Waiting for the Barbarians

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Waiting for the Barbarians Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The fourth chapter begins as the magistrate describes a man (Officer Mandel) sitting at his desk in the office behind the courtroom—a man donning one of the Third Bureau’s uniforms. The man is searching through his various records, and ignores the magistrate when he asks him if there’s something in particular he’s looking for, or if he could speak to Colonel Joll. Eventually, the man accuses the magistrate of “treasonously consorting with the enemy,” and the magistrate is arrested. Oddly, however, this is a source of elation for the magistrate, who is overjoyed at the thought of having his allegiance with the Empire severed. Then, as he is escorted to his cell, the magistrate runs into the three men who helped him on his expedition, and tells them not to be anxious about being hurt or arrested, since they were only following his orders.
The magistrate’s delight at being arrested demonstrates how fundamentally severed he feels from the military and social aims of the Empire as a whole—it’s therefore as if imprisonment promises to grant him a new identity, on a new way of relating to society. Instead of having to feign allegiance to the Empire and continue to strain under the compulsion to censor his actual thoughts, the magistrate can now simply express his utter disdain for the Empire unabashedly. At the same time, the magistrate seemingly imagines himself as a kind of martyr for justice, and so feels that his arrest affirms the righteousness of his actions.
Themes
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
The magistrate describes his living conditions in captivity: he’s fed the same rations as the soldiers, and every second day he’s allowed to wash and exercise for an hour, when a crowd of people always gather to see the “spectacle of the fall of the once mighty.” At night, his cell is assaulted by cockroaches—one night he’s “awoken by the feather-light tread of one crossing [his] throat.” It only takes two days of living in solitude for the magistrate to proclaim that “man was not made to live alone”—his own speech begins to feel strange to him, he says, and this newly “bestial life” is making him into a “beast.” Still, he says, it’s when his mind is turned in on himself that he turns his attention to others—to those who were imprisoned and tortured by Joll, like the barbarian girl and her murdered father. No wonder her father grew detached and hopeless and wanted to die after his interrogation, the magistrate thinks, since he’d been utterly humiliated in front of his daughter.
It hasn’t taken very long for the magistrate’s initial elation at being arrested to fade and devolve into weariness—the actual suffering involved in being hated and martyred isn’t so glamorous as history might portray it. The discomforting conditions of his imprisonment threaten to erode his sense of humanity and turn him into a bestial shadow of his formerly civilized manner of living—essentially making him a “barbarian” that the Empire can then condemn and “other.” Cut off from human interaction, the magistrate’s own voice—his own internal narration—begins to feel like it’s foreign to his own mind.
Themes
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
History and Time Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
The magistrate then says that, by offering the barbarian girl protection, he was, in a way, taking over the role of her father. He says that, while he considers this to be a noble action of his, he regrets having ever allowed Joll’s men to enter his settlement. He further remarks about the girl, saying that—upon witnessing the brutalized, naked form of her father at the hands of Joll and company—she “was no longer fully human, sister to all of us. Certain sympathies died, certain movements of the heart became no longer possible to her.”
Here, the magistrate finally arrives at an understanding of the barbarian girl—not an uncovering of some secret, hidden depth to her, but an understanding about why her “surface” appeared to him the way it did. Turning his thoughts away from his own currently alienated sense of self, the magistrate puts himself in the position of the Other for once, focusing on the girl as if she didn’t have some miraculous secret to be unearthed.
Themes
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
The magistrate then remarks that, even though the guards have been ordered not to discuss anything with him, it’s nonetheless easy to put together a coherent narrative based on the bits of chatter he overhears during his exercise and washing hours. He’s also observed that the army has started a fire on the riverbanks to the northwest in order to clear any brush that could potentially aid the barbarians in concealing themselves from the watchtowers of the settlement. The magistrate is repulsed at the army’s lack of sensibility for the fertile soil which will be destroyed in the fire’s path.
Though the magistrate’s morale has declined as a prisoner, he still remains vigilant about the Empire’s actions against the barbarians. Instead of giving up entirely and distracting himself with thoughts of a dream world, the magistrate takes care to eavesdrop on the soldiers in order to piece together the military campaign’s progress. This commitment to his cause is the beginning of his eventual flirtation with being a real martyr.
Themes
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
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The magistrate’s narrative then shifts—he’s back in his office, which has been cleared of all his things. Mandel enters, and reads him the charges imputed to him by two of the men who served him on his expedition to the barbarians. He’s accused of forming a bond with a streetwoman (the barbarian girl) to the “detriment of his official duties,” and who had a “demoralizing effect on the prestige of imperial administration” since she had worked as a prostitute among the soldiers. Further, he’s accused of hastily preparing for the journey and putting his travel companions’ lives at risks, and, most importantly, of having “long consultations” with the barbarians and exchanging gifts with them. The magistrate, however, asserts that he will defend himself in a court of law. Mandel just waves his hand in disregard, and says that the magistrate will have a chance to reply.
Though the magistrate committed no such treasonous act of communication with the barbarians, because those who’ve accused him are in a position of higher power, the truth of his innocence has no chance of being accepted. The magistrate is presumed to be guilty until proven innocent, not the other way around. Further, Mandel has the power to utterly prevent the magistrate from having a voice—from offering his own account of the truth. The power of men like Mandel, and the Empire as a whole, is therefore maintained precisely through the restriction of dissenting points of view. Those in power dictate what is truth, and what is recorded as history.
Themes
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
History and Time Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
Escorted back to his cell, the magistrate’s narration then revolves around the humiliations he faces as a prisoner—he’s denied requests for clean clothes, and the “monotonous regimen of soup and porridge and pie” makes defecating an agony. Further, he wonders what freedom has been left to him, and concludes “the freedom to eat or go hungry; to keep my silence or gabble to myself or beat the door or scream.” He also describes a little boy—the cook’s grandson—who brings him his meal every day, very animatedly. Their brief interactions comprise the majority of his newly vacant social life. The magistrate asks the boy if the soldiers have come back, and he says no.
The magistrate continues to suffer a sense of devolving into something bestial and inhuman at the hands of those who guard him. His once especially civilized life and engagement in intellectual pursuits has regressed into a grotesque existence characterized by the most basal, visceral bodily concerns and uncontrollable pangs of rage and despair in his mind. The only relief from his deprived interior world is a brief, daily encounter with someone a fraction of his age.
Themes
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
The magistrate continues to contemplate the barbarian girl—he can no longer remember exactly what she looks like. When he tries to recall her image, the only memory that springs to the surface is of his oily hands sliding over her body. He then has his recurring dream once more. This time, the girl is alone and unaccompanied by any children, and she’s not occupied with building a snow castle. The magistrate approaches her and asks her “where does it hurt?” She then “awkwardly” touches her ankles, and the magistrate kneels and unwraps the bandages around her feet, revealing two “disembodied, monstrous . . . stranded fish, two huge potatoes.” The magistrate then enters the barracks yard, which is “as endless as the desert,” with “no hope of reaching the other side”—the girl being “the only key” he has to the “labyrinth.” The magistrate also says that there are versions of the dream where the girl changes form—changes shape, size, and sex.
The magistrate can only remember the barbarian girl through the image of his oil-covered hands slipping across the surface of her body, metaphorically reflecting his difficulty in penetrating past her surface into something deeper and more profound. Further, the lack of children and a snow castle in the dream reflects his mind’s newfound focus on the barbarian girl for how she actually appeared to him on the surface—a focus unaccompanied by other distractions. The magistrate’s later reflection on the endlessness of the barracks yard, and the impossibility of reaching the other side, also reflects his inability to breach the surface of the girl into a depth on the other side.
Themes
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age Theme Icon
The magistrate says that “the texture of the days” are “as dull as porridge.” The intricate flow of events in the external world have lost all interest in comparison to the visceral pangs of hunger and physical functions which define his solitary existence. The magistrate describes one morning when he asks the warder if he could wash his clothes in order to make himself decent for the Colonel—apparently he’s going to appear before Joll soon. The warder reluctantly leads the magistrate into the kitchen in order to let him fetch a bucket of hot water, and as the magistrate is acquiring the water, some soap and a rag, he stealthily grabs a cellar key laying out that he secretly knows also unlocks the door to his cell.
This shift from the magistrate’s focus on the external world to solely his immediate, bodily needs will become a preoccupation that plagues him for his entire imprisonment. In a way, this kind of immediate attention to the here-and-now of the body resonates with the cyclical time which the magistrate attributes to the rotation of the seasons—yet, while he tends to romanticize this concept of time elsewhere in the novel, his experience of cyclicality in jail is far from anything wondrous.
Themes
History and Time Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
Later that night, the magistrate escapes from his cell. He goes to an upper room in the barracks, one next to his old apartment, which is now locked. Three men are asleep in the room. Looking out through a window onto the town square, he expects to see “campfires, lines of tethered horses and stacked arms, rows of tents,” but is surprised that there’s nothing to see except a single person and perhaps two tents—and he wonders whether the expeditionary force is simply not yet back or whether he’s viewing what remains of it, though he dismisses the latter as a possibility. One of the men sleeping in the room grips the magistrate’s hand and says that he’s thirsty. The magistrate, unrecognized by him, agrees to fetch him water if he’ll promise to keep quiet. After helping to support the man while he drinks his water—he’s ill—the magistrate slips out through the window.
The magistrate’s bold willingness to escape from his cell demonstrates that he has very little regard for those who are in charge of guarding and enforcing his imprisonment. It’s as if the magistrate still feels that he possesses his own sense of authority, even though his stature as magistrate and governmental powers may have been stripped from him. The magistrate’s sense of ease about escaping from his cell suggests that he has a certain confidence in himself as someone unlawfully persecuted by a corrupt power—or a sense of the ineptitude of the corrupt power itself.
Themes
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
After dropping less than gracefully from the window onto the ground and landing behind a row of bushes, the magistrate lies there for at least an hour, he says, when he could be trying to escape. Finally, he begins to crawl along the wall and makes his way to the back of the inn. There, beneath a wooden stairway, there’s an inlet where wood is stored and where cats loiter when there’s rain. He crawls into an old bag underneath the stairs, which “smells of urine” and “is certainly full of fleas,” but all he cares about at the moment is the pain in his back caused by his fall from the window.
The magistrate’s willingness to rest on the ground for so long, when he could be trying to escape, demonstrates just how truly exhausted he is from his imprisonment, and how his immediate bodily needs overtake his entire attention. Further, his willingness to crawl and remain in the urine-soaked and flea-infested bag symbolizes his decent from civility to bestiality.
Themes
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Awaking later to the sound of footsteps on the stairway, the magistrate, undiscovered, makes his way to the room of the girl at the inn. There, he smells the comforting fragrance of her clothes, and decides to hide under her bed. He fantasizes about joining the rest of the town later in the evening—of dressing and crossing the square to his office, nodding to his friends and neighbors, and carrying on as if nothing had happened. However, the magistrate quickly checks his fantasizing with a bout of realistic thinking—as he lies under the bed, he’s a hunted man. But “Why me?,” he wonders, and he imagines himself being given a hasty, unfair trial, and being dragged from the courtroom to the executioner. Though the magistrate says that he’s not afraid of death, he says that he shrinks from “the shame of dying . . . stupid and befuddled.”
The sense that the magistrate has totally lost every connection to his former way of life and ended up in a radically new situation beset with filth and inhumane degradation comes full circle here. The magistrate, imagining that he has regained his old status and that he might freely walk about the town, realizes that all of that former ease and merriment is but a memory, a vestige of a lost past. It seems that what worries him the most is not dying itself, but of dying in such a way that he appears to be overpowered by the demeaning authorities of the Empire, and not as a kind of noble martyr.
Themes
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Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
History and Time Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
The girl at the inn enters the room, and the magistrate contemplates revealing himself and asking her to hide him until nightfall, when he’d plan to escape the town and head down to the lakeside—but he decides against this. He goes undiscovered, worried mostly about his stench giving him away. Lying there, he reminisces about the first time he was escorted to his cell, and how he felt like a “sane man sure of the rightness” of his cause, but now—after two months living with cockroaches and no one to talk to except a ghost in his dreams—he’s not as confident in himself.
His mental stability having fallen into disarray ever since his imprisonment, the magistrate no longer possesses his old sense of confidence and righteousness in pursuing his anti-Empire agenda. Further, it seems that being in total isolation is most responsible for this shift in confidence. Even though the magistrate’s points of view were never exactly popular among those around him, the sheer fact that he had access to regular social interaction nonetheless provided him with a sense of individuality and social power.
Themes
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Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
The magistrate also longs for sexual contact with a woman’s body, and wonders how he could ever be perceived as doing right when the whole town is against his escapade with the barbarian girl and would be infuriated with him if, seen as a result of his communication with the barbarians, any soldiers were killed. He also knows that his interrogators would not cease in their application of pain regardless of his truth-telling, because of their philosophy that “the last truth is told only in the last extremity.” Lastly, he realizes that his escape plan is futile—he’d starve within a week outside the settlement.
The magistrate has hit rock bottom—it seems that his prospects of being perceived as a just man, and not a treacherous criminal, are next to nothing. Those in power have assumed that his communications with the barbarians were treasonous, and their torture tactics will inevitably make the magistrate yield to whatever accusations they make of him. The magistrate’s fate is entirely controlled by the powerful, who control what is and what isn’t “true.”
Themes
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
The girl at the inn and a young man enter the room—he tells her that she shouldn’t put up with the way the soldiers are treating her, since she’s not a slave, but she tells him that he doesn’t understand. Suddenly, they begin to make love—on the bed under which the magistrate is hiding. The magistrate, repulsed, plugs his ears. He actually groans to himself, though they do not hear him. After they fall asleep, he slips out from underneath the bed, and tiptoes out of the room and down to the kitchen. There, an old woman cook spots him, but the magistrate simply raises a hand and smiles, and the startled woman seems to ignore him.
This ridiculous circumstance—having to hide under a bed in which two people are making love, just in order to avoid being discovered by Mandel’s men—highlights the chaotic nature of the magistrate’s life after being arrested. The novel continues to throw the magistrate into circumstances that are less and less proper or indicative of civility—yet, at the same time, the magistrate is arguably the most virtuous and “civilized” person in town.
Themes
Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age Theme Icon
The magistrate exits the kitchen and tries to leave the settlement through the north gate, but it’s closed and barred. He therefore climbs the stairway of the watchtower. Looking out over the landscape, he wonders to himself if he’s been locked away for two months or ten years—the landscape has totally changed. The magistrate is then noticed by a nearby sentry—a watchtower guard—who doesn’t recognize him and tells him to get down, since the watchtower is off limits to civilians. The magistrate proceeds to ask him several questions, like where everyone he used to know is, and what happened out in the fields. He apologizes for asking such questions, but explains that he’s had a fever, having been totally confined to bed. The sentry explains that the barbarians cut away part of an embankment one night, and consequently flooded the fields—he adds that the crop is entirely ruined, and is too late to replant. The magistrate asks him when he expects the main expeditionary force to be back, and the guard says “soon, it must be soon.”
The magistrate’s comment that he’s unsure whether he’s been imprisoned for two months or two years will be reflected by his later statement that his time in jail was something like a void into which he disappeared. This sense of getting “out” of time resonates with the magistrate’s concept of cyclical time as something which is beyond the linear sequencing of normal human perception. It’s as if the very bestial state into which he’s descended has taken him onto another plane of existence—as if being so dehumanized in jail has brought him away from the sense of having a personal biography, and into the larger cycles of nature. The fact that the magistrate is unrecognized also suggests that his former, civilized appearance has radically changed.
Themes
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History and Time Theme Icon
Having been completely unrecognized by the guard, the magistrate leaves him and climbs down the watchtower steps, and exits the settlement. Looking at the fields, he notes how nothing is left standing—the farmers have already started stacking the dead crops for burning. The magistrate then comes upon one of his old excavation sites—it’s been largely undone by the wind. He says that he could probably stay there, and no one would bother looking for him. After falling asleep, the magistrate emerges to a red evening sun, and decides to return to the settlement, since he’ll die out in the desert, and asks, “why should I do my enemy’s work for them?” For, “if they want to spill my blood,” he says, “let them at least bear the guilt of it.”
The magistrate’s assertion that he’d rather have his enemies—the “new men of Empire”—kill him than die by himself out in the desert reveals how he’s beginning to assign a newly political meaning to his body: he thinks that, if he’s executed, his spilt blood will have some hindering effect on his killers. Stripped of all other resources to effect political change at the settlement, his execution is all that remains—and it would be a waste to squander it on dying by himself. This moment shows another step in the magistrate’s evolution towards desiring martyrdom.
Themes
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
Returning to the gate of the barracks yard, the magistrate yells to be let back in. His warder comes up to him, and commands that he be quiet; upon depositing the magistrate in his cell, he tells him to say nothing about escaping, or else he’ll make the magistrate’s life an absolute misery. Trying to build something of a rapport with the desperate warder, the magistrate responds that he has nothing to worry about—his lips are sealed, for he knows “what it is like to be frightened.”
This scene is significant for exposing how the warder thinks about his duty—it’s as if he feels no personal, moral obligation to jail the magistrate, but is simply following orders from his higher-ups. This suggests that it’s really the men of the Bureau, like Mandel and Joll, who hold the convictions which the magistrate opposes, and that their soldiers are cogs in the Bureau’s machine—so long as they remain dutiful and don’t express any qualms, like the magistrate has.
Themes
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
Later that night, Joll’s expedition force returns, and the magistrate decides to give into temptation and leave his cell to check out all the hubbub and commotion he hears in the town square. The whole town—“thousands of ecstatic souls”—he says, are gathered in celebratory welcome. After a succession of soldiers enter through the main gateway, he says that there’s a line of barbarians, tied neck to neck, being led into the fort by a trooper. The town is in awe. The magistrate notes that the barbarians all seem to be holding an odd posture—they all hold their hands up to their cheeks as if suffering from a toothache, but he realizes that each of them have a metal wire running through their hands and cheeks. He recalls being told by a soldier that this forces the prisoner to “think of nothing but how to keep very still.” The magistrate’s heart grows sick, and he wishes he never left his cell.
The way the barbarians are linked together is yet another instance of brutal torture that at once shows how Joll’s men have dehumanized the barbarians in their minds, as well as how inhumane and monstrous the men of the army can be behind their veil of civility. That the settlement is a mass of “ecstatic souls” suggests just how much of a spectacle Joll’s military campaign has become for the townspeople—it seems as if the settlers aren’t just relieved for the return of their loved ones from the atrocities of war, but are elated at the triumph of the glorious power of the distant Empire.
Themes
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
The magistrate then catches sight of Colonel Joll. Feeling like he’s going to be sick, the magistrate fetches a bucket of water from the prison yard, and, returning to the crowd, forges his way to the front. The barbarians are led to the town square, where four of them (out of twelve total) are forced to kneel on the ground. They are all attached to a pole by a cord running through the loops of wire in each of their mouths, such that their faces touch the pole. Then Joll, standing over each prisoner, rubs the word ENEMY on their backs with charcoal, and the soldiers commence beating them, the goal being to erase the word, which fades when mixed with sweat and blood. After the soldiers grow tired, they offer their canes to the members of the crowd, and a little girl, pushed forward by her friends, accepts a cane and hits one of the prisoner’s rear ends. The crowd gives her a “roar of applause.” The magistrate looks on at the absurdity, repulsed.
The sense that the expeditionary force’s return is a spectacle to the numbed and brainwashed minds of the townspeople amplifies, as the celebration verges on mass hysteria. That the soldiers offer their canes to the crowd highlights how the anti-barbarian campaign is not viewed as strictly a formal, official military operation, but rather a mob’s frenzy in which the ordinary citizen is invited to participate in committing torture and violence. The fact that a little girl is applauded for participating further exemplifies how ubiquitous and engrained the anti-barbarian ideology has become—even children are expected to adopt it.
Themes
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Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
The magistrate sees Colonel Joll holding up a four-pound hammer, displaying it to the audience—and they trade glances. In a climactic moment, the magistrate—mortified by the sight of the hammer—shouts “No!” Facing Joll, who’s no more than five paces away, the magistrate points his finger at him and shouts “You! You are depraving these people!” But Joll and one of his men beat the magistrate down. Though the magistrate valiantly withstands the pain of his beating and tries to muster up a public speech accusing Joll of inhumanity, his words fail him as he’s pelted by blows, and he hysterically asks himself just what, exactly, it is that he stands for “besides an archaic code of gentlemanly behavior towards captured foes.” Ultimately, the magistrate thinks that it’s “easier to be beaten and made a martyr,” to be killed in the name of justice than to argue for the barbarians’ cause, when the Empire has already irreparably tarnished the settlement’s relationship with the nomads. With a broken nose and perhaps a cheekbone, the magistrate is eventually carried off to his cell.
Here the magistrate’s gradual mental progression towards the prospect of becoming a kind of martyr comes to a pinnacle. In the middle of being beaten by Joll, again the magistrate considers his body to have a political significance: it can be “killed in the name of justice,” and this may very well be his last resort for combatting Joll’s regime, since he has no other resources, and the settlement’s relationship with the barbarians is forever fractured by the military campaign. In order to defend his convictions and inscribe them in history as evidence that a resistance to Joll’s regime existed, the magistrate is willing to utterly lay his body on the line, and suffer pain paralleling that which Joll doles out to the barbarians.
Themes
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Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
In his cell, the magistrate writhes about and weeps in pain, awaking eventually in the afternoon of the next day to find that his pain “lost its strangeness,” and that “soon, perhaps, it will be as much part of me as breathing.” He then has another dream of the barbarian girl; she’s once again kneeling before the snow castle with her back to the magistrate, and when he approaches her, she turns to him. The magistrate realizes that it’s not a castle she’s been building, but a clay oven. She hands the magistrate a “shapeless lump” at which he looks “unwillingly;” and, shaking his head, he’s unable to clear his vision. The girl, he notes, is dressed beautifully, and he remarks about her beautiful eyes and teeth. Finally, he realizes that the formless lump she’d held out to him is an artfully baked loaf of fresh bread. Opening his arms to embrace her, he awakens to the stinging of tears on his wounded cheek.
The barbarian girl starts to seem more attractive now in the magistrate’s dream-memories of her, and here she offers kindness and nourishment to the hated and starving man—a kind of wish fulfillment dream that still fits into the pattern of his usual dreams. In his present miserable state his past relationship with the barbarian girl, strange and distant though it was, now seems like a happy memory.
Themes
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Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
The magistrate then describes a scene in his old office. Joll sits behind his desk, and Officer Mandel—though the magistrate still does not yet know his name—stands by with a notepad. Joll asks the magistrate to explain the wooden “slips” he’s collected (from the ruins the magistrate was previously excavating), which the Colonel found in a chest in his room, and which are painted with a peculiar script. Joll tells the magistrate that he needs to explain what the messages say and who the other parties were who used them for communication.
Joll and Mandel assume that the slips the magistrate has acquired from his excavation projects are messages comprising secret correspondences between him and the barbarians. Once again Joll and the Empire assume a “truth” before they are presented with any kind of evidence or fact, and it can be assumed that nothing the magistrate says will convince them to adjust this truth.
Themes
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Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
The magistrate doesn’t really know what any of the characters on the slips mean, even though he’s studied the structure of the language for some time, isolating over 450 characters. Instead, he makes up some translations of various slips, saying things that vaguely reflect the gruesome effects of Joll’s torture. He translates a couple of the slips as ancient letters to a barbarian whose brother has been captured by soldiers: the barbarian writing the letter says he found the person’s brother’s corpse sewn up in a sack, with his eyes sewn shut and his ankles broken.
The magistrate’s “translation” of the pottery slips is a crucial moment in the text, as he has no idea what the truth of the ancient text is, but creates his own truth—and a historical truth at that—which also contradicts Joll’s fixed idea of what the “truth” is. Furthermore, the magistrate’s translation is a not-so-subtle critique of Joll himself, while also adding to the idea that history tends to repeat itself in large cycles. As the magistrate has mused before, there may have been past Empires who oppressed and “othered” past barbarians.
Themes
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Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
History and Time Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
Unamused by the magistrate’s translations, Joll asks him what he envisions of his future at the post, since he’s disgraced himself. But the magistrate just demands to be prosecuted in a formal trial so that he can defend himself, and the Colonel implies that the magistrate is delusional—that he’d never stand a chance at trial, and his belief that the Bureau won’t bring him to trial because he’s too popular of a figure in the town is totally fantastical. Joll says that he decided that he just wanted to relieve the magistrate of his duties and release him from custody, but that his mind has changed, since the magistrate seems bent on being a martyr—the “One Just Man”—to the detriment of the Empire’s cause. Joll ends the interview and tells Mandel that the magistrate is now his responsibility.
The magistrate’s desire to become a martyr and have his reputation recorded as the “one just man” standing against the evil Empire is apparently quite obvious to Joll, and Joll’s withering dismissal of him makes the magistrate’s aspirations suddenly seem both clichéd and futile. Those in power will write the history, and the magistrate is essentially alone, even in his own town—he will not be in control of how he is remembered, and so even if he is killed for “justice” he may not be remembered as a martyr at all. Joll clearly considers the magistrate as hardly a threat, and so doesn’t even give him the satisfaction of antagonizing him further, but simply sends him away.
Themes
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
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Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
The magistrate is back in his cell. He lies “in the reek of old vomit obsessed with the thought of water,” since he’s had nothing to drink for two days. He mentions that Officer Mandel and his assistant force-fed him pints of salt water down a pipe pushed down his esophagus—and this makes him realize that, while he anticipated them to cause him varying degrees of pain, and that he would have to come to realize just “how much pain a plump comfortable old man would be able to endure” in the name of his principles, the effects of the salt water tactic were quite different. Instead of dealing in pain, this tactic made him realize “what it meant to live in a body, as a body” which can only support higher principles of justice insofar as it is healthy and nourished, and which soon forgets its higher order when visceral, physical matters come to the forefront. He also says that, while he thought that his torturers had a grand, elaborate system of “pain and deprivation” they were applying to him, really, they weren’t that methodical about it—torturing the magistrate wasn’t the center of their universe.
The magistrate continues to descend into a more dehumanized, bestial state. Mandel’s torture tactics amplify this, as they necessarily inflict pain as much as debilitate basic bodily function and health—and furthermore make the magistrate feel unimportant, as if his torture is not even a priority for Mandel, and he is not considered an enemy worth much consideration at all. Dehydrated by the salt-water, the magistrate is forced to feel the tension of his body’s reaction—he’s forced to feel the limits, the contours, of his body in ways he’s never had to before. It’s this encounter with the limits of his body that makes the magistrate learn just what it means to live as a body—a body whose immediate, physical concerns ultimately overshadow any higher forms of intellect or morality, such as the magistrate’s anti-Empire convictions.
Themes
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The magistrate then mentions a scene in the prison yard—he’s naked, an audience is gathered, and Mandel demands that he run, hitting the magistrate’s rear end with a cane whenever he slows down. Out of shape and weak, the magistrate quickly runs out of breath, but Mandel continues to prod him. Other times, the magistrate is forced to do tricks, such as jumping back and forth over a rope. Further, the magistrate says that he “smell[s] of shit,” not being permitted to wash himself. He flicks flies away from the sore on his check as if it were an automatic reflex. The magistrate wonders if there will be a time when, during these games Mandel makes him play, he will just collapse and ask to be killed rather than persist in going on.
The magistrate’s once prominent sense of high civility, intellectual vigor, and moral virtue continue to devolve into a more and more bestial state, as the magistrate is debased and defiled by his imprisonment. Finally, it seems as if the magistrate is reaching the limit of his tolerance. Though before he had insisted on pursuing his convictions and defiance of the Empire for as long as possible until he was killed, it seems as if the intensity (and also the weary mundanity) of Mandel’s torture tactics are causing the magistrate to lose sight of pursuing martyrdom.
Themes
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Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
The magistrate says that, one day, Mandel and his assistant throw open his cell door and hand him a woman’s calico smock, telling him to put it on or otherwise go naked. He dons the smock, his wrists are tied behind his back, and the two men escort him out to the yard—Mandel tells him that his “time has come.” Mandel and his men make like they’re going to hang the magistrate—though he thinks that this is only a trick to mess with him—and a crowd forms. When asked if he has any final words, the magistrate just says that he’s trying very hard to understand how Mandel feels about him, and why; instead of addressing the people directly, he’d rather hear some words from Mandel—why does he devote himself to his work, and what does he feel towards the magistrate, whom he has so concertedly tried to hurt?
Like the barbarian prisoners who were tortured in the town square upon the return of Joll’s expeditionary force, the magistrate has become a spectacle for the settlers—a scapegoat for the anxiety they feel about the barbarians. Even though the magistrate has a hunch that Mandel and his assistants are just trying to fool him, it’s interesting that he still doesn’t use his chance to say some “final words” in order to condemn the wrongdoings of the Empire, but rather questions why Mandel works so pointedly to cause him harm and break his spirit. It seems that the magistrate truly wants to uncover the psychology behind such cruelty as Mandel’s.
Themes
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Still hoping that the men are just playing, but terrified nonetheless, the magistrate says that he wants people to know that “nothing passed between [him]self and the barbarians concerning military matters. It was a private affair.” He wanted to return the barbarian girl to her people—with no other agenda. He further says that he believes that no one deserves to die, and that he wants to live like every man does. As he tries to balance himself on the ladder he’s precariously perched upon, his mind flashes back to the leader of the barbarian horsemen who pointed a gun at him when he was returning the barbarian girl. He sees the scene with the most impeccable detail: “every hair of the horse’s man, every wrinkle of the old man’s face, every rock and furrow of the hillside.”
The magistrate’s flashback is significant for what its sense of clarity implies thematically. It’s as if the magistrate’s constant desire to uncover the truth of the past or remember a memory in the clearest detail suddenly happens automatically, proving that such perfect recollections can’t be chosen consciously, but are rather caused by the unconscious association of two related events—in this case: two brushes with death. While the magistrate’s desire to remember clearly involves thinking about an “end” result, this flashback happens automatically with no conscious, linear intention.
Themes
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The magistrate then returns to consciousness of the present moment—his feet touch the ground, “though they are numb to all feeling,” and he stretches out upon the ground. But he’s abruptly pulled to his feet, and Mandel tells him that he is going to show him “another form of flying.” He takes the rope off of the magistrate’s neck and, knotting it around the cord that ties his wrists behind his back, asks his assistants to pull the magistrate up. The magistrate then thinks that, if he’s acrobatic enough to be able to swing one of his feet up and hook it around the rope suspending him, he’ll be able to hang upside down without his shoulder muscles being torn by his arms swinging up over his head—but he’s unable to do this, and he suffers a “terrible tearing in [his] shoulders as though whole sheets of muscle are giving way.” Someone gives him a push, and as he shouts in agony, someone says “he is calling to his barbarian friends,” and “that is barbarian language.” They laugh at him.
This scene shows perhaps the pinnacle of the magistrate’s mistreatment at the hands of Mandel. Again, the monstrous nature of torture reveals the inhumanity and brutishness of the purportedly civil people who commit it, like Mandel. The magistrate’s body continues to suffer on account of his commitment to opposing the Empire’s campaign, but at this point it seems doubtful whether his pursuit of martyrdom is actually effective at all. Rather than being a political tool, it seems more like a waste of his body and whatever remains of his mental welfare, considering the fact that he’s now seen to be just as evil as the barbarians, as evidenced by the accusation that they’re his “friends.” It’s also telling that the screams of a tortured victim are considered “barbarian language”—suggesting that the “barbarians” could be anyone the Empire chooses to define itself against, and thus oppress and murder.
Themes
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Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon