Waiting for the Barbarians

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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Waiting for the Barbarians, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

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…

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Colonel Joll’s acts of torture represent the inhumanity and incivility in the supposedly “civilized” Empire’s mode of conduct. In this way, the torture that goes on at the magistrate’s settlement highlights the hypocrisy of the Empire’s claimed possession of civility and advanced culture in contrast to the “barbarians.” Coetzee’s novel seems to be highly invested in demonstrating this hypocrisy—that, behind the seemingly clean and moral surface of civilization, there can lurk an obscenely…

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The magistrate’s sexuality is riddled with quandaries. The barbarian girl, whom he takes in and begins an odd sexual relationship with, represents to him something that he cannot fully know—something that is alien, and which his understanding can’t penetrate. He therefore becomes unsure of himself and his own sexuality, because he cannot understand why he desires the girl. In this way, even the magistrate isn’t immune to “exoticizing” the barbarians in some respect…

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Two of the magistrate’s highest priorities in the novel are to write the true history of his settlement and to have his own history, his own recorded reputation, written truthfully. He wants to go down in history with the integrity of his action—as a defender of the barbarians against Colonel Joll’s corruption—preserved, and not erased with a narrative which, complicit in that corruption, would cast the magistrate as evil. The magistrate’s sense of…

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The magistrate displays a belief in a register of time and history beyond that of mere human events—beyond the details of human history that get recorded on a linear timeline of past-to-present-to-future. He says that, when he really contemplates the history of his settlement, he thinks that its deeper meaning lies in a greater cycle of nature, of the recycling of the seasons, and not in historical recordings of its material growth and various conquests…

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The magistrate actively pursues not only his own, independent view of justice—of what counts as a truly good and fair treatment of the nomadic people, despite his legal duty to the Empire’s military campaign—but also his own, basic approach to life. In other words, the magistrate doesn’t let his duty interfere with his own decisions about his life. While the military men around him take this to be a defect of his character, it ultimately…

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