A study of the development of the structures and themes in the short stories of Nadine Gordimer

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Most current studies of Gordimer concern themselves with her novels, and her short stories have not received significant critical attention as stories in their own right, worthy of study both for their structural and formal qualities, and for the contribution they make as social, political and historical comment on their time. This study begins with a general discussion of the artistic demands of the modern short story, and then proceeds to a close study of all Gordimer's published short stories, concentrating on the developments that occur in the characteristic structures and themes of her stories. Each of her collections is dealt with, chronologically, in a separate chapter. In the course of the study, it became clear that two critical approaches were needed in order to explain satisfactorily developments of structure on the one hand, and theme on the other. The basic approach has been close textual reading, which has been enhanced especially after her fifth collection by consideration of the stories' socio-historical dimensions as well. Gordimer's early stories deal with what are later seen to be characteristic themes, race and racial differences, self-deception, illusion, or the stripping away of illusions, turning points in childhood and marriage. Later stories show the developments in these thematic areas, most notably in the field of race. Other stories reveal a growing interest in the role and position of women, and also a preoccupation with betrayal. Gordimer's stories are seen as occupying a position firmly within the tradition of the modern short story. Her characteristic treatment of her material results in what this study sees as a typical Gordimer short story structure. The story starts with an introductory passage which presents the necessary background and characterisation, or sets the atmosphere. It then moves into a high focus during which a number of insights or revelations occur, which interact with each other to produce, at a higher level of abstraction, the central or unifying revelation which is the essence of the story. In these early stories, she shows a self-aware and self-regarding concern for questions of form. After Friday's Footprint, she devotes less attention to the formal qualities of stories, and gives more attention to questions of social and political comment. However, she does attempt some stories that could be labelled experimental short fiction, and she constantly explores the limits of the traditional artistic demands of the modern short story. After Not For Publication, she seems to turn her attention more towards longer works in order to find a suitable genre for her material. Her consistent use of critical realism, her special ability to capture the nuances and minutiae of experience and character are well suited to the short story form. This study shows the extent to which the short story serves as a vehicle for the expression of her perceptions of and interaction with her society as she develops from the pre-liberal to the committed radical writer and commentator on her society and its people.