Loneliness and Isolation
The narrator of ‘‘Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants’’ is a middle-aged, working-class white woman who lacks a strong social network. She complains, with some justification, that her work in the petrol station does not afford her opportunities to develop friendships. She is prevented from befriending her co-workers as a result of being the only female who works there, and also because of the racial divide separating her from the black gas attendants. ‘‘I’m quite friends with some of the people from the luxury flats round about,’’ she says, but these casual acquaintanceships are of little value to her. The female friend she goes to the movies with and the lonely couple she visits on Sundays are likewise not true friends in whom she can confide. The narrator is without close relatives as well. The only family members she mentions are her daughter, who lives out of the country, and her twin grandsons. That she has only seen her grandchildren once suggests that the narrator and her daughter are not close.
In contrast to the narrator’s social isolation, the story’s black characters appear to live among tighter social bonds. The ‘‘boys’’ at the garage are usually referred to as a group, customarily ‘‘yelling with laughter over something in their own language.’’ Early on, the narrator mentions that Jack receives many phone calls at work from ‘‘uncles and aunts and brothers-in-law.’’ The disparity in the social lives of the characters subtly underscores the notion, pervasive in Gordimer’s fiction, that white South Africans live in precarious circumstances.
Toward the end of the story, Jack asks the narrator why she does not live closer to her daughter. An unvoiced answer appears in her mind: she values her independence. However, throughout the story she mentions her loneliness and dread of ending up alone. These fears grow in magnitude once she takes up with the drifter: ‘‘Every Sunday you read in the paper about women dead alone in flats, no one discovers it for days.’’ It worries her that there is no one she can tell about the drifter’s menacing presence in her apartment. The only one with whom she discusses the drifter is Jack, although she lies to him about some of the details and communicates rather obliquely. She clearly feels uncomfortable discussing personal matters with a black man. It seems likely that in this case, her need for human connection overcomes her racial prejudices. Jack’s concern prompts her to give her co-worker her address, an initial step toward remedying her isolation. She is rewarded for reaching out to Jack when he finds a clever way to protect her from the drifter. Expressing genuine appreciation or fondness for Jack is unthinkable to her, though, and she remains an isolated figure.
Gordimer throws suspicion on the character of the drifter from his earliest appearance in the story. After he tries to pay for gas with foreign currency, he offers the narrator his watch for collateral, falsely claiming it to be gold. The narrator decides to help him for reasons that are perhaps unclear even to her, but that may center on physical attraction. On their second encounter, he enlists her help in securing a room in the New Park hotel near her home. Later, the narrator learns that he has abused her kindness, and threatened her good name, by checking out of the hotel without paying. Instead of confronting him or demanding that he right this wrong, she goes to the hotel and pays for his stay herself without telling him. This is the first clear sign that the narrator is actively participating in, or enabling, her own mistreatment.
The drifter is highly assertive in his relationship with the narrator, and she is steadfastly passive. When he first invites her to have a drink, she thinks he intends to take her to the hotel bar, a neutral location, but instead she lets him into her flat. He leaves the bottle there, which means he will have to come back. He next appears at her door during the dinner hour, and the narrator feels obliged to feed him. A week later, he shows up at the garage and drives her home. She invites him in again, and this time he spends the night, presumably commencing a sexual affair. In the morning, the narrator remarks, she still does not feel like she knows him at all. He tells her almost nothing about himself—possibly lying even about his age—and asks her little about herself. The reader is unclear whether the drifter is genuinely interested in the narrator or merely eager to take advantage of her.
The abuse continues when the drifter asks her to leave him the key to her flat and she acquiesces. He soon becomes a malingering presence, and the narrator grows afraid to ask him to leave. She no longer trusts him and comes to believe that his apparent kindness is ‘‘just a trick that he could do, so real you couldn’t believe it when it stopped just like that.’’ His demeanor and facial expressions terrify her. Each step of the way, she misses opportunities to put a stop to a relationship that grows increasingly abusive. By the story’s end, she has to stay at her friends’ house, fearing for her safety.
The impact of racial injustice, in particular South Africa’s apartheid system, on psychology and human relations is an abiding theme of Nadine Gordimer’s fiction. In ‘‘Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants,’’ Gordimer filters the action through the viewpoint of a conventionally racist white woman. Her first-person narration is sprinkled with derogatory comments about blacks such as ‘‘of course they’re like children.’’ She takes deliberate measures to exert her power over her black co-worker Jack, sending him on an errand ‘‘just to show him that he mustn’t get too free with a white person.’’ She recounts that when old Madala refused to do her bidding, she tried to get him fired. The narrator’s racial prejudices play a meaningful role in her identity. They seem to provide her a way to express a sense of personal power—a power revealed to be lacking in her relationship with the white male drifter.
The narrator’s relationship with Jack is interesting in light of her ingrained racism. She cannot deny Jack’s good nature and intelligence, saying, ‘‘you get more sense out of the boss-boy, Jack, than you can out of some whites.’’ She relies on his judgment when she asks him to guess the drifter’s age, and on his technical knowledge when she asks him to estimate the value of the drifter’s car. While she does not tell Jack the whole truth of her affair with the drifter, she reveals enough for him to get the picture. Jack appears to view her as an individual rather than a stereotype. The question he asks at the end of the story—‘‘Why don’t you live there in Rhodesia with your daughter?’’—strikes at the heart of her isolation and vulnerability. In a brief moment of reflection on Jack’s insight, the narrator confesses, ‘‘They’ve got more feeling than whites sometimes, that’s the truth.’’ It is possible that this act of friendship makes a crack in the ideological shell of her prejudice. Nevertheless, even after Jack’s little white lie throws the drifter off her scent and gets her out of her difficulty, she remains contemptuous, mocking him as he reads the newspaper with the remark that ‘‘I think he fancies himself quite the educated man.’’ The favor Jack has done her, and the man himself, seem to remain invisible to her.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Nadine Gordimer, Published by Gale Group, 2010