A universal key : utopias and universals in JM Coetzee's The childhood of Jesus

Master Thesis


Permanent link to this Item
Journal Title
Link to Journal
Journal ISSN
Volume Title

University of Cape Town

In this investigation, the idea of a universal key, as denoting the unifying forces of language, will be analysed in The Childhood of Jesus using a framework inspired by the theory of forms, as described by Plato in The Republic. In The Republic, Plato structures his argument so that the soul and the state are compared in a way that perceives them as parallel and reciprocal entities. In this analogy, the character of Socrates imagines the creation of a just state with the aims of illuminating the characteristics of a just individual as part of the state. In this sense, as the primary inquiry of The Republic, Socrates reasons that if justice can be imagined in the structure of the state, it will be mirrored in the individual. To discover the structure of the just state, the rules of this state must be laid out in a manner which would facilitate such justice. The task of designating these rules is chiefly left to the voice of Socrates, as he and his fellows discuss the creation of a state and its citizens ex nihilo. In the same manner, although not as overtly stated, it will be shown that JM Coetzee in The Childhood of Jesus replicates to some extent the style and structure of Plato’s The Republic. In light of these similarities, a comparison between these two works acts as the primary structural framework to this investigation. Therefore, the various aspects of Coetzee’s novel will be shown to reflect, although often in a reverse manner, the ideal notions of Plato’s great work. Furthermore, it is argued that the shared elements of style and structure in The Childhood of Jesus and The Republic attract intertextual comparisons to various traditional utopian works, such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and George Orwell’s dystopia in 1984. The aim of these comparisons is to show that Coetzee, although playing on the styles and structures of the utopian tradition in The Childhood of Jesus, does so ultimately to reject the idea of a universal key.

Includes bibliographical references.