Ha’penny, though his name makes the title of Paton’s short story, is not the protagonist of this story. He is, however, the main focal point. The narrator of this story concentrates his attention on Ha’penny because it is through this young boy that the narrator learns a very serious lesson.
Ha’penny is a twelve-year-old boy who is incarcerated in a reformatory for boys. He has spent most of his life on the streets and is an orphan. On a racial level, an identification process that was very much a part of the apartheid system into which he was born, he is considered a black child. His roots can be traced back to an ancient South African tribe. Since Mrs. Maarman shuns him because of his heritage, it can be assumed he is not of mixed heritage, such as Mrs. Maarman is.
Since Ha’penny has no family, he makes up an imaginary one. He has watched Mrs. Maarman and her children, and he is drawn to her. His desires are so strong that he comes to believe he is a part of her family. This need leads Ha’penny to write Mrs. Maarman letters and to talk to the narrator about her family as if he were her son and her children were his siblings. As readers (and the narrator) later find out, it is this belief of belonging, even though it is imaginary, that keeps Ha’penny alive.
When his imaginary world collapses, Ha’penny loses his desire to live. Though his wish for Mrs. Maarman to pretend to be his mother comes true, it comes too late. The most that readers can hope for is that Ha’penny dies in peace, with Mrs. Maarman at his side. In this story, Ha’penny represents some of the hardships and discriminations that black people were facing in South Africa. The emphasis, in this story, is on the youth. The narrator believes he can turn around the lives of the impoverished black youth. Through this episode in Ha’penny’s life, this story exemplifies how difficult that might be.
Mrs. Betty Maarman
Mrs. Maarman is the woman that Ha’penny pretends is his mother. She refers to herself as a colored person, a classification under the apartheid system in South Africa that identifies Mrs. Maarman as being of mixed races. There is no mention of a husband, but Mrs. Maarman has four children, Richard, Dickie, Anna, and Mina. She works as a cleaning woman, and although she claims to know who Ha’penny is, she wants nothing to do with him at first. She knows that Ha’penny is a thief and does not want to have this criminal element associated with her family. Her children have never been in trouble, and she wants to keep it that way.
Whether it is the money that the narrator sends to her, the fact that Ha’penny is very sick, or the narrator’s persistence, Mrs. Maarman finally gives in and comes to the reformatory to visit Ha’penny. Once she has made this commitment, she regrets having shunned the boy when he needed her help. She believes that if she had come to his rescue earlier, Ha’penny might not have come down with tuberculosis. Even if he had contracted the disease, Mrs. Maarman thinks he would not have died because he would have had a home and a family to support and love him. In the end, Mrs. Maarman gives Ha’penny all her attention and love. She tells everyone at the reformatory that she is Ha’penny’s mother. She insists that Ha’penny’s cemetery marker list him as a part of her family.
The narrator is never named or identified. Readers, after learning about the author’s biography, might assume that the narrator is a male who holds the position of principal of the reformatory. However, this is never stated. Readers know that the narrator has an administrative position at the reform school because he has access to the boys’ records, has the authority to take them for car rides, and has a keen interest in how the boys are treated.
From the way the narrator describes the boys, readers can also deduce that the narrator is a compassionate person. He is not there merely to keep order; he cares about the boys’ mental and emotional health. He searches for ways to fulfill their needs. He relates to them, at least on a peripheral level, as if they were his sons. While the boys are in his care, he studies them, watching the way they communicate with one another, and determines, from their gestures, how best to respond to them. He takes them out of the reformatory for rides through the countryside and the towns because he is thinking about their future. He knows that one day they will be returned to society and he wants them to adapt successfully.
Nothing is known about the narrator’s life outside his job at the reformatory. This keeps readers in the dark about the personal side of the narrator’s life, but it intensifies the narrator’s focus on the lives of the boys at the reformatory, especially Ha’penny. The narrator’s relationship with Ha’penny reflects the complexities of the narrator’s mind. While he demonstrates his compassion and understanding, he errs in fully comprehending the fragile nature of Ha’penny’s psychological state. The narrator’s main concern is to help Ha’penny. In the end, though, the narrator’s unmasking of the young boy’s deceptions strips Ha’penny of his main defenses. The narrator moves in a direction that is diametrically opposed to what is needed for Ha’penny’s health.
Although he blunders in his dealing with Ha’penny, the narrator proves, in the end, that he is wise enough to learn from his own mistakes. Though he is powerless in saving Ha’penny, he vows never to make the same blunder with another boy. The narrator also is not so involved in his own defense as to ignore the strength and courage of Mrs. Maarman, who is able to overcome her initial reluctance to care for Ha’penny. This shows that in spite of his mistake, the narrator is not a weak man. He does not catch his error in time to save Ha’penny, but he is able to accept his miscalculations, forgive himself for the consequences, and then move on.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Alan Paton, Published by Gale Group, 2001.