Mr. Farquar is Teddy’s father and head of the Farquar household, but he is rarely a present figure in the narrative. He is referred to as an individual on only a handful of occasions and instead appears mainly as one portion of the Farquars. He and his wife are often described as a single unit that acts together. He is, however, mentioned as an individual when he learns of Gideon’s role in saving Teddy’s eyesight. However, his actions upon learning the news are again in concert with those of his wife: ‘‘They felt helpless in their gratitude: it seemed they could do nothing to express it.’’
Presumably, Mr. Farquar is away at work much of the time, as his wife is often portrayed as an individual during the day-to-day domestic activities. Both he and his wife are fairly provincial. When the laboratory technicians visit them from town, the couple is ‘‘flustered and pleased and flattered’’ by the attention. The Farquars are also religious and kind hearted. They see Teddy’s cure as a ‘‘miracle’’ and are excited by the prospect of using the plant to help others. Given their pure intentions, they are made uncomfortable by the idea of producing the medicine for profit. Furthermore, they are not entirely insensitive to the uncomfortable situation they have placed Gideon in by asking him to show them the medicinal plant. However, they seem to feel that their good intentions justify the transgression. Although the Farquars are aware that they are overstepping a silently agreed upon boundary, they are nevertheless annoyed and angered by Gideon’s irritation and noncompliance. This emotion likely stems from a felling of embarrassment; their servant openly defies them in front of the head scientist and the laboratory technicians.
Despite the Farquars’ anger at Gideon’s defiance, they ultimately come to laugh at the incident. However, they also persist (fruitlessly) in their quest to locate the plant. They ask all of their other servants but succeed only in learning that Gideon is the son of a great medicine man. He is described as an accomplished healer who can heal anything but who is nevertheless ‘‘not as good as the white man’s doctor.’’
Mrs. Farquar is Teddy’s mother, and she runs the Farquar household. It is she who works with the servants and decides their pay. She is also praised by the servants for bearing such a fine son. When no other children are forthcoming, Gideon comforts his mistress by implying that Teddy is so wonderful that no other children are needed.
Mrs. Farquar’s actions are most often described in tandem with her husband. However, unlike her husband, Mrs. Farquar is also portrayed as acting independently on several occasions. Mrs. Farquar is fond of Gideon because he loves her son and because he thinks of himself as part of the family. She also likes him because he is agreeable, kind, and religious. When Gideon gazes at a black baby born around the same time as Teddy, he notes that one will become master and one servant and that this ‘‘is God’s will.’’ Mrs. Farquar replies that she has been thinking the same thing. In this instance, she shows that she is not insensitive to the imbalances of power that surround her.
Mrs. Farquar also acts independently when a snake spits its venom into Teddy’s eyes. She is panicked, and she knows of many who have permanently lost their sight under the same circumstances. In fact, when Gideon promises to cure the boy and rushes out to the bush, she does not believe that anything will come of it. Instead, she uses everything she can think of to flush out Teddy’s eyes.
Teddy Farquar is the beloved only son of the Farquars. He lives in an undisclosed farming compound in Africa. The compound consists of Teddy, his family, and their servants. Teddy is beloved not only by his parents but also by all of the family’s servants. He is blond and blue-eyed, and the black servants all marvel at these features. Teddy is given the affectionate nickname of ‘‘Little Yellow Head’’ by the family cook, Gideon. Teddy and Gideon are particularly close, and the two play together often. However, as Teddy grows from an infant to a boy, he begins to act haughtily, and Gideon is increasingly sensitive to their different stations in life. Gideon’s son is in awe of Teddy’s scooter, but Teddy meanly races the scooter around the boy and frightens him away. When Gideon chastises Teddy for doing so, Teddy shows both his ignorance and his (arguably if unfortunately justified) sense of entitlement by responding: ‘‘He’s only a black boy.’’
Teddy is aware that his insensitivity has upset Gideon, struggles amends. However, the young boy cannot bring himself to actually apologize. From then on, as Teddy ages, he begins to act more like Gideon’s master than Gideon’s friend. Despite the growing distance between them, Gideon finds a cure for Teddy when he is in danger of losing his eyesight. Later, when the scientist and laboratory technician come to investigate, Teddy is too young to truly understand the complex social pressures inherent in the situation. He sees the outing to locate the plant only as an adventure. As Teddy continues to age, he joins in his parents’ gentle teasing about the ‘‘snakeroot’’ adventure.
Gideon is the Farquars’ beloved servant and cook. He has a wife and children who live in the Farquars’ compound with him. Toward the end of the story, it is revealed that Gideon is also the son of a great medicine man and an accomplished healer himself. This identity is kept hidden from his employers, as Gideon dutifully plays the role of loyal servant. Despite this subterfuge, Gideon is genuinely kind and loyal. He adores young Teddy, with whom he has a special bond. It is he who lovingly nicknames the boy ‘‘Little Yellow Head.’’
Gideon is well aware, however, of the social restriction between black and white people in that time and place, and he comments on the different fates of two babies born at the same time. The white one (Teddy) will grow up to run a farm. The black one (who is unnamed) will become a servant. However, because this observation is made in front of Mrs. Farquar, Gideon is quick to add that this ‘‘is God’s will.’’ Whether this statement is sincere or not is unclear. Gideon’s feelings become more clear, however, when he chastises Teddy for mistreating his own son. Teddy’s response that Gideon’s son is ‘‘only a black boy’’ profoundly offends the man, who turns his back on Teddy. The depth of this hurt is further demonstrated when he ‘‘unwillingly’’ accepts Teddy’s peace offering. Following this incident, Gideon becomes increasingly aware of the widening gap between himself and Teddy. He grows increasingly distant from Teddy, and the boy in turn speaks to Gideon ‘‘in the way a white man uses towards a servant, expecting to be obeyed.’’
Despite this outward change, Gideon’s love for Teddy remains constant, as is demonstrated when he rushes to save the boy’s eyesight. In doing so, he begins to expose his hidden talents and the secrets of the bush (the only real power he possesses). His upset at being asked to divulge these secrets is understandable, and even the Farquars are aware that their request is a type of betrayal. In his anger, Gideon acts in a way that the Farquars have never before seen, and his persistent refusals incite them to anger and further determination. Gideon finally relents and takes the Farquars to find the plant, but he does so in a manner that leads them to conclude that he has lied to them. However, Gideon’s enigmatic responses at the end of the story (in which he claims, ‘‘But I did show you missus, have you forgotten?’’) call this into question. It is possible that Gideon was truthful and only wished the Farquars and the head scientist to assume that he was lying. Regardless, Gideon’s nature again asserts itself when he forgives the Farquars for their transgression. Over time, both he and his employers are even able to laugh about the incident.
The head scientist travels from town with some laboratory technicians in the hopes of finding the plant that was used to cure Teddy. The head scientist is somewhat skeptical of the Farquars’ miraculous claims, and his skepticism is seemingly confirmed by the fact that Gideon apparently leads him and the Farquars on a wild goose chase. Nevertheless, the scientist earlier points out that the medicinal plant has the potential to help humanity and to generate revenue as well. In his arrogant attempts to persuade Gideon to divulge his secrets, the scientist first tries to impress Gideon with modern technology and then tries to bribe him.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Doris Lessing, Published by Gale Group, 2010