In “Town and Country Lovers,” Gordimer sets up two dichotomies. The first is suggested in the title; there are two stories in two settings, both presenting interracial love affairs. The other dichotomy is between the men and women in the stories. The men are both members of the white ruling class, and the women are a black and a colored African living under apartheid. While the women are portrayed as fully formed characters with individual backgrounds and qualities, they represent the limitations, both social and political, placed on women at the time. These powerless figures raise a call to action on behalf of women in apartheid South Africa because, in both cases, their promise is stifled by their circumstances.
Both the cashier and Thebedi are essentially powerless in their world, which is dominated by white men. This powerlessness is evident on an intimate level and on a social level. In their relationships with white men, they are passive and obedient. When Dr. von Leinsdorf asks the cashier to do something, she does it willingly. She seems happy to clean his apartment, cook his food, make his coffee, and share his bed. Her attitude is one of willingness because she has been taught that this is how a woman treats a man with whom she is involved. The descriptions of her intimate relationship with Dr. von Leinsdorf reveal that she is available to him whenever he wants to make love. She never initiates, and when they are intimate, he makes his way into her body. She is merely a passive vessel meant to serve his needs.
Thebedi also is passive and powerless in her relationship with Paulus. He initiates their romantic and sexual relationship, and he always tells her where and when to meet him. She willingly complies. She clearly has tender feelings for Paulus and trusts him because they have known each other since childhood. When it is time for her to marry someone else, however, she does not tell Paulus. She also does not tell him that she is carrying his child. Her passivity is so complete that she is unable to approach him with news that affects her life but not his. When Paulus learns about the child, Thebedi is powerless to stop him from killing the baby and surrenders her power in court by saying that she does not know what Paulus did when he was alone with the baby.
On a social level, the cashier and Thebedi are also powerless. While the men know that there are dangers in having interracial relationships, the women are aware that the consequences for them will be more severe if they are caught. They have no power in the government, and they realize that being caught means being at the mercy of those who have power. This is why the cashier is terrified when the police knock on the door, and it is why Thebedi is so careful to leave Paulus long before anyone might see her with him.
The women in “Town and Country Lovers” also lack their own identities in their society. Thebedi’s name is given, presumably because at one time, she and Paulus were playmates and therefore peers. The cashier, however, is never even given a name. She imagines what it would be like to drive around with Dr. von Leinsdorf as if she were his wife, indicating that her daydreams center on being identified with someone else rather than on building an identity for herself.
When this story was published in 1980, women’s rights were being addressed around the world. In Western countries, great strides had been made. This trend was reaching other parts of the globe although in some countries women were (and are) still denied equal rights. The difference in South Africa, however, was that oppression was both racially based and systematized in law. In such a situation, rallying for female rights was not a priority. Black and colored men were as oppressed as women.
Hierarchies exist in every culture, but apartheid made racial and gender hierarchies especially rigid. Gordimer’s unique accomplishment in “Town and Country Lovers” is her portrayal of the dilemma in which two nonwhite African women find themselves. She also depicts the dilemmas they do not even seem to recognize yet, such as their own powerlessness. Although these female characters do not know another way of life, both Gordimer and the reader do. Her portrayal of these two women represents an appeal to the reader to understand the need for female power during apartheid in South Africa.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Nadine Gordimer, Published by Gale Cengage Learning.
Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on “Town and Country Lovers,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.