The Pet by Nadine Gordimer, 1962
The magic trick:
Making the literary device not just something for the reader but something that is part of the story for the protagonist
We’re off to South Africa today for a complicated week of stories.
The title in today’s feature points the reader toward the story’s central comparison – the role of Gradwell, a black hired servant for a white family in South Africa, isn’t all that different from that of the family’s pet bulldog.
This pairing is fairly interesting to consider, I suppose, but it’s also fairly obvious. Too obvious to stand alone for a writer of Gordimer’s abilities. It’s almost like the literary device version of when the first character in an Agatha Christie novel to fall under suspicion. Too easy. There must be more to it. And in this case, there is.
Gradwell shows almost no emotion in the story. He appears to feel even less. It’s as if the harrowing parts of his life – the separation from his family, the death of his young child – have shut down his ability to approach the world with any degree of vulnerability.
But then comes along this dog. It sparks something in Gradwell. No, it’s not a dopey story about the power of dogs to open even the most grizzled man’s heart. The dog sparks anger, maybe even hatred. It seems to spark all kinds of complicated things. It’s almost as if Gradwell is seeing the same comparison between himself and the dog that the reader was considering as a literary device.
Now that’s deep.
And that’s quite a trick on Gordimer’s part.
Gradwell vacuum-cleaned the carpets, polished the silver and shined Reg Morgan’s shoes, and changed into a white drill suit twice a day to serve lunch and dinner. He was a Nyasa with a face so black that the blackness was an inverted dazzle – you couldn’t see what he was thinking. He was deft and quiet about the dining room, and on those nights on which the Morgans went out, he sat up with the dogs to keep watch over the house.
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