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Waiting For The Barbarians By J.M. Coetzee

1713 words - 7 pages

In J.M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians, the Magistrate comes to discover the humanity of the barbarian through his interactions with the blind girl, which eventually leads him to learn about the nature of his own humanity. Although the Magistrate is more lenient on the Barbarians than Colonel Joll, he still unknowingly objectifies them, while placing himself above them. It is only when he is imprisoned that he comes to realize the fragility of his own humanity. Ultimately Coetzee uses the magistrate’s journey from empirical leader to broken and fearful prisoner to express that peace and stability between people can only be obtained when all humanity is valued.
At the beginning of the novel, the magistrate actually seems to value the humanity of the barbarians quite a bit. After all, he is completely disgusted by the torture they have to go through at the hands of Joll, calling it an “obscure chapter in the history of the world.” (Coetzee, 24) The magistrate goes onto remark that if were in charge, he would “order that the prisoners be fed, that the doctor be called in to do what he can, that the barracks return to being a barracks, that arrangements be made to restore the prisoners to their former lives as soon as possible.” (Coetzee, 25) However, when one truly values humanity, one values it under all circumstances. When the magistrate begins taking care of the blind girl, he shows his true colors. The magistrate, sent to administer a remote post in the imperial colony most likely before the World War 2, wishes for a peaceful life.
The magistrate feels an immediate attraction to the girl he begins taking care of and wishes to seduce her. When he is unsuccessful, he becomes frustrated and confused about his own feelings. He proceeds to emotionally dehumanize the girl the way Joll dehumanizes the barbarians through physical abuse. The magistrate states
This body in my bed, for which I am responsible, or so it seems, otherwise why do I keep it? For the time being, perhaps forever, I am simply bewildered. It seems all one whether I lie down beside her and fall asleep or fold her in a sheet and bury her in the snow. Nevertheless, bending over her, touching my fingertips to her forehead, I am careful not to spill the wax. (43)
Here, the magistrate simply refers to the girl as a “body,” not as a living human. He claims that he is responsible for her, showing that he sees her as a possession. He even refers to her as “it,” which clearly objectifies her. The fact that he wonders why he “keeps” her shows that her only purpose to him is sexual gratification; other than that she holds no human quality. He says that there would be no difference between lying next to her and burying her in the snow, showing that he has no emotional connection to her. When he is careful not to spill the wax, he is showing some sort of care for her, but only so far as one would care for an object, just as anyone would want to avoid spilling something on an object...

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