Waiting for the Barbarians


J. M. Coetzee

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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.
Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age Theme Icon

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, for he perceives the girl to be entirely alien, something he can’t assimilate to the logic of his own sexual desire. Unable to reconcile the elusiveness of the barbarian girl’s sexuality with his own, the magistrate’s sexuality is therefore made incomplete in a way he’s never experienced.

The magistrate eventually concludes—a good while after he’s returned the barbarian girl to her people—that the main reason why he could never fully connect with and understand the girl is that he was trying to uncover a part of her that was lost after Joll tortured her: the way her body looked, and the way her mind viewed the world, before. Faced with the bleak cruelty of the girl’s scarred body, the magistrate is obsessed with recovering something he cannot get—the pure, untold history of the girl’s past. The girl has changed, and therefore so has the way she identifies/does not identify with the formative years of her past.

Doubtful about his sexuality as a whole, the magistrate also sometimes finds the degree to which he fantasizes about and desires sex to be reprehensible for his age. He has a very active sexual life, and his imagination frequently revolves around thinking about sex. For instance, he has a recurring dream throughout the novel where he strives towards the mysterious figure of a girl (sometimes the barbarian girl) and longs to capture her in his embrace—that is, to assimilate her to his own sexual identity and understanding, to make her mysteriousness more coherent. But despite its active nature, the magistrate’s sexual imagination is also full of doubt. He wonders what the barbarian girl could possibly see in his old, husky body, and finds consolation in the fact that she probably can’t make out its contours since she’s nearly blind.

Further, sometime after he’s begun seeing the barbarian girl intimately, the magistrate resumes seeing a girl at the inn (perhaps a prostitute) who was his mistress before he became acquainted with the barbarian girl. Relieved to be with a sexual companion who reacts to him in ways he understands and finds enjoyable, the magistrate enjoys an escape from the indecipherable detachedness of the barbarian girl. Even though the magistrate knows that the girl at the inn is probably just pretending to be exceptionally pleased and enthusiastic when she sees him, he prefers her artificial performance to the blunt, less censored, and seemingly alien reactions of the barbarian girl. This suggests that the distance between him and the barbarian girl leaves him with a gap, with an opening he can’t close by uniting his body with hers, and which he feels impelled to fill with thoughts and explanations.

The magistrate’s sexuality is therefore challenged: he realizes that his own sexual drives elude him, that he can’t quite define them, since they’ve mysteriously propelled him towards someone he simply cannot understand his attraction for. The novel thus uses the magistrate’s sexuality as a venue to express how the exotification or alienation characteristic of the Empire’s treatment of the barbarians can take place on subtle, psychological levels—on levels seemingly less concrete than, and removed from, those of military action and political commerce. Coetzee also seems to explore the magistrate’s sexual life partly as a way of portraying the psychology of an older man when it comes to thinking about his sexual identity.

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Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age ThemeTracker

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Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age Quotes in Waiting for the Barbarians

Below you will find the important quotes in Waiting for the Barbarians related to the theme of Sexuality, Anxiety, and Old Age.
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:

“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:

“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:

“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:

“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
Page Number: 63-4
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

“ . . . it has not escaped me that in bed in the dark the marks her torturers have left upon her, the twisted feet, the half-blind eyes, are easily forgotten. Is it then the case that it is the woman I want, that my pleasure in her is spoiled until these marks on her are erased and she is restored to herself; or is it the case (I am not stupid, let me say these things) that it is the marks on her which drew me to her but which, to my disappointment, I find, do not go deep enough? Too much or too little: is it she I want or the traces of a history her body bears?”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), The Barbarian Girl
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis: