I wrote this analysis adapted below for my African Literature class at Grove City College. In J. M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron, the protagonist Mrs. Curren, an elderly classics professor dying of cancer, witnesses firsthand the brutality of the apartheid in South Africa. She has been sheltered from it for so long, and although she had opposed it, she hadn’t realized the extent of the violence.
It was my favorite book in 2018.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
“There are no more mothers and fathers,” asserts the mother of a youth activist in Coetzee’s Age of Iron (39).Her stark words are a testament to the widening rift between generations, a wound that festers under the yoke of apartheid. Under Mrs. Curren’s critical eye, militant youths “become involved in the struggle for liberation,” defying authority and the allure of childhood in the process (Hoegberg 33). These “children of iron” are calloused, hardened by the crimes of the white elite and the rejection of their elders (Coetzee 50). Their parents are either absent from the scene, or fervent advocates of the violence propagated by their children. Coetzee, through the perceptions of a dying narrator, reveals that one of the most tragic outcomes of apartheid is the perversion of parent-child relationships, and demonstrates that order can only be restored through truth, freedom, and love.
These fundamental values were sacrificed for “apartness,” a rupturing of society that divided communities, families, and individuals. Apartheid is unnatural, a “distorted, debased representation of an ideal reality,” undermining the “essential humanity” of all people (Marais 2). It redefines the roles of children, arbitrarily shifting their destinies based on superficial differences. Mrs. Curren highlights the divide by describing privileged white children who are “spinning themselves tighter and tighter into their sleepy cocoons,” and black children who are “scorning childhood” (Coetzee 7). Both, she claims, are stunted, incomplete beings, deficient in empathy and wonder.
This deficiency was planted at the birth of apartheid; it was inherited and intensified by each succeeding generation. The “age of granite” brought forth an “age of iron,” a doleful inheritance dished out by those who, like Mrs. Curren, were tempted to “share” death (Coetzee 51, 6). The activists were taught to abide by this “regime of death,” and its corrupting influence serves as a barrier to intimate relationships (Coetzee 51). Parents relinquished authority to their children, a frightening and liberating prospect, and their children relished in the newfound freedom. Yet it forced both parties to deny an essential reality: that a parent’s responsibility is to raise and protect the child. Any reversal or disintegration of that system is inherently unnatural and disturbing. Florence placed blame on whites for what children had become, but the fault lies in the system of apartheid itself – by denying the humanity of all, it promotes and creates inhumanity.
Therein lies one of the greatest tragedies of apartheid; not only that it dehumanizes and desensitizes, but that its divisions grow and are deeply rooted, splitting the fabric of society until even the intimacy of a mother and child is transformed. The horror of violence escalates when the child is perpetuating it, and the parent looks on in awe. The issue, then, is not that there are no more fathers or mothers, but that the child has taken on the parent’s role as protector in a landscape of death. Treated as orphans, the children internalize their inheritance; “let my mother be death, let my father be death” they resolve, and their parents affirm it with absence or pride (49). “You wash your hands of them,” Mrs. Curren laments, utilizing biblical imagery (49). Pontius Pilate washed his hands of the crime of Jesus’ crucifixion, pleading innocence, before placing the fate of the innocent in the hands of a murderous crowd. In this way, Coetzee emphasizes the immorality of arming children with weapons and notions of freedom, and sending them into the hands of merciless adults, then claiming it is the white man’s fault for teaching children cruelty.
It may be that they learned cruelty for being subject to it, but this does not absolve the parents of their responsibility for raising the child. Florence admires her son Bheki and looks to him for confirmation when she speaks. Mrs. Curren wants to be embraced, and to be told that everything will be alright, and when things frighten her, she wants to go home. It is not simply that children are acting as adults, but that adults are acting as children. The children must become adults to survive in a war zone, but they cannot look to their parents as models for adulthood. Thus, they behave in the way they believe adults should – hating laziness, laughter and all that is associated with childhood. At an age where learning and growth should occur, they are faced with trauma and desensitization that leads to a need for comradeship and causes them to develop sadistic tendencies. Coetzee further emphasizes the enormity of the issue – that this hardness will be passed on, that this corruption of the parent-child relationship will propagate even when apartheid is abolished. “How will they treat their own children?” Mrs. Curren wonders, and the question lingers (50).
Coetzee’s dismal outlook is not without hope, however. The divisions caused by the apartheid can be healed, and the natural hierarchy of parent and child disrupted by this system can be restored. By demonstrating how the tragedy of changing roles occurred, he creates a trail that can be reversed. If ignorance allowed overt racism and violence to flourish, then truth and transparency will place these evils under scrutiny. If oppression weakened society, freedom will strengthen it. If cruelty hardened hearts, then love can soften them again. Mrs. Curren’s search for redemption demonstrates the effectiveness of adopting these values for changing hearts and minds.
For example, when Mrs. Curren witnesses the burning of a town while aiding Florence, the misconceptions projected by the government shrivel, and she wants to retreat in the light of truth. Yet the episode is “depicted as a liberation of sorts,” akin to the experience of man in Plato’s parable of the cave, who is pulled from staring at shadows and thrust into the real world (Marais 7). In a time when the media and literature is censored, direct experience is the only method of discovering truth. The institution of apartheid depends on lies and ignorance, and once they are dispelled, it must fall. Once the separate communities begin to interact, truth reigns and freedom follows.
Freedom, in this case, does not mean the right to do whatever one desires. Instead, it is a recognition of inalienable human rights and escape from the stupefying effect of the government’s propaganda. It is also the freedom to “recover selfhood,” to have an identity separate from that prescribed by the apartheid system; it is the right of children and parents to assume their proper roles again (Marais 7). This has been proven by the remarkable success of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to provide “empirical evidence” of the human rights violations and detailing the events that occurred over the apartheid (Gibson 82).
Yet Coetzee acknowledges, in particular, love’s power to heal and strengthen. Mrs. Curren’s lack of love toward John translates to incomplete love of her daughter. There is a falseness to conditional love that lies at the root of the tragedies the “parentless” generation has suffered. Her behavior when the police come to kill John reflects the reestablishment of maternal love, and places the activist back into the position of a child. She aches “to embrace him, to protect him,” and warns the police not to harm him, delaying them for as long as possible. At that point, it does not matter than she is “old, female, white and liberal” and that he is “young, male, black and radical” (Yeoh 113). To her, he is not a means to an end; instead, she is concerned with his welfare. Love, mingled with truth and the freedom derived from it, have restored the roles of adult and child, forming an example of how the racism and cruelty of apartheid can be overcome.
Coetzee’s Age of Iron seeks to reveal truth, advocate for freedom, and demonstrate the restorative power of love. Significantly, by placing the perversion and later restoration of the parent-child relationship at the center of his novel, he acknowledges it is the foundation of civilization. Coetzee emphasized coming to truth through direct experience, but also supported the use of literature to connect and unify humanity. His works demonstrate that experience and literature combined can unravel the “sleepy cocoons” of ignorance and bring about lasting change (Coetzee 7).
- Coetzee, J. M. Age of Iron. Penguin Books Ltd., 1998.
- Gibson, James L. “Overcoming Apartheid: Can Truth Reconcile a Divided Nation?” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 603, Jan. 2006, pp. 82-110. JSTOR, doi:www.jstor.org/stable/25097758.
- Hoegberg, David E. “‘Where is Hope?”: Coetzee’s Rewriting of Dante in ‘Age of Iron.’” English in Africa, vol. 25, no. 1, May 1998, pp. 27-42. JSTOR, doi:www.jstor.org/stable/40238855.
- Marais, Michael. “‘Who Clipped the Hollyhocks?”: J. M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron and the Politics of Representation.” English in Africa, vol. 20, no. 2, Oct. 1993, pp. 1-24. JSTOR, doi:www.jstor.org/stable/40238710
- Yeoh, Gilbert. “Love and Indifference in J. M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature,vol. 38, no. 3, 1 Jul. 2003, pp. 107-134. Sage Publications, doi: doi.org/10.1177/00219894030383007.
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