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.
Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Theme Icon

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 inhumane and violent series of practices which fundamentally contradict the mere image of civilized culture.

Torture, in the novel, stops at no ends to achieve whatever information the interrogator—Colonel Joll—desires from the tortured. Joll mentions how his interrogation method always involves torture—how he always brings his victims to a breaking point, where the truth is supposedly revealed. The willingness to pursue such ends demonstrates not only the inhumanity of Joll’s torture, and torture at large, but also how the victim of such torture is, from the get-go, seen merely as a means to an end—as a subhuman (or an inhuman) object to which no application of pain is too great, or too immoral. The novel makes poignant and clear the evil and inhumanity involved in torture.

Shocked by the unflinching ease, and seeming joy with which Joll conducts his torture sessions, the magistrate wonders whether there’s secretly some reservoir of remorse and trauma in Joll’s mind. The magistrate wonders how both he and Mandel (who tortures the magistrate after Joll departs on his campaign) can commit gruesome acts of torture and seamlessly return to everyday life to “break bread with other men.” The magistrate wonders: mustn’t they have a ritual of cleansing or purification they perform to wash the taint of their violent deeds off their conscience, so that they can return to find joy and humor in normal human affairs, unhindered by pangs of guilt? If Joll and Mandel felt no need to perform such a ritual, it would seem as if they truly were sinister, unrepentant monsters.

Ultimately, Joll’s use of torture proves to be ineffective, even though he consistently uses it to gather information from and about the barbarians. Joll designs and comes up with his own hypotheses about what his victims know and have the capacity to reveal. Therefore, his victims suffer even when they might be innocent—when they don’t have the information imagined by Joll. Coetzee never portrays any one of the acts of torture in the novel as “successful,” or as mustering up key information about the activity of the barbarians. Even the barbarian boy whom Joll tortures with countless superficial stab wounds, and who ultimately serves as a guide for Joll’s company as they search for the barbarians, gets cast by the magistrate as an unreliable guide since he will only provide information—any information, even if false—just in order to avoid more torture.

The novel therefore demonstrates the arbitrary nature of torture-led interrogations by highlighting how the imagined information sought by Joll and company, if not initially extracted, pushes the victim of torture to the brink of desperately conceding anything desired by the torturer. Waiting for the Barbarians, staging an eye-opening encounter with the horrors of torture, fundamentally criticizes its practice from both a moral and a “practical” (in terms of efficacy) point of view.

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Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility appears in each chapter of Waiting for the Barbarians. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility Quotes in Waiting for the Barbarians

Below you will find the important quotes in Waiting for the Barbarians related to the theme of Torture, Inhumanity, and Civility.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“Looking at him I wonder how he felt the very first time: did he, invited as an apprentice to twist the pincers or turn the screw or whatever it is they do, shudder even a little to know that at that instant he was trespassing into the forbidden? I find myself wondering too whether he has a private ritual of purification, carried out behind closed doors, to enable him to return and break bread with other men.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker), Colonel Joll
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

“. . . [I]t is the knowledge of how contingent my unease is, how dependent on a baby that wails beneath my window one day and does not wail the next, that brings the worst shame to me, the greatest indifference to annihilation. I know somewhat too much; and from this knowledge, once one has been infected, there seems to be no recovering. I ought never to have taken my lantern to see what was going on in the hut by the granary. On the other hand, there was no way, once I had picked up the lantern, for me to put it down again. The knot loops in upon itself; I cannot find the end.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 23
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:

“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:
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:
Chapter 4 Quotes

“I stare all day at the empty walls, unable to believe that the imprint of all the pain and degradation they have enclosed will not materialize under an intent enough gaze; or shut my eyes, trying to attune my hearing to that infinitely faint level at which the cries of all who suffered here must still beat from wall to wall. I pray for the day when these walls will be levelled and the unquiet echoes can finally take wing; though it is hard to ignore the sound of brick being laid on brick so nearby.”

Related Characters: The Magistrate (speaker)
Page Number: 92
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.”

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: