Gideon’s Freedom in Doris Lessing’s No Witchcraft For Sale
Dr. Gosby’s Comments: This student did an excellent job of applying the ideas we discussed in class relating to the obedience to authority
When Europeans moved into the bush of Southern Africa and realized that they were hopelessly outnumbered, they had to develop ways to create and maintain their authority over the native population. They had tremendous advantages in the obvious areas, as author Jared Diamond writes in his Pulitzer Prize winning book:
The proximate reasons behind the outcome of Africa’s collision with Europe are clear. Just as in their encounter with Native Americans, Europeans entering Africa enjoyed the triple advantage of guns and other technology, widespread literacy, and the political organization necessary to sustain expensive programs of exploration and conquest. (398)
The African natives, in this crippled state, had little choice but to submit to European authority. Many Africans lived a life of indentured servitude. Parts of their culture were mixed with that of their oppressors, and over time, so were their bloodlines. Some of their indigenous culture did survive, however. Shamanism, the practice of physical and spiritual healing by a medicine man that occurs in practically every hunting and gathering society, continued to thrive in Africa despite the oppression by European settlers. The concoctions and methods of this practice were well-guarded secrets, known only to certain African natives. The European medicine of the day was basically a version of our contemporary Western medicine in its infancy, and its doctors’ methods shared little, if anything, in common with the methods of the African medicine man, or witchdoctor.
Gideon, the central character in Doris Lessing’s short story “No Witchcraft For Sale,” is an African native and a keeper of the secrets of this mysterious practice. In the story, Gideon administers a medicinal root to the son of his European employers. When word gets around, a white doctor asks Gideon to show him the root so that it can be made available on a commercial basis. He chooses to defy the authority of his superiors to protect the secrets of his trade and his culture.
Gideon's life as a humble servant leaves him with little power over anything. His role as a witchdoctor is where his only true power lies. It is a kind of power that would be extremely important to one who lives to serve. As "the son of a famous medicine man," he was born into a very special tradition (Lessing 73). "Witchdoctors.... are well trained in traditional medical practice, psychology and psychiatry and symbolize the hopes of their society; hopes of good health, protection and security from evil forces, prosperity and good fortune, and ritual cleansing when harm or impurities have been contracted" (Anti 4). Gideon's defiance may be explained by the fact that the secret root is part of a...