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Construction of Self and Other in J. M.

Waiting for the Barbarians
Seema Madhok
Designation: Assistant Professor, English
Research Scholar
Uttarakhand Technical University

Waiting for the Barbarians is a postcolonial novel and principally deals with the encounter with
the other that is the encounter between the European settlers and the indigenous colonized
people. It brings out the difference between the dominant culture of the colonist and the native
culture. The paper examines how the marginalized groups are often treated as others and how
the imperialists indulge in the process of constructing others in order to create a positive
identity of self. It reflects the effect of colonial oppression on both the oppressed and the
oppressor and the colonizers dependence on the other for their existence. The barbarian girl is
the other both as a barbarian and as a woman. The Magistrate endeavors to assuage himself of
colonial guilt and reach a greater understanding of self through his attempts at constructing the
girls (others) identity. The paper studies how the construction of the other is fundamental to
the construction of self.
The paper also inspects the use of the female aesthetics as a means to represent the position of
women and female subjectivity. Women are also considered as others in dominant patriarchal
Key words: self, other, female aesthetics
Abbreviations used:
WB Waiting for the Barbarians
HC In the Heart of the Country 542

The title of Coetzees third novel Waiting for the Barbarians is taken from the poem of
the same name by the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy, which offers an expectancy of the end of
colonization, which does not happen. The poem portrays the decaying Roman Empire waiting
for the barbarians to take over the control of the government. The barbarians here are seen as a
kind of solution. A premise of Empire is that it is bound to go under and forfeit the conquered
lands back to the natives or barbarians in this novel. The wait is for the fulfillment of this
imperialist prophecy which is justified by the presence of preconceived Other. The Empire is in a
sense dependent upon the other, here the barbarians to strengthen national feeling of the state
(Canepari-Labib 153).
Most critics like Saunders, Durrant and Canepari-Labib have read the novel as an
allegory of the Apartheid regime in South Africa dealing with the issues of torture and
oppression and have reflected on how the language of the novel reflects the language of
Apartheid regime oppression. The parallels however are not clearly defined as the novel has been
set in unspecific time and place. It is an allegory of imperialism, an extension of colonialism,
though the novel can be seen as having its roots in contemporary South African concerns.
The narrator of the novel is the long time magistrate of an unspecified settlement who condemns
the Empire, through a painful and ambivalent process of self-evolution and self-questioning. He
unravels his own complicity with the Empires functioning and the true nature of imperialism.
To address the central issues of the novel, it is important to understand what the term
other connotes. Saunders describes the foreigner as one who speaks a different language
(216). In Waiting for the Barbarians, the magistrate expresses anguish when the captives of
Colonel Joll were not the barbarians he ventures out to find: Did no one tell him the difference
between fishermen with nets and wild nomad horsemen with bows? Did no one tell him they
dont even speak the same language? (WB 19). This is the evidence of the existence of diversity
of others and Joll, unaware of the geography of the frontier settlement, sees no difference
between them; prisoners are prisoners. Here, Saunders associates foreignness with space. She
argues: the foreign is always relative to the inside, the domestic, the familiar, a boundary. No 543
entity is inherently foreign; she who is a foreigner in one place is at home in another no one
escapes being foreign Foreignness, moreover, can be a status that one assumes (as does the
traveler) that is imposed on one (as under apartheid) or that exists somewhere on the spectrum
between these positions (218).
Foreignness thus emphasizes an idea of difference, or the isolation of the oppressor and
the oppressed from each other. Saunders also suggests that foreignness is controlled by context,
due to which, Joll and his men from the capital, with little knowledge of customs and life of the
settlement, are considered as insiders, while the barbarians, the natives of the settlement, closely
bound with the geography of the place are termed as enemies. Thus, Joll, a representative of
colonial power and oppression, writes the barbarians as others or enemies. His own
foreignness is emphasized in the novel when the magistrate tells Joll, while leaving on separate
missions into the barbarians territory: The barbarians you are chasing will smell you coming
and vanish into the desert while you are still a days march away. They have lived here all their
lives, they know the land. You and I are strangers you even more than I (WB 12, emphasis
Saunders further argues that foreignness is considered as something that lacks identity and is
placed outside of proper meaning (219). The problem of meaning is an important issue in the
novel, reflected in the magistrates interaction with the barbarian girl.
With foreignness is associated the themes of isolation and invasion. Foreignness is
evident in all acts of invasion as it enforces the idea of difference/separation and isolates the
oppressor from the oppressed. The Magistrate feels isolated from understanding in the case of
the Barbarian girl, when he is unable to decipher/understand the language she speaks with her
people. Ironically, to understand her language, he would have to resort to invading her and force
her to speak.
Coetzees Waiting for the Barbarians is directly placed into a post-colonial discourse of
power, of constructing notion of Othering, and of belonging and non-belonging. Gallagher
contends that the nation achieves strength, unity and identity by creating notions of the other,
the enemy at the gate (132). Joll and Mandel, the representatives of Empire seek to achieve the 544
same. However, as Homi Bhabha points out this coming together in common hatred, inevitably
leads to loss of identity as it happened in the case of the Magistrate.
Ania Loomba asserts that the creation of the other is crucial not only for creating images
of the outsider but equally essential for constructing the insider, the (usually white European
male) self (104). On reflecting on Jolls and his own position in the Empire, the Magistrate
realizes that he is the lie that Empire tells itself when times are easy, [Joll], the truth that Empire
tells when harsh winds blow (WB 148). Their purposes and roles in the colonial rule may be
different but they are bound to each other with a common end. Magistrate says, one thought
alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to
prolong its era (WB 146) and he himself is no less infected with it than the faithful Colonel Joll
(ibid). The roles of Joll and the magistrate render them isolated from others. Once the realization
sets in, the magistrate turns obstinate against the identity and suffers from identity crisis. He
aspires to distance himself from the barbaric and cruel acts committed in the name of Empire,
under his jurisdiction. In a gradual process of shifting identity he can finally no longer associate
himself with the identity of Empire and his search of identity leads to his dependence on the
barbarian girls identity. Identifying with her becomes a form of escape from colonial identity.
He sets out to mend the broken body of the girl.
In post-colonial theory, the girls body symbolizes [sic.] the conquered land (Loomba,
152). However, the magistrate does not find access to her body as is reflected in his inability to
remember what it looked like. He is unable to penetrate the surface and his attempt to identify
with the colonized other fails. The theme of the inability to read and understand that which is
other and foreign is also evident in the Magistrates unsuccessful attempts to decipher the signs
on the wooden slips found on his excavation site. Coetzee in White Writing contends that the
people writing from the Cape Colony understood the Hottentos out of Eurocentric paradigm,
whereas a more comprehensive understanding would demand a departure from European ways
of looking at the world (14). Homi Bhabha has explained that the concept of both keeping the
other, other and translating them into Western understanding influences the perception of other
or as Coetzee puts it the differences are perceived and conceived within a framework of
samenesses (13). Thus the magistrate represents a typically Eurocentric anthropologist whose 545
understanding is confined by the western framework, where western values are imposed on the
other as a means of understanding.
Coetzees approach in Waiting for the Barbarians is different from those of Foe and In
the Heart of the Country which are written with a woman narrator. Waiting for the Barbarians is
narrated by the magistrate who offers no reflection on the view point of the girl. Nevertheless,
the feminine subjectivity has been adequately emphasized through the magistrates attempts to
understand the girl and unravel the secrets she is unable to communicate in the novel. The
feminine subjectivity is further emphasized in the scene where the magistrate is dressed as a
woman by his torturers to bring shame and disgrace to him. Some critics have explained this
with the idea of the novel employing female aesthetic. Rachel Blau Du Plessis asserts in her
essay For the Etruscans:
The female aesthetics turns out to be a specialized name for those practices
available to those groups- nations, sexes, subcultures, races, emergent social
practices (gays?) - which wish to criticize, to differentiate from, and to overturn
the dominant forms of knowing and understanding with which they are saturated
Therefore, the female aesthetic does not necessarily mean speaking from the position of
women but of anyone who speaks out against the dominant patriarchal society and represents the
feminine subjectivity. Thus, the process of conflicting emotions and change in values,
perpetuated through the magistrates relationship with the girl, gives the reader an idea about the
position of women and the colonial effect on the oppressor and the oppressed.
The barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians represents the oppressed, the colonized
other, relegated to the position of marginality due to her status as a barbarian as well as that of
being a woman. She is one of the barbarians interrogated by Joll. Her father died during
interrogation and her people have abandoned her. Her body bears the marks of Jolls third
degree, visible in her damaged eyesight and broken feet. The magistrate spots her on the street
and invites her to his chambers. Here, he compares himself to her torturers. He draw(s) the
curtains; light(s) the lamp. The comparison is apt as he prevents others from seeing what goes
in the chamber. The magistrate then commences his cleansing ritual of washing the girls feet. 546
Critics have repeatedly emphasized the magistrates obsession with the broken body which
represents the true nature of imperialism. According to Gallagher, the body tells its own story
and comes to represent the truth that defies the truth of Empire: the testimony of the body belies
the testimony of the word as given in the official record (119).
The magistrates search of truth here is united with Jolls search of truth; both invading
others body to find it. According to Durrant, the magistrates attempt is not to penetrate and thus
possess her but to make whole what has been smashed (ibid). Durrant emphasizes that the
narrative desire in the text is not so much for the body of the other as for the story that the
others body seems both to mark and conceal (453). However, some critics question this motive
and term it as the motive of sexual desire. The magistrate says: There are moments - I feel the
onset of one now - when the desire I feel for her, usually so obscure, flickers into a shape I can
recognize (WB 43, emphasis added). The desire in question, can only be sexual desire, with a
long string of mistresses, the magistrate had. He himself confirms this when he asks how he can
believe that a womans body [is] anything but a site of joy? (WB 48). The contention seems
more probable as the magistrate lends little value to the girl as an individual; People will say I
keep two wild animals in my rooms, a fox and a girl (WB 34).
The magistrate gets obsessed with uncovering the truth about the girls life and her
torture at the hands of Joll. He says, It has been growing more and more clear to me that until
the marks on the girls body are deciphered and understood, I cannot let go of her (WB 31).
Every night, he carries out the ritual of washing and oiling her feet, in the process assuaging his
conscience and doubts. He says, I lose myself in the rhythm of what I am doing. I lose
awareness of the girl herself. There is a space of time that is blank to me: perhaps I am not even
present. When I come to my fingers are slackened, the foot rests in the basin, my head droops
(WB 28).
The magistrates endeavors to seek himself through his understanding of the girl resulted
in objectifying her. It only perpetuates the oppression started by her torturers. Rosemary Jane
Jolly argues, that in his obsession with torture marks, the magistrate sets out on a quest of truth
involving torture ( WB127). Due to his interest in her body as a site of torture (WB ibid,
emphasis added), the magistrate attempts to read her as he would a text. Laura Wright suggests 547
that washing of the girls body is a metaphor of the magistrates endeavor to wash off his sense
of complicity with Empire.
Gradually, the realization dawns upon the magistrate that there is little difference
between him and her torturers. He says to himself, I behave in some ways like a lover - I
undress her, I bathe her, I stroke her, I sleep beside her - But I equally might tie her to a chair and
beat her, it would be no less intimate (WB 43). Girls thoughts are not revealed in the novel, but
they could easily have been the same regarding Joll and the magistrate.
He views the distance between himself and his antagonist Joll narrowing down. Wounded
bodies are viewed by both as a text to be read. The magistrate acknowledges this when he says,
Though I cringe with shame ... I must ask myself whether I was not in my heart of hearts
regretting that I could not engrave myself (on the barbarian girl) as deeply as Joll. Thus, the
magistrates sense of complicity with the empire marks a defining moment. Jane Poyner
emphasizes: The power of the novel lies in part in the magistrates realization that the
boundaries between himself and dehumanizing regime of Empire and the warped notions of
reason it promotes are disturbingly unclear (54).
A part of realization was regarding his relationship with the barbarian girl. He sees
himself as the embodiment of self interest in his relationship with her. He himself describes his
desire for the girl as questionable desires (WB 79). Jane Poyner, reflecting on the magistrates
relationship with the girl asserts that the magistrates desire for the girl is based on the lack of
reciprocity, self-interest and an irrational neglect of truth justified by the magistrates wavering
belief in his altruistic motivations for taking her in (60).
Thus, his relationship with her takes a form of oppression and exploitation of her body,
instead of being a mechanism to discover truth. He draws on it for the manifestation of his own
truth, and to rinse out his own guilt. An interesting observation here is the magistrates feeling of
bondage or of being enslaved to the barbarian girl, which strongly relates to his dependence on
the girls body for sleep, to lose himself in the rhythm of washing and caressing her and be able
to sleep, losing the concept of space and time. Sleep, for the magistrate is sort of a remedy to
escape from the knowledge of actions committed in the name of Empire: Terrible things go on
in the night while you and I sleep? ... The world rolls on (WB 24). He seeks exemption from the 548
responsibility which comes with this knowledge, a kind of salvation. He admits this when he is
arrested: What has become important is that I should neither be contaminated by the atrocity
that is about to be committed nor poison myself with impotent hatred for its perpetrators. I
cannot save the prisoners, therefore let me save myself (WB 114).
However, the Barbarian girls body represents a closed aperture, which the magistrate
desires to invade, but finds no way of entering, becoming inaccessible to the magistrate in his
helplessness to remember what it looked like because he cannot find a means to pierce through
the surface. Incapable of looking into her, she remains a reminder of his failure and impotence.
Thus, his attempts to identify with the colonized other fail. While in embrace with one of the
towns prostitutes, his thoughts revisit the barbarian girl: The body of the other one, closed,
ponderous, sleeping in my bed in a faraway room, seems beyond comprehension ... I cannot
imagine what ever drew me to the alien body/ without aperture, without entry (WB 45).
The magistrate, frustrated at getting nowhere with the girl, surmises, I am like an
incompetent school-master, fishing about with my majestic forceps when I ought to be filling her
with the truth (WB 44).
What Coetzee emphasizes here is the idea of foreignness or otherness and the
magistrates desire to invade her. The magistrate imagines: she cannot but feel my gaze
pressing upon her with the weight of a body (WB 60). The conception of entry and invasion
found here, echoes in In the Heart of the Country after Magdas rape by Hendrik: A body lies
on top of a body pushing and pushing, trying to find a way in./ what is this man trying to find
in me? What deeper invasion and possession does he plot in his sleep? (HC 117)
The barbarian girl in Waiting for the Barbarians comes to represent the other in order to
understand the approach which perceives difference as having no subjectivity. Through her,
Coetzee reasserts that the other is pushed to the margins and has their identity imposed on them.
The Barbarian girl remains the other in the imperial system because of her barbarian status. This
otherness is further carried to her body, deformed and scarred as the result of the torture by
The notion of resistance through silence is once again established in the case of barbarian
girl. She passively accepts the magistrates ritualistic bathing and oiling, thus rendering herself 549
as a resisting, unreadable text. The figure of silent other and the tension between the silent-
other and someone who wishes to compel this person to speak is often found in Coetzees
fiction. Homi Bhabha explains the silent other as
silent other of gesture and failed speech the stranger, whose language-less
presence evokes an archaic anxiety and aggressivity by impeding the search for
narcissistic love-objects in which the subject can rediscover himself(166).
In Waiting for the Barbarians, the barbarian girl represents the narcissistic love-object
who the magistrate desires to identify with in his endeavor towards understanding of self. Thus,
the girl becomes susceptible to invasion and having an identity imposed on her. The act can be
compared with the act of torture, where the torturer endeavors to make the victim speak the
truth. The magistrates referring to his relationship to the girl, explains to the cook that torturers
thrive on stubborn silence: it confirms to them that every soul is a lock they must patiently
pick (WB 141).
It has been extensively discussed, that the girls otherness is what fascinates the
magistrate. He is unable to recall her face before the torture and all his endeavors to visualize her
face go futile. He says,
I cast my mind back, trying to recover an image of her as she was before I
know that my gaze has passed over her when together with others (). My eyes
passed over her; but I have no memory of that passage. On that day she was still
unmarked, but I must believe she was unmarked as I must believe she was once a
child (). Strain as I will my first image remains of the kneeling beggar-girl (WB
The importance of this visualization is infested in his recognition of her as human, and as
innocent, as child, which in turn would exonerate the magistrate from the shame of being a
participant in the crime of seeing the other as less than human and closing his eyes to the
interrogations in the granary. However, in his inability to imagine her face, the magistrate,
refuses to recognize her as human. Justifying this in the context of the torture she has undergone,
magistrate reflects. 550
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 ... will be touched with the contagion and turned into
a creature that believes in nothing (WB 88-89).
The connection between the magistrates ability to recognize her as human and his
inability to remember her face has been emphasized through the series of dreams which torment
the magistrate, in which he struggles to understand his ambivalent relationship with her. They, in
fact, only highlight the failure of reciprocity in their relationship. He first dreams: She sits in the
snow with her hooded back to me working at the door of her castle, her legs splayed, burrowing,
patting and moulding. I stand behind her and watch. She does not turn. I try to imagine the face
between the petals of her peaked hood but cannot (WB 10). Another time the dream comes
back, he says; the face I see is blank, fearless (WB 37). The final dream in which he comes
close to seeing her, he describes: For an instant I have a vision of her face, the face of a child,
glowing, healthy, and smiling on me without alarm (WB 149). There seems to be a progression
of dreams which thrusts the magistrate towards a greater awareness of the girls subjectivity and
individuality. His initial failure to see her face was due to his concern with the girls body as a
tortured object. Her disfigurement blurs his vision of her original face. Increased consciousness
of her as a woman with subjectivity of her own enables him to imagine her as she was before she
was disfigured.
The realization of the girl being a distinct individual drives the magistrate to undertake
the journey to return her to her people. This would free her from the clutches of imperialism and
she would be happier in familiar surroundings and among her own kind. As a consequence, he
would free himself from the sense of shame and guilt he is ridden with. Through this act, he
attempts to restore order to his life, unaware of the ordeal that awaited him on his return to the
Interestingly, during the journey, the magistrate gains a different perspective of the girl.
She reflects her personality traits, once she moves out of the imperial domain into the familiar
lands. He says, he is surprised by her fluency, her quickness, her self-possession.. I even 551
catch myself in a flush of pride: she is not just the old mans slut, she is a witty, attractive young
woman!(WB 63)
His failure to recognize the girl as a witty, attractive young woman until a few days
before he returned her to her people re-emphasizes the theme of otherness depicted in the novel.
He admits to himself that he oppressed her with gloom with his obsessive cleaning ritual.
However, even during such intimate act, the two remained isolated from each other, one
sleeping, indifferent while the other is lost in the act to enter oblivion. It can be seen as an
exploitative act as his self-centered caresses offer no satisfaction or release to the barbarian girl.
His colonial mindset refused to accept that he made the girl extremely unhappy and was
filled with surprise on the girls refusal to return with him. Preoccupied with his own colonial
dilemmas, he is unable to understand what and how she thinks, There is a whole side to the
story you dont know, that she could not have told you because she did not know it herself (WB
166-167). It is only towards the end of the novel that he realizes that all his ways to recompense
her pain and suffering only led to further desolation. He concedes, I wanted to do what was
right, I wanted to make reparation: I will not deny this decent impulse, however mixed with more
questionable motives: there must always be a place for penance and reparation (WB 152).
On his return, after delivering the girl to her people, the magistrate is branded as traitor
and subjected to torture. This time, however, the Empire writes him as an ally of the barbarians
and thus as other. Joll ridicules him for his desire to don the mantle of the One Just Man and
imposes an identity on him based on how others see him: to people in this town you are not the
One Just Man, you are simply a clown, a madman. You are dirty, you stink, and they can smell
you a mile away. You look like an old beggar man, a refuse scavenger (WB 124).
As a torture to humiliate the Magistrate and to break all the power he has, Colonel Joll
equates him with a woman by hanging him in a tree with womans clothes and makes a spectacle
of him in front of town people. This torture technique has importance in the way of
representation of victimization of woman in society. It clearly depicts the passive and silenced
position of woman with no access to authority in society.
As an officer of the Empire, the magistrate has an authority in terms of Lacan
rationalization of subjectivity. He belongs to the law of father. Turned to other, he loses 552
authority, moreover, subjectivity. He is excluded from the symbolic order in the same way as
women in a patriarchal society are left with no subjectivity and treated as the object of pleasure
and desire in a world addressing to man. The magistrate therefore fits Du Plessis definition of
female aesthetic as the one who takes up the position in opposition of the patriarchal norms and
structures. This position is further emphasized through the magistrate being dressed by Colonel
Joll as woman.
Dressed only in the smock, which reaches halfway down his thighs, the magistrate is
turned into the object of the voyeuristic gaze of the people in the fashion of women in patriarchal
society. Moreover, the magistrates head and face have been veiled by a bag which is symbolic
of blind position as it renders him incapable of returning the gaze of people who have placed him
in object position. The representation reiterates the blindness of the barbarian girl who could not
return the gaze of the magistrate, while in his chamber. Feminist film critics say that in society
woman is deprived of a gaze, deprived of subjectivity and repeatedly transformed into the
object of masculine scopophiliac desire (Do ane 1987:2).
The symbol employed here, is that of silence of woman in patriarchal society, her
exclusion from the domain of language. According to Lacan, the symbolic order is the realm of
language, the unconscious and an otherness that remain other. By symbolically castrating the
magistrate, Joll puts him in the realm of woman, as passive and silenced and thus eliminated
from the law of father and order, to complete silence. How he is silenced by Joll, who represents
the Empire and the realm of man is narrated by the magistrate in the following way:
I try to call out something, a word of blind fear, a shriek, but the rope is now so
tight that I am strangled, speechless .
I am swinging loose. The breeze lifts my smock and plays with my naked body. I
am relaxed, floating. In a womans clothes. (WB 120)
The barbarian girl is similarly not understood by the magistrate because of her otherness,
both as a barbarian and woman. He, being the part of symbolic order could not comprehend her
gestures and nuances just like he found himself incapable of rendering himself comprehensible
to others. 553
At the end, the magistrates life is restored to a state of normalcy, the way it was before
his encounter with the barbarian girl. However, he is a changed man now but he despairs over
not being able to bring desirable changes in the colonial system, of which he is a part. He
attempts to construct the story or history of the Empire but eventually becomes conscious of the
insignificance of Empire, its history and the town itself. This realization is apparent when he
compares the importance of wooden slips with his own writing of the history of the town:
I think: when one day people come searching around in the ruins, they will be
more interested in the relics from the desert than in anything I may leave behind.
And rightly so (WB 155).
In recognizing his insignificance, he further realizes that he can only ever represent
himself and tell his own story and not that of the Empire, just like Coetzee does not tell the story
of South Africa. In his endeavor to free himself of a certain discourse, the magistrate seems to be
doing something similar to Magda in writing himself out of the identity of the Colonizer.
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 (WB 104).
However, in doing so, he writes himself into the identity of the other. In the encounter
with the other, be it Colonel Joll or the barbarian girl, magistrate sees his own reflection. The
crime that is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves, the magistrate shouts to Joll through the
carriage window, suggesting the unity and a breaking down of boundaries between self/other. 554
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