Ambivalence in Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians Essay

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Pages: 7

In Waiting for the Barbarians, the line that divides the so called ‘civilized’ from the ‘barbarians’ is shown as deeply ambivalent. Illustrate this with examples and discuss the larger implications of this portrayal.

J.M. Coetzee unravels the complexities behind the concepts of ‘civilised’ versus ‘barbaric’ in his book Waiting for the Barbarians. These concepts are reflective of the larger ideas of “Self” and “Other”, and are shown to be problematic in its definition. In the novel, the ever present fear of the barbarians proves to have been misdirected, misunderstood and misinterpreted as a whole. This essay looks at the physical versus mental disparity in defining the “civilised” and the “barbarians”, how these concepts are but
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Thus the irony is that the very people who claim to be civilised are really the barbaric ones, whereas the “evil” barbarians prove to be more humane in their assertion of power, and have more respect for the earth.

The ambivalence between the two concepts is further exacerbated as an absolute definition does not exist. In comparing the Fort to the barbarians in the desert, the magistrate describes it as “civilization”, but “we pause, savouring from our different positions the ironies of the word” (12). There is neither an absolute ‘barbarism’ nor an absolute ‘civilization’, but what determines these concepts is mere comparison. This mirroring of traits in each society further enhances the ambiguity of the concepts. The people living at the Fort have things like cotton, silk and silver, whereas the barbarians do not. But the people from the Empire have chariots, and dress in different clothing than those at the Fort. What then, makes the Fort, or even the Empire, “civilised”? Another civilization which is more technologically and socially advanced may exist elsewhere, thereby making the Empire barbaric in comparison to them.
This variance in perspective is most vividly illustrated in the mildly humourous scene (112) whereby the Magistrate