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State of the Empire: Thoughts on Waiting for the Barbarians

(Via Goodreads)

Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)

By J.M. Coetzee

Waiting for the Barbarians is another novel I read during the semester. To be honest, I personally don’t like it. However, I can see why J.M. Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His excellent writing style and his insights and creative ways of grasping serious themes such as colonization, power, the gap between social classes and gender are things that deserve praise.

In this novel, the Magistrate is the head authority of a fictional colony of the Empire. The Magistrate spends most of his time lounging around the colony until he witnesses the suffering of various Barbarian people especially this one Barbarian girl that he takes in and cares for. After learning about the pain of the Barbarian girl that the Magistrate’s people have committed, he starts to question his own morals and social values.

The story is told in first person narration using the perspective of the Magistrate. Through the Magistrate, readers get a better grasp on his struggle acting as an authoritative figure. The Magistrate desires to help the Barbarian people, but he also he must show loyalty to the Empire. However, he goes against the Empire by reuniting the Barbarian girl with her people which resulted in him being labeled as a traitor. Yet by becoming a traitor, the Magistrate obtains a well-rounded perspective on what it is like being the colonizer and the one colonized. With this knowledge, the Magistrate could rebuild the Empire and stop the hatred and fear against the Barbarian people, but sadly he doesn’t. In fact, at the end of the novel, the Magistrate doesn’t really do much to calm his people’s paranoia over the possibility of a Barbarian invasion nor does he make a conscious effort to rebuild his town after the soldiers abandoned them. By not acting, it invites readers to feel frustrated at the Magistrate because he is in the position of power and could possibly do something to fix certain problems in his community. Yet by doing nothing, it seems that the Magistrate is accepting things as they are as oppose to being the factor of change.

Waiting for the Barbarians is an allegorical tale that’s still relevant in today’s society due to its themes of social class and oppression. If you were to apply this novel in today’s society, one can see the comparison of existing individuals that are entitled and are in authoritative positions (like the Magistrate) who use that power to oppress the minority and the marginalized (like the Barbarians). These marginalize groups include people of color, women, LGBT & queer, and immigrants.


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