The Train Driver


Athol Fugard

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Race and Empathy Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Race and Empathy Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Helplessness vs. Agency Theme Icon
Names Theme Icon
Hope vs. Despair Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Train Driver, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Race and Empathy Theme Icon

The Train Driver follows a white Afrikaans man, Roelf Visagie, searching for the corpse of an unnamed Black woman, a journey that leads him to reevaluate his understanding of race. Roelf was driving a train that ran over the Black woman and her baby and has been burdened with guilt ever since the accident. Roelf’s wife resorts to racial stereotypes to comfort him, reassuring Roelf that the woman was probably drunk and high on marijuana. These casual remarks highlight the prevalence of racism in white South African society. But his wife’s assurances aren’t enough, and Roelf undertakes a desperate search for closure. In the process of searching for the woman’s identity, Roelf comes to realize that white people believe they “know everything” about Black people, but in reality, they are blinded by ignorance and prejudice. When Roelf’s search for the dead woman (whom he refers to as Red Doek because of the headcovering she wore) leads him to enter a poor Black village, he interacts with Red Doek’s neighbors and forms a close bond with the Black gravedigger Simon Hanabe. Simon even feeds and houses Roelf as Roelf grapples with his desire to find Red Doek’s body. Simon often splits loaves of bread down the middle to share with Roelf, which calls attention to the shared human needs between these two very different men. Over the course of the play, Roelf develops empathy for Simon and the communities that shaped him and Red Doek. Personal human connection is thus depicted as a crucial way to combat prejudice––and yet Roelf’s revelations die with him at the end of the play, hinting that these instances of connection are rare and, on a larger scale, ineffective in bringing about change.

However, The Train Driver does not claim that ending racism is as simple as forming friendships. The amagintsa (local criminals) kill Roelf because he is a white man encroaching on their territory, and the Black police officer who speaks to Simon at the end of the play is upset that Simon allowed a white man to “mess with our people.” The play’s conclusion suggests that though moments of connection are instrumental in ending the racial prejudices of individuals, they cannot dismantle the institutional divisions between white and Black South Africans.

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Race and Empathy ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Race and Empathy appears in each scene of The Train Driver. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Race and Empathy Quotes in The Train Driver

Below you will find the important quotes in The Train Driver related to the theme of Race and Empathy.
Prologue Quotes

SIMON: My name is Simon Hanabe, I am the one who puts the nameless ones in the grave. This is how it happened. When I first see the whiteman…he is walking among the amangcwaba where the ones with names is sleeping…. Then he sees me watching him and he comes to me and starts talking but that time I didn't know what he was saying––his words were all mixed up like he was drunk. So he gets very cross with me when I shake my head and tell him I don't know what he is saying.

Related Characters: Simon Hanabe (speaker), Roelf Visagie
Related Symbols: Unmarked Graves
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 1 Quotes

ROELF: Fucking hell! What a miserable bloody ending to your life’s story. I wouldn’t even bury my dog like this, man! (Goes to one grave and picks up an old motorcar hubcap) And this rubbish on the graves? What the hell is this idea?...You put these here?
SIMON: Ewe. There is no flowers in Shukuma.
ROELF: I see! So that is what it’s supposed to be…respect for the dead! Then why not just a simple cross, man?...Remember Jesus? You people are supposed to believe in God and Jesus, isn’t that so?

Related Characters: Roelf Visagie (speaker), Simon Hanabe (speaker)
Related Symbols: Unmarked Graves
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

ROELF: (with vicious deliberation) Ja. Give me her name…or show me her grave…and I will do it. S’trues God. In both official languages because I am fully bilingual…I’ll do it so that her ghost can hear me. I’ll tell her how she has fucked up my life…the selfish black bitch…that I am sitting here with my arse in the dirt because thanks to her I am losing everything…my home, my family, my job…my bloody mind! Ja! Another fucking day like this one and I won’t know who I am anymore or what the fuck I am doing!

Related Characters: Roelf Visagie (speaker), Red Doek (The Woman), Simon Hanabe
Related Symbols: Unmarked Graves
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 2 Quotes

ROELF: All I could think of to say was, “What the fucking hell are you all staring at?” And Lorraine said, “These are your children, Roelf Visagie––go swear at your woman from the bush.”…When I heard those words it was like something just opened up inside me, because I suddenly realized you see that that is what I wanted to do! Ja! I wanted to take a deep breath and then load up my lungs with every dirty thing I had ever heard and then say them into the face of that woman, who still stands there waiting for me in my dreams. I wanted those to be the last words she hears when my train hits her…But the trouble was I didn’t know her name! I mean you know how it is. When you talk to somebody in your mind you think their name, don’t you?

Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 3  Quotes

ROELF: This place is a bloody disgrace to humanity!... Have you got no respect for the dead? Because if that is the case then you are worse than those dogs in the bush. And you know why? Because these are human beings lying here and you are also supposed to be one as well…(An excited little laugh as an idea occurs to him)…Ja! can even make a cross with [the stones]!... (On his hands and knees, placing stones on the graves) See how easy it is….

(…Roelf moves to another grave where he makes another cross. His behavior is becoming increasingly absurd.)

Related Characters: Roelf Visagie (speaker), Simon Hanabe
Related Symbols: Unmarked Graves
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

SIMON (…He speaks firmly but gently): You must stop now looking for her.

ROELF: For who?

SIMON: For Red Doek.

ROELF: Red Doek?...

(For a few seconds the name means nothing to him…)

ROELF: That’s right…Red Doek…I’m looking for her…(He is speaking very quietly)and her baby…You realize, don’t you, Simon, that it was a woman…a mother…with her baby on her back that stepped out on to the rails…there in front of me…and waited…for me…for the end…staring and waiting…

Related Characters: Roelf Visagie (speaker), Simon Hanabe (speaker), Red Doek (The Woman)
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

ROELF: Makes you think, doesn’t it? All of them…some mother’s children…one day you and me also…(Gestures to the graves)…and that’s how it ends for everybody. Yes...make no mistake my man or white man...the worms don’t care about’s all the same to them...

Related Characters: Roelf Visagie (speaker), Simon Hanabe
Related Symbols: Unmarked Graves
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 4 Quotes

SIMON: I sing to [the ghosts]. I sing like my mother sing to me when I was a little boy and she carry me on her back….
ROELF: You think they hear you?
SIMON: Ewe. They go back to sleep….And all is quiet again.

Related Characters: Simon Hanabe (speaker), Roelf Visagie (speaker)
Related Symbols: Unmarked Graves
Page Number: 33-34
Explanation and Analysis:

ROELF: Don’t you feel a bit sorry for them? A little bit sad?

SIMON: No….Why you ask me so much?

ROELF: Why? Because it’s one of your own people for God’s sake. It was certainly somebody’s…I don’t know…husband or brother if it was a man, or somebody’s mother or sister or wife if it was a woman. One thing I know for sure is that if I had to dig a hole and put one of my people in it, I’d have some very strange feelings inside me…even if I didn’t know their name or who they were or what they were.

Related Characters: Roelf Visagie (speaker), Simon Hanabe (speaker)
Related Symbols: Unmarked Graves
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

ROELF: I was thinking about those pondoks in the bush…and I was thinking…she lived in one of those pondoks…Ja! That was what Red Doek called home. A young woman, a mother, with her baby! You get it? That is fucking hopeless, man. Think about it. Wouldn’t you also want to go stand on a railway line and wait for the next train if that is all life has to offer you and your baby? And then to make it worse…that is still not the end…Because the big happy ending is that Nobody Wants Her!...Nobody came to claim her! Nobody wants her! And when we start looking…even we can’t find her.

Related Characters: Roelf Visagie (speaker), Red Doek (The Woman), Simon Hanabe
Related Symbols: Unmarked Graves
Page Number: 34-35
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 5 Quotes

ROELF: Sometimes I think…that for me you will forever just be Red Doek standing there on the tracks, and that for you I will forever just be a white man staring at you in the few seconds before you die. But…it can’t be as simple as that!...You see, I don’t really know what your story is––who you are, where you come from, what’s your name…But now, thanks to all I’ve seen and heard in the past few weeks…I got some sort of idea, some sort of feeling about your world. You see, Red Doek, most of us white people got no idea about what it’s like because our world is so different! We always think we know––like Lorraine my wife––she thinks she knows everything about you people…and I did as well…but the truth is we don’t.

Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

ROELF: I don’t know what it is like to live without hope, to give up. Because you did, didn’t you? That is why you did what you did because you didn’t believe anymore that good things was going to happen to you and your baby. I’m thinking about it all the time now, trying to imagine what it was like for you.

Related Characters: Roelf Visagie (speaker), Red Doek (The Woman)
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene 6 Quotes

SIMON: Roofie! There is bread and apricot jam….A little sweetness is good.

ROELF: The best is golden syrup on fresh white bread when it is still nice and warm. You ever had that?

SIMON: Never.

ROELF: You must try it some time. Lyle's Golden Syrup. When I was a little boy and we didn't have jam or syrup my ma used to sprinkle white sugar on my bread.

SIMON: When I was young there by Hluleka, me and my father, we used to look for wild honey in the bush. It’s also nice.

Related Characters: Simon Hanabe (speaker), Roelf Visagie (speaker)
Related Symbols: Loaves of Bread
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

ROELF: I don't know what it means when I say she is mine, but I know she is because I feel that way inside my heart and so I claimed her. Nobody else wanted her Simon…I do, and that's the end of it.
And I will also tell you that I know when that happened…when she became mine like nothing else in my life has ever really been mine before…it was when we looked into each other's eyes in the few seconds before she and her baby died…underneath me. And you want to know something else, Simon? Maybe it was like that for her also. Ja! Have you thought about that? That I was the last human being she saw. There was no hatred in her eyes, you know, Simon, no anger...just me...she saw me.

Related Characters: Roelf Visagie (speaker), Red Doek (The Woman), Simon Hanabe
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis: