreciated, that it should be the phalarope of all birds to bring father and son together, temporarily at least, for its distinctive feature is that it is the male which hatches the eggs and cares for the young, and shows, in general, the sort of tenderness for them that is associated with women. Thus we feel the full force of the narrator's observation at the beginning that her nephew had "something of the woman in him" but "the father none at all until it was too late".
Closely related to this theme of love and complete acceptance is that of compassion and forgiveness, as embodied ideally in Pieter's mother as against her patriarchal husband's stern, cruel, eye-for-an-eye type of justice, the fundamental contrast between them being succinctly established by Pieter's observation that his father he "could never have openly disobeyed" and his mother he "could never knowingly have hurt". And inseparable from all these is the Conradian idea of human interdependence, of our essential reliance on our neighbours for moral support.
Throughout his temptation and trial, Pieter feels a desperate longing "to tell one human soul of the misery of my life". A wise and loving father would be the obvious person but it is this very lack that has caused the whole problem. Nor can he confide in his wife though he does try to. But bearing in mind her idea of the coarseness of men's sexuality and her unforgiving attitude to Dick's "chasing" a Black girl—one remembers the bitter irony of this woman's not even wanting Dick in their lounge—he realizes she is hardly likely to understand and might well "fly away". He seriously contemplates confiding in the young dominee for whom rugby is "almost a religion"—he studied at Stellenbosch—but when he is called "the Lion of the North" and is accorded the adulation that is owing to a potential Springbok when he desperately needs help as a struggling Christian, his pride gets the better of him and he "[draws] back from the very edge of his salvation" or in the words of his aunt, "held [his] peace that was no peace at all". The same happens with his "true and faithful" friend, Kappie, who "understood the ways of the world and did not judge". He actually knocks on Kappie's door but when he enters he finds he lacks the resolution to open the doors of his soul. His other friend, Japie, is of course too flippant and superficial even to be considered as a confidant.
What finally provokes Pieter to broach the subject with a fellow human being is, appropriately, a gesture of tenderness from someone who might be seen as a surrogate father. At the time of the smallpox epidemic, the captain, noticing Pieter's exhaustion, calls him by his first name and puts his hand tenderly on his shoulder "as some fathers touch their grown sons and as some do not". Pieter is "moved in some deep place within", as he will be on the picnic, and momentously declares: "There's something I ought to tell you, sir." But he is silenced by the captain's "authority" and dismissed with a well-meant but disastrous "farewell salute". His aunt continually reproaches herself for not forcing him to confide in her, but on the day of the birthday party it is made clear that she could have done nothing. His startling declaration that he wishes he had not been born gives her an opening which she too eagerly seizes. Realizing that "he had opened the door of his soul and now repented it" she tries to force her way in before he shuts it again and literally shuts the pantry door on the two of them—as Stephanie will later—but realizes immediately that she had not "shut [herself] in" but "out". And on the picnic she receives a similar rebuff. This forcing of a confidence is seen to work in the case of young Vorster who has been having sleepless nights, like Pieter's, over a trivial debt, and this makes one wonder whether Kappie might not have saved him had he been less self-effacing and less in awe of Pieter. But this was not to be. And in the end, Pieter's craving for sympathetic understanding finds its only outlet in the keeping of a diary.
Kappie provides the crucial link between the different aspects of the theme of love in that, although he fails to elicit the confession that would have saved Pieter, he extends to him the understanding and love that give him the courage to go on living after his fall. This is graphically portrayed by Kappie's sitting down "beside him" at the side of the deserted rugby field with "his arm about him". His father by this stage has in his hurt pride (and let us not forget that this was, after all, Pieter's purpose) shut the doors of his house and withdrawn completely into himself. After his death, however, his wife opens the front door and has the blinds rolled up "so that something [can] go out of [the] house" and it is the sustaining love of people like her and her sister and Kappie and the captain that leaves us with "some kind of peace" and with some "comfort in desolation".
These, surely, are no mere "African truths".
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