Waiting for the Barbarians

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The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon
Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age Theme Icon
Truth, Power, and Recorded Reputation Theme Icon
History and Time Theme Icon
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon
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The Empire and Fear of the Other Theme Icon

In Waiting for the Barbarians, the Empire is an abstract figurehead for imperial power at large. It is never even explicitly named, and therefore never associated with any nation in the real world, though we can infer that the Empire correlates in some ways to South Africa, Coetzee’s homeland. The nomadic peoples (“barbarians”), then, partly symbolize the victims of colonialism and apartheid—or more specifically, the black population during apartheid-era South Africa.

The inhabitants of the Empire’s frontier settlement (over which the magistrate presides) harbor an irrational fear and hatred of the barbarians, who inhabit the desert around them—a fear based not on any knowledge of or direct experience with the actual nomads themselves, but one that is fueled merely by superstition, ignorance, and military dogma. The novel shows how the soldiers and higher-ups (like Colonel Joll) of the Empire’s army follow unquestioningly—and therefore blindly—their military orders, as they are convinced that the barbarians, as a monolithic whole, are a fundamentally evil, debased people who clearly stand against the Empire. In the eyes of the soldiers, the barbarians have become so demonized that they appear to inherently deserve being tortured and murdered. And the civilians of the magistrate’s settlement share the soldiers’ hatred of the barbarians as well: though they will sometimes trade with nomads they deem to be peaceful, they consider them to be lazy, thoughtless, and unclean drunkards who, in comparison to the “civility” of the Empire’s people, occupy a subhuman status of existence.

The barbarians, therefore, are ‘othered’ by the Empire. The Empire associates the barbarians with all kinds of debasing qualities that ultimately render them and their culture as fundamentally alien, foreign and incomprehensibly different. The barbarians, cast as an Other—or a force which shares no common source of humanity or identity with the Empire’s citizens—become a scourge to be eradicated from the scope of the Empire’s expansion and existence.

During the South African apartheid, black citizens were expelled from the main, white-dominated region of the country to outlying provinces. Coetzee’s framing of the barbarians as having always been outsiders to the Empire, therefore, can be read as an ironic commentary on the South African government’s treatment of the black populace it expelled—treating its black citizens as if they never belonged. Dutch (and British) rule, the real “Empire,” implanted its white settlers in Africa, and the eventual apartheid-enforcing government of South Africa went on to usurp people of color—people with indigenous African roots—from their own native territory to specifically-black outlying districts. The novel therefore endeavors to show how the relationship between its foreign imperial power (the Empire) and indigenous community (the barbarians) plays out, from the point of view of someone within the world of the Empire—the magistrate, whose view is unique, since he opposes to the military policies of his nation and sympathizes with the nomads.

The sensibility and reason of the magistrate, however, prove to be no match for the Empire’s drive for imperial conquest—the drive to conquer the barbarians’ territory and eradicate or enslave them—since the civilians of the Empire have such an engrained, inbred hatred of the barbarians. The novel therefore shows how fear of the Other can breed in the minds of a whole nation’s citizens, and fuel their government’s entire military conquest in a way that blinds them from the atrocities it involves. Convinced that they are combatting a subhuman evil, the people of the Empire feel an entitlement to the violence they enact and the territory they try to claim with it (even if that territory is only the “protection” of the Empire’s present borders). Through exploring the dynamic between the barbarians and the Empire, the novel therefore explores a situation resembling the actual historical case of apartheid, whose white enforcers felt superior to the black populace, and therefore entitled to politically and economically regulate, dominate, and ultimately deteriorate the growth and welfare of the territories to which black citizens were expelled.

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The Empire and Fear of the Other ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Empire and Fear of the Other appears in each Chapter of Waiting for the Barbarians. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Empire and Fear of the Other Quotes in Waiting for the Barbarians

Below you will find the important quotes in Waiting for the Barbarians related to the theme of The Empire and Fear of the Other.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“The space about us here is merely space, no meaner or grander than the space above the shacks and tenements and temples and offices of the capital. Space is space, life is life, everywhere the same. But as for me, sustained by the toil of others, lacking civilized vices with which to fill my leisure, I pamper my melancholy and try to find in the vacuousness of the desert a special historical poignancy. Vain, idle, misguided! How fortunate that no one sees me!”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs while the magistrate lingers among some of the ruins he likes to excavate; Joll and his men have recently departed on their expedition at this point in the plot.

Here, the magistrate expresses embarrassment at the seriousness and intellectual severity with which he pursues his quest to discover a secretly profound, but hidden and not yet known, historical richness to the desert around him. Even going so far as to sacrifice his reason in order to wager the existence of ghosts in the ruins he explores, the magistrate seems deeply invested in uncovering a connection with the past that will give a surge of intrigue to the present in which he lives. Trying to find “a special historical poignancy” to the frontier, which lacks the metropolitan glamour of the capital, the magistrate ultimately seems to feel shameful and “vain” for trying to unearth and excavate, in the external, physical world, what’s only a product of his imagination—a product of his nostalgia for a non-existent past he’s invented just as a way to “pamper” his own “melancholy.” Unable to realize, or admit to himself with any satisfaction, that the space—the atmosphere of life on the frontier—is ultimately made of the same physical substance proliferating life in the capital, the magistrate sees his life at the settlement as somehow innately predisposed to being inferior and passive in comparison to the intrigue and activity of the Empire’s central urban hub.

Yet the magistrate is fully aware of this mental habit of his—he’s aware of why he busies himself with his excavation hobby even to the point of imaginary, delusional excess. The magistrate knows that space is just space, and that the life he lives in the settlement has just as equal a possibility of vivacity and intrigue as that of the capital. Later in the novel, he even displays a belief in a register of time and historical unfolding that transcends the order of human society, such as the way humans like himself break up space by conceiving of it as having different parts with fundamentally different qualities—the way humans define the boundaries of their identities and social worlds by perceiving differences between themselves and others. Ultimately, the Empire’s “othering” of the barbarians exemplifies this way of perceiving space and meaning.


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“It would be best if this obscure chapter in the history of the world were terminated at once, if these ugly people were obliterated from the face of the earth and we swore to make a new start, to run an empire in which there would be no more injustice, no more pain. It would cost little to march them out into the desert . . . to have them dig, with their last strength, a pit large enough for all of them to lie in (or even dig it for them!), and, leaving them buried there forever and forever, to come back to the walled town full of new intentions, new resolutions.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Colonel Joll has just ceased his interrogations of the barbarian prisoners he’d taken, and re-departed the settlement to continue his campaign.

Here, the magistrate’s characteristic empathy and compassion for the barbarians takes an unusually dark turn. However, instead of wishing to kill the barbarian prisoners out of sheer racist malice, the magistrate seems just to want to “put them out of their misery” and eliminate from the face of the earth the marks of torture indelibly etched on their bodies by the gruesome actions of Joll. For the prisoners’ suffering is a monument to, a reminder of, “this obscure chapter in the history of the world”—the obscure chapter when the evils of Joll and company proliferated and blossomed. But the absence of racism in the magistrate’s fantasy about burying the prisoners alive doesn’t make it any more virtuous. It’s seems (at least until the clarification he offers in the next quote) like a selfish dream motivated by his desire to restore normalcy and tranquility to the frontier—an ideal atmosphere which the “ugly” victims of torture taint through their sheer existence. To wipe them away would wipe away any physical markers of the Empire’s evils, and create a space where “a new start,” one rid of injustice and cruelty, could be forged.

“But that will not be my way. The new men of Empire are the ones who believe in fresh starts, new chapters, clean pages; I struggle on with the old story, hoping that before it is finished it will reveal to me why it was that I thought it worth the trouble. Thus it is that, administration of law and order in these parts having today passed back to me, I 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, as far as possible.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs immediately after the last one; Joll has finished interrogating his prisoners and left the settlement to rejoin his expedition.

The magistrate is disavowing his recent fantasy about burying the barbarian prisoners in order to forge a fresh start—an Empire unmarked by any physical reminders of its past evils. For building new starts by erasing the past—by tidying and cleaning up the past through a repressive censorship—is not the magistrate’s style. The magistrate struggles on with the old story and tarries with the pain of the past in order to realize, whenever it ends and times change, and the evil behind such pain is rectified through justice, what made the struggle worthwhile in the first place. When society returns to being good and just, he hopes that the new life it affords him will make him realize—will make him palpably understand—what about life it was that made him keep going.

Chapter 2 Quotes

“But more often in the very act of caressing her I am overcome with sleep as if polelaxed, fall into oblivion sprawled upon her body, and wake an hour or two later dizzy, confused, thirsty. These dreamless spells are like death to me, or enchantment, black, outside time.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs during one of the magistrate’s massaging rituals with the barbarian girl; this takes place shortly after Joll has left the settlement to rejoin his expedition, after interrogating the barbarian prisoners.

Here we begin to see the conflicts arising around the magistrate’s relationship with the barbarian girl in a concrete form. Perhaps what’s most significant about this passage is the magistrate’s ambiguous association of death, and a simultaneous “enchantment” characterized by blackness and timelessness, to his experience of these sexualized spells. The magistrate’s entrance into these spells, these lulls of “oblivion” brought about by his sexualized massaging ritual with the girl, mark for him an exit from all ordinary experience. It’s as if the magistrate falls asleep while retaining the most minimal degree of consciousness necessary to have self-awareness, such that he goes into the deepest depths of his sleeping mind while still a tiny bit awake.

The magistrate therefore enters a mental state that is totally other to his ordinary experience. It’s significant that this state is triggered by his encounters with the barbarian girl. It speaks to the fact that the magistrate, through his sexualization of the barbarian girl—through his turning the caretaking of her injuries into a less than strictly medical enterprise—is beginning to enter a relationship with her where she’s somehow othered, or made into a figure that he finds himself unable or unwilling to identify with in a way that suggests the presence of empathy. Though this conflict is still in its initial stages at this point in the book, and its relation to the barbarian girl not yet explicit, this moment—where the magistrate notes this radically altered state of experience—signals that there’s something very peculiar about how his engagement with her affects him psychologically.

“It always pained me in the old days to see these people fall victim to the guile of shopkeepers, exchanging their goods for trinkets, lying drunk in the gutter, and confirming thereby the settlers’ litany of prejudice: that barbarians are lazy, immoral, filthy, stupid. Where civilization entailed the corruption of barbarian virtues and the creation of a dependent people, I decided, I was opposed to civilization; and upon this resolution I based the conduct of my administration. (I say this who now keeps a barbarian girl for my bed!)”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Joll has recently left the settlement to rejoin his expedition after torturing the barbarian prisoners he’d captured, and the magistrate has just noted that winter is settling in.

This passage reveals the sense of compassion which the magistrate has for the barbarians, and his willingness to criticize “civilization” when it only means corruption and prejudice. The magistrate isn’t unquestioningly devoted to the Empire, and is capable of seeing past the glittering surface of civility and observing its underlying evils. Further, he’s willing to forge his administration around opposing those evils—a political move which, on his part, is a risk to his own status, since those in power around him are involved in upholding such evils. The magistrate’s ability to see how the barbarians get cast as “lazy, immoral, filthy, and stupid” highlights his insights into the settlers’ racism, how they con the barbarians they trade with only to then blame them for how it impacts their lives. And yet at the same time the magistrate acknowledges his hypocrisy, for he himself “keeps a barbarian girl in his bed,” dehumanizing and “othering” her in his own way.

“Is this how her torturers felt hunting their secret, whatever they thought it was? For the first time I feel a dry pity for them: how natural a mistake to believe that you can burn or tear or hack your way into the secret body of the other. The girl lies in my bed, but there is no good reason why it should be a bed. I behave in some ways like a lover—but I might equally well tie her to a chair and beat her, it would be no less intimate.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs after the magistrate, having just paid a visit to the girl at the inn, returns to his apartment to rejoin the sleeping barbarian girl.

Here, the magistrate unearths a parallel between how he treats the barbarian girl and the way he thinks her torturers viewed her. It’s as if, through applying various techniques of torture to gain entry “into the secret body of the other”—into some hidden truth the girl was withholding about potential barbarian invasion plans—that the torturers were engaging in a process no less intimate than the magistrate’s own way of relating to and sexualizing the girl. Frustrated and disappointed by the girl’s constant elusiveness, by her enigmatic nature which refuses to yield to his sexual expectations, the magistrate feels a “dry pity” for the torturers’ belief that they could enter the girl’s mind absolutely. For he, like the torturers, engages in a similarly futile quest to enter and unravel the mind of the girl—to achieve a state of perfect understanding where the girl’s strange nature can be explained, and even manipulated in a way to conform with his desires.

In this way, the magistrate displays a violence analogous to that of the girl’s torturers. Though disguised as the proceedings of romantic and sexual desire, the magistrate’s relationship with the girl is one characterized by a violent, narcissistic drive to break open her lackluster outer personality and unveil a more desirable cluster of animate passions within. As such, the magistrate thinks that beating the girl would be no less intimate than wooing her, since both are essentially brutal.

“I wish that these barbarians would rise up and teach us a lesson, so that we would learn to respect them. We think of the country here as ours, part of our Empire—our outpost, our settlement, our market centre. But these people, these barbarians don’t think of it like that at all. We have been here more than a hundred years, we have reclaimed land from the desert and built irrigation works and planted fields and built solid homes and put a wall around our town, but they still think of us as visitors, transients.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

The magistrate has invited the officer of a detachment of new conscripts to his settlement to dinner at the inn, and says this to him as they converse after their meal. The officer has just mentioned that there’s a rumor going around about the Empire launching a general offensive against the barbarians in the spring, and this perturbs the magistrate.

Here, the magistrate asserts his compassion for the barbarians as people who are as equally human as the Empire’s citizens, and who deserve the same possibilities for experiencing and preserving welfare and prosperity in their lives. But the magistrate does not just propose that the barbarians are equals—he goes a step further by condemning the Empire’s sense of superiority and entitlement, and insists that its people are mere outsiders in the desert, which, he emphasizes, is more truly the home and dominion of the barbarians. The willingness to so boldly profess his wish that the barbarians rise up and teach the Empire a lesson testifies to the devotion with which the magistrate upholds his moral convictions.

This passage also shows how the magistrate sees the barbarians as adhering to a more cyclical, “eternal” view of time than the Empire does—and this is partly why the magistrate idealizes and empathizes with the barbarians so much.

“I have hitherto liked to think that she cannot fail to see me as a man in the grip of a passion, however perverted and obscure that passion may be, that in the bated silences which make up so much of our intercourse she cannot but feel my gaze pressing in upon her with the weight of a body. I prefer not to dwell on the possibility that what a barbarian upbringing teaches a girl may be not to accommodate a man’s every whim, including the whim of neglect, but to see sexual passion, whether in horse or goat or man or woman, as a simple fact of life with the clearest of means and the clearest of ends; so that the confused actions of an aging foreigner who picks her up off the streets and installs her in his apartment so that he can now kiss her feet, now browbeat her, now anoint her with exotic oils, now ignore her, now sleep in her arms all night, now moodily sleep apart, may seem nothing but evidences of impotence, indecisiveness, alienation from his own desires.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl
Related Symbols: Blindness and Joll’s Sunglasses
Page Number: 63-4
Explanation and Analysis:

The magistrate has recently persuaded the officer he dined with not long ago to send out a party of men to retrieve the corpses of two soldiers who deserted his party. After saying that he wrote home to the soldier’s families informing them of their loss, the magistrate’s narration shifts to another massaging ritual with the girl.

The tension ushered into the magistrate’s sexuality by the barbarian girl’s enigmatic personality comes to a pinnacle here. The magistrate has liked to think that the tumult and confusion of his passion for the girl was hidden from her injured eyes; he’s considered her to be fully visible, susceptible to his every investigation, and therefore capable of being fully comprehended and understood, despite her ongoing elusiveness. At the same time, while he’s considered himself as looking upon her from this privileged view, he’s thought her to have no such special access to his own body and mind—he’s thought of her as a body which is only looked upon, but doesn’t look back. This habit of viewing the barbarian girl’s blindness, however, is buckling under a new doubt: that the girl, in fact, can see the confusion and weakness of the magistrate—that she can sense, through his actions, his “impotence” and “alienation.”

This doubt, therefore, marks a pivotal moment in the magistrate’s psychology. Instead of viewing himself as something completely whole, distinct from, and inaccessible to the girl, yet still capable of accessing the hidden depths of her personality for his own enjoyment and intellection, the magistrate at this moment finds what once was his sense of wholeness fractured and de-completed in a new way, by a troubling prospect: that the girl has more access to his mind, more wit to observe his motivations, than he previously thought.

At this moment, the girl ceases to have the status of a frustrating Other who ceaselessly resists what the magistrate thinks to be his piercing power of comprehension. Instead, she becomes something even more frustrating: an Other who still cannot be comprehended, but who herself comprehends the magistrate almost entirely, and has much more access into his psychology than he has heretofore liked to imagine.

Chapter 4 Quotes

“I am aware of the source of my elation: my alliance with the guardians of the Empire is over, I have set myself in opposition, the bond is broken, I am a free man. Who would not smile? But what a dangerous joy! It should not be so easy to attain salvation. And is there any principle behind my opposition? Have I not simply been provoked into a reaction by the sight of one of the new barbarians usurping my desk and pawing my papers? As for this liberty which I am in the process of throwing away, what value does it have to me? Have I truly enjoyed the unbounded freedom of this past year in which more than ever before my life has been mine to make up as I go along?”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs shortly after the magistrate, having returned to the settlement from delivering the barbarian girl to her people, is arrested by Mandel on the charge of consorting with the barbarians.

Freed from his allegiance with the “guardians of the Empire,” the magistrate is overwhelmed with glee. Finally, the pressure to conform his own moral outlook to the anti-barbarian perspective fueling the Empire’s military campaign has been lifted. An extraordinary weight taken off his shoulders, the magistrate can now express himself freely; and even though the magistrate’s daring dissent towards the Empire has landed him in prison, the sheer freedom of being openly defiant and not coerced into social conformity is enough to outweigh the freedom lost with imprisonment. For, as the magistrate says, the liberty he possessed as a “free man” brought him no distinct joy.

That the magistrate calls Mandel a “new barbarian” is significant—it shows how, in the magistrate’s mind, the Empire’s military officials (such as Mandel) have usurped the position of the barbarians in his old worldview, in his mind prior to his arrest. Now that his allegiance with the Empire’s military officials has been severed, the magistrate is able to view them as a real foe—he can view the military as they view the barbarians.

“Nevertheless, I should never have allowed the gates of the town to be opened to people who assert that there are higher considerations than those of decency. They exposed her father to her naked and made him quiver with pain; they hurt her and he could not stop them (on a day I spent occupied with the ledgers in my office). Thereafter 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. I, too, if I live long enough in this cell with its ghosts not only of the father and the daughter but of the man who even by lamplight did not remove the black discs from his eyes and the subordinate whose work it was to keep the brazier fed, will be touched with the contagion and turned into a creature that believes in nothing.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl, Colonel Joll, The barbarian girl's father
Related Symbols: Blindness and Joll’s Sunglasses
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

This important quote occurs after the magistrate has been arrested (by Mandel) upon returning from his trip to return the barbarian girl to her people. In his cell, he’s ruminating about the girl. Finally, the magistrate is coming to terms with the enigmatically stoic nature of the barbarian girl’s personality—her lack of animated emotion and her seemingly depthless surface, devoid of passion. As he now begins to attribute her distant persona to the effects of being tortured, the magistrate comes to think: how could the girl be otherwise? Losing her humanity after the trauma of torture, she came to lose “certain movements of the heart.” What, then, might become of the magistrate himself? Under the dehumanizing strain of imprisonment, the magistrate fears that he, too, might soon devolve into the blankness which shrouded the girl’s life. He, too, might be infected by the mad actions of Joll’s men and be “turned into a creature,” not a ‘human’ per se, but a “creature that believes in nothing.”

“For me, at this moment, striding away from the crowd, what has become important above all is that I should neither be contaminated by the atrocity that is about to be committed nor poison myself with impotent hatred of its perpetrators. I cannot save the prisoners, therefore let me save myself. Let it at the very least be said, if it ever comes to be said, if there is ever anyone in some remote future interested to know the way we lived, that in this farthest outpost of the Empire of light there existed one man who in his heart was not a barbarian.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote occurs as the magistrate, who’s escaped from his cell, looks upon the barbarian prisoners who Joll and his men have brought back from their expedition, and who are being lined up in front of the whole settlement to be publicly beaten.

Faced with the horrific possibility of witnessing the brutal mutilation of Joll’s prisoners, the magistrate, for once, decides that he should turn his face away from suffering: that he should resist being both traumatized by the violence itself and overwhelmed with hatred of its perpetrators. Whereas the magistrate has previously defended the virtues of facing suffering directly, he’s always referred to the suffering of the past, saying that one should struggle and tarry with its memory rather than try to erase it in order to forge a “fresh start.”

Here, however, the magistrate is faced with an imminent possibility of suffering, with a future pain—with the public display of anti-barbarian torture that is moments away. Though the magistrate ultimately stays and watches the violence unfold, the fact that he initially opts to turn from it suggests either that he’s become so unbearably dismayed by his imprisonment and the anti-barbarian society around him that he simply couldn’t stand the added distress of witnessing such an atrocity, or that he values struggling with and examining past suffering more than seeing it repeat itself in a future instance, or both.

Further, this passage also reveals the magistrate’s desire to go down in history with the reputation of being a good man among the otherwise evil populace of the Empire. Later, this desire intensifies into an aspiration for martyrdom.