Waiting for the Barbarians


J. M. Coetzee

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Waiting for the Barbarians Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on J. M. Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of J. M. Coetzee

Coetzee’s youth was spent mostly in Cape Town and Worcester, where he moved (at the age of eight) with his family. He attended the University of Cape Town, where he received bachelor degrees in both English and Mathematics. In 1962, Coetzee moved to London, where he worked for IBM as a computer programmer and gained a master’s degree from the University of Cape Town for a thesis on the author Ford Madox Ford. Then, on a Fulbright scholarship, Coetzee went to the University of Texas at Austin in 1965, gaining his PhD in 1969 for a thesis on Samuel Beckett using computerized stylistic analysis. While Coetzee aspired to become a permanent resident of the United States, his participation in anti-Vietnam-War protests ultimately prevented this. He returned to South Africa in the early 70s, where he taught English literature at the University of Cape Town, acquiring various promotions up until his retirement in 2002, when he relocated to Australia. Coetzee has won numerous awards for his novels, including two Booker Prizes (for Life & Times of Michael K and Disgrace) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 2003). Coetzee was a vocal denouncer of apartheid in South Africa.
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Historical Context of Waiting for the Barbarians

In 1976, five years before Waiting for the Barbarians was published, the Soweto Uprising occurred, marking a turning point in the history of South Africa and the anti-apartheid movement. During the Soweto Uprising, approximately fifteen-to-twenty thousand school children in the South-West Townships of South Africa (one region, among others in South Africa, where blacks were forcibly relocated by the South African government controlled by the apartheid-enforcing National Party) marched in protest of an educational policy mandating the use of Afrikaans (the language of the Dutch settlers in South Africa) in such regions of black segregation. The policy was problematic for a number of reasons, but especially for the difficulty it posed for the students’ learning—the language was not commonly known by both students and teachers. While the protest began peacefully, police eventually opened fire on the students. At least 176 died the week after the riot, and, in the weeks that followed, protests occurred in 160 different black townships throughout the country. Ultimately, 14,000 students would go into exile and join a resistance movement (Umkontho we Sizwe, or “Spear of the Nation”) against the South African government. In general, the 1970s in South Africa witnessed the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement, an ideological movement spawned by anti-apartheid thinkers and activists in reaction to the racist governance of the National Party. This movement emphasized the psychological and physical liberation of black people from the rampant oppression they faced on social, political, and economic levels—but especially the social. The anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko was a prominent leader in this movement, and his death is alluded to in the novel. Arrested by the South African government in 1977, he died within eighteen days of being detained. Like Colonel Joll’s explanation for why the barbarian girl’s father died during his interrogation, an officer in charge of Biko’s arrest claimed that “there was a scuffle . . . Mr. Biko hit his head against a wall.” But it was later revealed that Biko had suffered monstrously harsh torture. More generally, the government’s fear of an “other” that it both oppresses and depicts as an existential threat as a way to assert its own control that is on display in Waiting for the Barbarians was also visible in apartheid South Africa. Waiting for the Barbarians can and should be read as dissecting the nature of such political structures, though the novel should not only be seen as such a criticism.

Other Books Related to Waiting for the Barbarians

Novels such as Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter and July’s People, André Brink’s A Dry White Season, and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country all center, in some way, around the historical development of apartheid in South Africa and/or its effects on people in South African society.
Key Facts about Waiting for the Barbarians
  • Full Title: Waiting for the Barbarians
  • When Written: The latter half of the 1970s
  • Where Written: South Africa
  • When Published: October 27, 1980
  • Literary Period: The Anti-Apartheid Movement in Literature; Postmodernism
  • Genre: Postmodern fiction, Contemporary novel
  • Setting: The novel takes place in an unnamed, fictional country that in some ways resembles real-world South Africa and in others seems as if it is from Medieval or Roman times
  • Climax: The climax arguably occurs when the magistrate, having escaped from his jail cell, disrupts Colonel Joll and his men’s public torture of four barbarian prisoners. The magistrate confronts Joll directly, in front of nearly the entire fort’s populace, and attempts to publicly accuse him of malice and inhumanity. However, he is unable to get his words out, and Joll and his goons severely beat the magistrate down, and then escort him back to his cell.
  • Antagonist: Colonel Joll
  • Point of View: First-person, from the magistrate’s point of view

Extra Credit for Waiting for the Barbarians

Greek Inspiration. J.M. Coetzee named the novel after a poem with the same title, by the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy.

Opera. The American composer Philip Glass wrote an opera based on and named after Waiting for the Barbarians.