Waiting for the Barbarians


J. M. Coetzee

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Independence, Duty, and Betrayal 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
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.
Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Theme Icon

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 proves to be a virtue.

Perhaps one of the magistrate’s boldest moves in the entire novel is the letter he writes to a governmental higher-up explicitly stating that he plans to leave his post and deliver the barbarian girl back to her people. This admission automatically sets him up for suspicion: why is he involved with a nomadic woman, and furthermore, what makes him think he has the authority to make contact with the enemy, the barbarians, without permission? Yet the magistrate prioritizes the completion of his own agenda rather than that which corresponds to the duty binding him to the Empire’s military campaign. He does not kowtow to any authoritarian dogma over-and-above his own conscience, as evidenced by his continual willingness to protest and challenge the military officers around him.

In contrast to the magistrate, those who are purportedly on the side of the Empire’s military campaign, and therefore its “othering” of the barbarians—the soldiers who are compliant with their assigned duty—are not independent in their thinking, as they follow their duty outside of their own conscience. These members of the Empire do not raise any suspicion. Unlike the magistrate’s independence from his duty, they perfectly adhere to theirs before anything else. Yet this not only causes the soldiers to commit the evil of the Empire’s racist military enterprise, it also causes them to commit evils against the Empire—to break the laws of the Empire’s order, and commit evils from the perspective of the Empire’s law itself. For example, after Colonel Joll has been out on the frontier with his expedition group for a while, the soldiers who remain back at the settlement—not kept in order by Mandel—start to pillage the very town they are supposed to watch after. They steal from shopkeepers and vandalize property—they go against their own people, the very people whom their duty tells them to protect.

Therefore, while the magistrate is independent from his duty and thus a cause for suspicion, he, in the long run, ultimately does good to his people (after he is freed from prison, he reassumes his role as leader of the settlement after Mandel and the majority of soldiers return to the capital). On the contrary, those who gave up their independence entirely in the service of their duty to the Empire ultimately snap and turn against the real people of the Empire, expressing their long-repressed autonomy through crimes against their own fellow citizens. Ironically, in the end, those who were the most obedient and the least independent merited the most suspicion. Whereas the soldiers turned against their own people, the magistrate took up a responsibility to oversee his constituents and guide their settlement. Waiting for the Barbarians seems to suggest, therefore, that too much obedience can actually inspire a destructive reaction against one’s supposed cause.

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Independence, Duty, and Betrayal Quotes in Waiting for the Barbarians

Below you will find the important quotes in Waiting for the Barbarians related to the theme of Independence, Duty, and Betrayal.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“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:
Chapter 2 Quotes

“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:

“It is I who am seducing myself, out of vanity, into these meanings and correspondences. What depravity is it that is creeping upon me? I search for secrets and answers, no matter how bizarre, like an old woman reading tea-leaves. There is nothing to link me with torturers, people who sit waiting like beetles in dark cellars. How can I believe that a bed is anything but a bed, a woman’s body anything but a site of joy? I must assert my distance from Colonel Joll! I will not suffer for his crimes!”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl, Colonel Joll
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:
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:

“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:

“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:
Chapter 5 Quotes

“To the last we will have learned nothing. In all of us, deep down, there seems to be something granite and unteachable. No one truly believes, despite the hysteria in the streets, that the world of tranquil certainties we were born into is about to be extinguished. No one can accept that an imperial army has been annihilated by men with bows and arrows and rusty old guns who live in tents and never wash and cannot read or write. And who am I to jeer at life-giving illusions? Is there any better way to pass these last days than in dreaming of a savior with a sword who will scatter the enemy hosts and forgive us the errors that have been committed by others in our name and grant us a second chance to build our earthly paradise?"

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis: