Psychodynamic perspectives on the master-servant relationship and its representation in the work of Doris Lessing, Es'kia Mphahlele and Nadine Gordimer

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

The master-servant relationship in South Africa is examined in the light of Melanie Klein's psychodynamic-theories. It is argued that mechanisms of defense identified by Klein, primarily denial, splitting and projection, as well as depressive guilt, operate in the master-servant relationship in this country. The first chapter clarifies the theoretical approach to i) the individual and society, ii) literature and social analysis and iii) psychoanalysis and literature. It is argued that individuals are at one and the same time both public and private entities, made by and making the society they live in. The notion that group behaviour is individual behaviour writ large is rejected and the way in which the master-servant relationship is used as a microcosm of the larger relationship between black and white in South Africa is explained. It is also argued that literature, not bound to specifics of time and place in the way statistics are, yet still rooted in the looser flow of everyday life as experienced by individuals, provides the social analyst with special access to the dynamics of a society. The value of a psychoanalytic approach to literature lies in the light psychoanalysis sheds on the function of metaphor, particularly the metaphor of the human body, and phantasy. In the explication of Klein's theories, the importance of phantasy, both on an individual and a collective level, is stressed. The way in which denial, projection, splitting and guilt operate in South African society is then examined with illustrations drawn from various sources, such as the media and the statements of politicians, but primarily from the fiction of Doris Lessing, Es'kia Mphahlele and Nadine Gordimer. Furthermore, it is pointed out how patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism can be interpreted in the light of the dynamics proposed by Klein; it is argued that South Africa is a patriarchal, capitalist and colonial society and the effects that this has on the writing of Lessing, Mphahlele and Gordimer are examined. A framework for a reading of Lessing, Mphahlele and Gordimer is then established. Colonial literature, and the literary device of irony are examined. Links are drawn between irony, the metaphor of the body, the rejection of the notion of the purely private individual, and the functioning of denial, splitting and projection. In the subsequent three chapters, each devoted to a single writer, the theme of failures in recognition is carried through. Each writer is studied to emphasize different aspects of the arguments that have been developed in the preceding chapters. The tensions of patriarchy and colonialism are most clearly seen in the work of Lessing. Gordimer subverts the popularly-accepted division between public and private and provides a historical perspective on the master-servant relationship. Mphahlele, like Gordimer, gives us many examples of how a self is fractured and warped in the domination and subordination that obtains in the domestic scene. Like Gordimer, he uses irony a great deal to make his point. These three writers from divergent backgrounds resort to similar techniques and metaphors to express a similar vision. This study interprets the link between the individual and society, and between a society and its literature in terms of a psychodynamic theory. The struggle for a sense of wholeness is an individual and a collective enterprise. The struggle for a South African literature is the struggle for a South African identity.

Bibliography: pages 206-219.