Nadine Gordimer’s fiction is widely admired for laying bare how hierarchical structures of social power operate in everyday life. Through her character’s interactions, motivations, attitudes, and assumptions, Gordimer sketches a social landscape bounded by inequality and haunted by the active presence of injustice. In Gordimer’s South Africa, the segregation and oppression of the majority black population is an overwhelming factor in the lives of people of every racial category. Racial discrimination, written into law and carried out within social institutions, is also perpetuated within the minds of human beings and in their relationships with each other. The narrator and main character of ‘‘Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants’’ reflects and carries out the values of apartheid in her daily life in Johannesburg. But ‘‘Good Climate’’ also implicates gender, as well as age and social class, among other forces structuring power relationships in society.
On another level, power exists within and between individuals as either an oppressive or a liberating force. The brief and sinister affair between the narrator and the drifter whom she meets in the petrol station provides a revealing instance of how interpersonal power can be accumulated and wielded. While the drifter represents one model of the sources and uses of personal power, the character of Jack represents another. His competence and insightful, helpful comments to the narrator suggest that power is also a quality of inner character separate from social status.
In the story’s opening paragraphs, the narrator introduces herself by way of several statements that indicate her level of social power or status, and her perception of that status. When she says, ‘‘I’m forty-nine but I could be twenty-five except for my face and my legs,’’ she is revealing her awareness of youth and beauty as diminishing assets in her portfolio of social capital as a woman. On the other hand, the years she has worked as a garage bookkeeper bring her a certain power of seniority within her workplace. Her real source of authority at work, however, comes from being white, and therefore authorized to watch over her black co-workers. She preserves and flaunts her white privilege by referring to her black co-workers as ‘‘boys’’ even though they are grown men. In fact, one of the petrol attendants has served twentythree years, almost certainly more than the narrator has, and his conflicting claim to power is a source of tension at the garage.
The gas station’s suburban location allows the narrator to associate with what she calls ‘‘a very nice class of person.’’ These casual acquaintanceships, and the fact that Rolls-Royces and other luxury cars occasionally turn up at the pump, increase the narrator’s sense of status. In reality, she lives alone in a small, cheap flat in an old apartment building; she is formerly married with a daughter living out of the country whom she rarely sees; and her social network appears to consist of one female friend and one couple even lonelier than herself.
Perhaps because it is her only source of status on society’s totem pole, this woman does not hesitate to flex what power she possesses toward the black men at her work site. She looks down on them with remarks such as, ‘‘of course they’re like children.’’ It seems to satisfy her that they show sufficient respect to call her missus. It is her practice to send the ‘‘boys’’ to the nearby shops on personal errands, such as to buy her cigarettes. This clearly exceeds the gas jockeys’ responsibility to her, since she is not their boss, but the narrator takes such personal service for granted as part of her white privilege. She ‘‘had a dust-up’’ with Madala, the senior black employee, when he refused to act as the narrator’s servant in this manner. She tried to get him fired, but the station manager chose to keep Madala on because of his years of service. She also complained to her boss about the number of phone calls coming in for ‘‘the boss-boy, Jack.’’ Jack’s real name is Mpanza Makiwane, but the narrator will only refer to him by his ‘‘white’’ name. She reveals her racist mindset when she speaks to him about it: His disarming response to the narrator’s arrogant, condescending question reveals Jack’s dignity and diplomacy. His remark also conveys a deeper truth: Jack knows who he is, among whites as well as his own people. He knows enough to maintain a calm demeanor in the face of patronizing whites like the narrator. These qualities of character give Jack a personal power that outstrips his low social status. The narrator seems to understand that Jack falls somewhere outside the narrow boundaries of her prejudiced worldview. She admits that Jack has more sense than some whites. Even though he rarely calls her missus, she doesn’t mind because ‘‘it doesn’t sound cheeky, the way he speaks.’’ She even went to the trouble of buying brandy for him regularly when blacks were barred from purchasing alcohol—an illegal act that theoretically could have put the narrator in danger.
In contrast to Jack, the character of the drifter derives his power, and deploys it, in more unsavory ways. On first sight, the narrator describes him as ‘‘one of those men you recognize at once as the kind who moves about a lot.’’ This enigmatic first impression is heightened when the stranger tries to pay for his petrol with Rhodesian currency and gives her a fake gold watch as collateral. From this first appearance, the drifter is revealed as a person whose presence exudes a vague sense of threat, who has little respect for social norms, and who is willing to lie and manipulate to get what he wants.
Later scenes confirm these impressions. He returns to the gas station to ask for the narrator’s help finding a place to stay, even asking her to speak to a hotel proprietress on his behalf. He then invites the narrator to have a drink—not at the hotel lounge or a nearby bar, as would be customary for near-strangers, but at her flat, out of a bottle he has. The narrator agrees, either because she’s interested in the stranger or perhaps uncomfortable saying no. When the drifter enters the narrator’s home before the two have gotten to know each other, his male power comes into play in the form of an implicit threat of violence.
In fact, the man is (or has been) a mercenary soldier, paid to fight in the Congo on the side of a native leader. This is the only significant piece of information the narrator (and the reader) picks up regarding the drifter’s identity, but it is a meaningful clue. The qualities associated with mercenaries—willingness to resort to violence, and loyalty to no cause save oneself—are consistent with the character he displays. She learns little else about him: he tells her he has come to Johannesburg ‘‘on business,’’ but never elaborates. He says people owe him money, but not who or why. It seems likely that he even lies to her about his age. The sense of mystery enshrouding the character is key to the dangerous power he acquires over her.
It is not long before the drifter is preying on her weakness to manipulate her in more consequential ways. It is unclear whether there is a genuine sexual attraction between the two of them; Gordimer’s language is very discreet in that regard. What is clear is that he spends the night at her flat, and in the morning says to her, ‘‘Leave me the key. I might as well use the place while you’re out all day.’’ The drifter then admits that he left her friend’s hotel without paying. The narrator’s actions at this point amount to forfeiting her power in the relationship. By letting him stay, she is allowing him to move in with her indefinitely; by failing to confront him about his hotel bill, she ends up feeling obligated to pay it for him, to salvage her own honor with her friend the proprietress. Her reasons are uncertain, but they appear to involve some combination of loneliness, lust, pity, and passivity.
Whatever her motive, the result is that she is powerless to keep him from having his way. Even after she begins to feel afraid, she still gives him the benefit of the doubt, and cannot bring herself to lock him out: ‘‘what was there to be afraid of? He was such a clean, good-looking fellow standing there; and anybody can be down on his luck.’’ Only when she figures out that he has lied about his age does her situation finally become clear to her. The narrator now realizes the malevolence of the drifter’s predatory male power and perceives even his charms in a new light: ‘‘he could be nice if he wanted to, it was like a trick that he could do, so real you couldn’t believe it when it stopped just like that.’’ However, understanding her plight does not make her any more able to extricate herself from it.
Unable or unwilling to seek help from her few white friends, her only resource—although she does not recognize him as such—is Jack. The narrator’s racism and sense of pride keep her from admitting to herself that she is confiding in her co-worker, but in reality she has revealed enough to Jack for him to glean the situation. Furthermore, he accurately judges the drifter from the start. But even in the depths of her crisis, the narrator is so reluctant to rely on a black person for advice that she tries to compensate by asserting her power. She sends him on an errand ‘‘just to show him that he mustn’t get too free with a white person.’’ Jack then displays his sensitivity once again, asking with genuine concern, ‘‘Why don’t you live there in Rhodesia with your daughter? The child must look after the mother. Why must you stay here alone in this town?’’ Jack’s astute and caring question seems to temporarily upset the narrator’s racist belief structure; she says, ‘‘They’ve got more feeling than whites sometimes, that’s the truth.’’ While she doesn’t answer the question, she responds by giving him her address, to check on her in case she fails to appear for work. Later, back at home in dread of the drifter’s reappearance, she takes comfort thinking that Jack will send someone around if she should disappear. Jack’s small act of friendship has empowered her to take the first step out of her isolation. He subsequently helps her much more decisively: the crafty lie he tells the drifter protects the narrator more effectively than she has been able to protect herself.
Ultimately, however, Jack’s good deeds are not enough to break through the shell of the narrator’s racism. Even though he may have saved her life, she cannot help treating him with condescension, snickering that ‘‘he fancies himself quite the educated man’’ because he reads the newspaper. She concludes, ‘‘that’s the trouble when you work alone in an office like I do, there’s no one you can speak to’’—willfully oblivious of the invisible black co-worker who has rescued her. This ironic, bittersweet conclusion is in keeping with a broader theme in Gordimer’s work: even though the problem of social injustice is enacted through everyday human interactions, the solution to injustice must take place at a broader level. Acts of kindness and solidarity represent human power in the best sense of the term, but nevertheless, the collective madness underpinning the edifice of apartheid remains intractable.
Roger K. Smith, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Nadine Gordimer, Published by Gale Group, 2010