Paton’s short story ‘‘Ha’penny’’ is set in a youth reformatory in South Africa. The narrator informs the readers that there are six hundred youths incarcerated there. Out of that number, about one hundred are between the ages of ten and fourteen. There have been discussions among various administration officials about whether these younger boys would be better off if they were separated from the older ones, the narrator reports, since they could be easier to train and to reform. Younger boys, the narrator says, ‘‘turn instinctively towards affection, and one controls them by it, naturally and easily.’’ If this change in organization had taken place, the narrator would have liked being the principal of the school for younger boys, as his life and his job would have been much easier, he says.
To support his claim about the younger boys’ need for affection, the narrator mentions how the boys watch him at various events, such as during a football game. The boys are not obvious about their stares, but nonetheless, the narrator notices them looking at him. If he acknowledges them with a nod or some other expression, the boys then change their focus and return to paying attention to the activity that is going on. They are more content after they receive a sign of interest from him. The narrator also gets pleasure from these small interactions. Had the boys been his own children, he confesses, he would undoubtedly have spent more personal time with each boy, but even the small gestures—a slight tweaking of an ear or merely standing near the boy—are of great significance. The boys, toughened as they are by their circumstances, have learned not to show their feelings. However, the narrator can tell by the quick flash of a smile or even by a concentrated effort not to grin that the boys appreciate his efforts to single them out, even momentarily.
Sometimes, even the older boys react to these brief exchanges. They watch the narrator interact with the smaller boys and then attempt to emulate the quick, nonverbal communications with the narrator. The narrator understands that, although the gestures are seemingly insignificant in themselves, they are symbolic. The narrator believes that his small attentions to the boys signal to them that, despite the conditions at the reformatory, everything is all right. Even at times of unrest inside the walls of the school, when the normal communications between the administrators and the youths are strained, the practice of these small gestures of understanding is helpful in making the boys understand that ‘‘nothing important [has] changed.’’
On Sundays, the narrator takes some of the younger children for car rides, driving along the streets of nearby towns. While they ride, the narrator asks the boys questions about their families and the towns they are from. One of the boys is Ha’penny. He is always the most talkative child. Ha’penny tells long stories about his family. He says that he is from Bloemfontein and that his mother works as a maid for a white family. Ha’penny has two brothers, named Richard and Dickie, and two sisters, Anna and Mina. The narrator doubts the truth of Ha’penny’s stories (he points out that in English, ‘‘Richard and Dickie are the same name’’), and one day he examines the boy’s personal files. He discovers that Ha’penny is an orphan who has been passed along to several foster families and was classified as a troubled youth; he was caught stealing before he was turned over to the authorities at the school.
This information prompts the narrator to look further into Ha’penny’s case. Ha’penny, he discovers, writes regularly to a Mrs. Betty Maarman, but she never writes back. When the narrator questions Ha’penny about this, Ha’penny concludes that she might be sick. With his curiosity aroused, the narrator writes to the social welfare officer at Bloemfontein and asks the officer to investigate the matter.
When the narrator next takes Ha’penny out for a car ride, he questions him again about his family. Ha’penny sticks to his story, but this time, when he says his brothers’ names, he refers to them as Richard and Tickie. When the narrator asks about the new pronunciation of the second brother’s name, Ha’penny corrects the narrator, telling him that he had always said Tickie.
Shortly after this exchange, the narrator receives confirmation that there is a real Betty Maarman and she has four children, named Richard, Dickie, Anna, and Mina. Mrs. Maarman has told the officer that Ha’penny is definitely not her child. She does know of him, but only as a ‘‘derelict of the street.’’ Mrs. Maarman never responded to Ha’penny’s letter because in his letters he always referred to her as ‘‘mother.’’ She wanted no part of the game he was playing.
The narrator has a completely different attitude toward Ha’penny. He sees a young boy who had such a great need for a family that he went to the trouble of making up an imaginary connection with the Maarman family. Ha’penny’s record at the reformatory is ‘‘blameless,’’ and he goes out of his way to please the people around him. This makes the narrator feel ‘‘a great duty towards him.’’
The narrator continues to ask the boy questions. He especially wants to know about the boy’s mother. When Ha’penny speaks, he cannot say enough about the woman’s kindness. ‘‘She was loving, honest, and strict,’’ Ha’penny says. The narrator concludes that Ha’penny might have turned to the woman, just as he turned to him, in hopes she would open up her heart to him. Mrs. Maarman obviously had been unable to. She would not take him into her home, which might have relieved the boy of the loneliness of living on the streets.
The narrator informs Ha’penny that his so-called brother’s name is definitely Dickie, ‘‘not Tickie.’’ Ha’penny knows his deception has been uncovered. If the narrator knows the correct name, then he must also know the rest of the story. This causes Ha’penny’s ‘‘whole brave assurance’’ to crack. Ha’penny has been exposed, not as a liar but as something worse: a boy without the support and love of a family. The narrator states, ‘‘I had shattered the very foundations of his pride, and his sense of human significance.’’
Shortly afterward, Ha’penny becomes ill with tuberculosis. The narrator writes to Mrs. Maarman, telling her everything he knows about Ha’penny. Mrs. Maarman replies that she will have nothing to do with the boy. Her reasons are based on race and social culture: she is colored and wants nothing to do with Ha’penny, who is from a Mosuto tribe (an original South African tribe). The tuberculosis quickly weakens Ha’penny, and in desperation, the narrator sends money to Mrs. Maarman, hoping to entice her to make a visit. She relents and visits the reformatory, where everyone accepts her as being Ha’penny’s mother. She sits with him, talking to him about her children and saying that they are waiting for him to come home. To help encourage him back to health, she tells him of all the things they will do together when he is better.
The narrator visits Ha’penny, but he senses that he no longer belongs in Ha’penny’s world. He berates himself for not having handled the situation more wisely. He should have realized the emotional need of the boy to have his imaginary family.
Ha’penny dies and is buried at the reformatory. Mrs. Maarman requests that Ha’penny be listed as her son on the marker for his burial site. She tells the narrator that she was ashamed that she did not want to bring him into her family. If she had, she believes, he would not have gotten sick, or ‘‘it would have been different.’’
After Mrs. Maarman leaves, the narrator reflects on his role in Ha’penny’s life. In the future, he promises himself, he will act differently toward the children who have been put in his care. He will ‘‘be more prodigal’’ (more lavish) in his support of them.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Alan Paton, Published by Gale Group, 2001.