E212-M J. M. Coetzee Questions

Assigned: Waiting for the Barbarians (Penguin edition; see below).

Waiting for the Barbarians

Part I (1-25)

1. In this section (1-25), the Magistrate describes his first encounter with Colonel Joll of the Third Bureau, who has come to the frontier on rumors of "barbarian" unrest. What does the Magistrate apparently think of the Colonel? What is revealed about the Colonel's understanding of his own commission and about his methods of carrying it out?

2. In this section (1-25), how does the Magistrate progressively unveil a sense of his own complicity in the authoritarian order that Colonel Joll represents more aggressively than he? How does the Magistrate differentiate himself from Joll and others like him?

Part II (25-56)

3. Succinctly trace the relationship that develops in this section between the maimed "barbarian" woman whom the Magistrate meets after she is left behind in town: what draws him to her, in what ways does his desire for her manifest itself, and why is his relationship with her so disturbing to him?

4. A parallel event in this section is the Magistrate's increasingly self-conscious alienation from the "civilized" order whose values and laws he is supposed to be upholding. Briefly trace this increasing awareness on the Magistrate's part: what does he say about his own people, and what problem does his outspokenness begin to create for him?

5. The Magistrate's dreams influence him powerfully; discuss what you consider to be the function of the odd dreams he describes in this section. What can we learn from them? Choose one or two specific dream narratives or images and respond.

Part III (57-76)

6. The Magistrate ventures north on a supposed embassy that turns out to be a successful attempt to return his "barbarian" friend to her people. What changes take place in the Magistrate's feelings for her and in his outlook generally (how he regards the barbarians and his own role as a civilized official, etc.)? What factors seem to be involved in bringing about the changes?

Part IV (76-121)

7. In this section, Colonel Joll arrests the Magistrate and subjects him to interrogation and various indignities. Choose at least a few instances of this treatment and discuss Colonel Joll's methodology as an enforcer of imperial discipline and ideology: how does he break down the Magistrate's self-respect and shatter his identity and ideals? In the name of what ideals or imperatives does he do these things? (I.e. what "philosophy" seems to motivate the Colonel?)

8. In his real-time recounting (i.e. the Magistrate narrates things as they are happening to him, not from the perspective of hindsight), how does the Magistrate describe his attempts to resist what the Colonel and his enforcers do to him? To what understanding of his situation does the Magistrate come round during or towards the end of the process spanned by his imprisonment?

Part V (122-43)

9. The Magistrate begins to reassume some of his old authority in the frontier town abandoned by the Empire's baffled soldiers. What does he want towards the beginning of the chapter, and to what reflections about his former and present role and about the imperatives of imperial rule do these first comments give way?

Part VI (144-56)

10. Now settled in (if rather unofficially) as Magistrate of the much reduced settlement, what final thoughts occur to the narrator on some of the main concerns that occupied him throughout the story: his sexuality, his feelings for and treatment of the barbarian girl, his relation to the Imperial order and, finally, his attempt simply to make sense of what has happened to him and his town?

11. Now that you have finished Coetzee's novel, how do you understand the significance of its title, Waiting for the Barbarians?

Plot Summary

The Magistrate runs a frontier garrison of the Empire that is said to be threatened by nomadic barbarian hordes from the north. Near the beginning of the novel, Colonel Joll of the Third Bureau military police force arrives with a contingent of soldiers, shattering the town's peace. The Colonel's men round up alleged "barbarians" and interrogate them brutally to find out if they are planning to attack frontier settlements. One of these "barbarians," a young woman tortured, maimed, and blinded and left behind in the town, catches the Magistrate's attention, and while nursing her wounds he begins an oddly erotic but not directly sexual liason with her that takes up much of the novel's second and third of six sections. At last, the Magistrate pretends to undertake an embassy to speak with the barbarians, but then simply hands the young woman over to her people and returns to the settlement. His embassy announcement draws the suspicion of the Third Bureau, and in the fourth section, Colonel Joll, now in charge of the town, arrests him, isolates him, and subjects him to degrading punishments, culminating in an episode in which he is forced to wear a woman's smock, marched out to be hanged, and then hoisted with his arms behind his back while the villagers watch. Eventually (in the fifth section), he is released to make his way as a beggar, but as the garrison town suffers the shock of the soldiers' departure and then their decimation by a barbarian ruse, he begins to recover much of his old authority, supervising first the fishing-people on the town's outlying areas and, at last, the remnant of the entire frontier town. The novel's concluding sixth section describes the once-placid Magistrate as still confused and plagued by feelings of his complicity in the Imperial order – he reassumes some reduced semblance of his former life, and toys with writing a history of the garrison's ordeal, but realizes that he is probably the least qualified person in the town to undertake such a project.

Edition: Coetzee, J. M. Waiting for the Barbarians. New York: Penguin, 1982. ISBN 014006110X.