The boy, like all of the characters in the story-within-the-story, is never named, is not described, and does not speak. He is anonymous, faceless, silent, meant to allow the reader to see him as a representative of countless boys in his situation, rather than focusing on him as a unique individual. Little is known about the boy. He is ‘‘little,’’ as the narrator says several times, and he loves the pet cat, who sleeps with him, and the dog. He has the imagination common in young children; he enjoys pretending to be an astronaut or playing cops and robbers with his friends and having his mother read fairy tales to him. He does not understand the fear that leads his parents to increase security at their home: for him, the security microphones simply make good imaginary police walkie-talkies. At the end of the story, the little boy pretends to be a prince ‘‘who braves the terrible thicket of thorns’’ to rescue a princess; instead of thorns, however, he crawls into the razor wire his parents have had installed on top of the wall to keep him safe.
The gardener works for the husband and wife. He is an ‘‘itinerant gardener,’’ which means he has several customers whose gardens he tends as needed. The narrator makes the point that the gardener has been ‘‘highly recommended by the neighbours’’; he is a black South African working in a white suburb, and the subtle implication is that in the minds of the whites, many or most blacks cannot be trusted or relied on. Apparently, the gardener and his colleagues do their jobs well, for in the days before everyone had high walls around their yards the family was able to admire ‘‘this show of roses or that perfect lawn’’ as they strolled through the neighborhood. When the little boy becomes trapped in the wire, the gardener and the housemaid are first to hear his screams. Screaming himself, the gardener cuts his hands trying to rescue the boy, and weeps when the rescue comes too late.
The housemaid works for the husband and wife. Like the gardener, she is a black South African working in a white suburb, but the narrator continually refers to her as a ‘‘trusted housemaid,’’ ‘‘absolutely trustworthy.’’ Perhaps because she works longer and steadier hours at the family’s home, unlike the gardener, who only works occasionally, she is more susceptible to the same fears that the husband and wife feel. After another housemaid is tied up by burglars, the husband and wife’s housemaid is the first to urge the husband to have window bars and an alarm system installed. When the wife begins sending bread and tea out to the homeless and unemployed people who hang around in front of the house, it is the housemaid who calls them ‘‘loafers and tsotsis,’’ or street thugs, and persuades the family to stop offering food. Finally, when the boy crawls into the razor wire, it is the housemaid and the gardener who hear his screams and run to free him; as she helps carry the boy’s body into the house she is described as ‘‘the hysterical trusted housemaid.’’
The husband is a middle-class white South African living in a suburb where only whites are allowed to live. He has a wife and a little boy, whom he ‘‘loved very much,’’ and with whom he is ‘‘living happily ever after.’’ His occupation is not mentioned, but he earns enough money to provide a nice house and yard, looked after by a housemaid and gardener, as well as a swimming pool and a ‘‘caravan trailer,’’ or camper. The husband knows more about what is happening outside the suburb—and fears it less—than his wife, and he tries to assure her that she need not be afraid. But he is in charge of the family’s financial decisions, and he wishes his wife to be happy, so he goes along with her requests for a speaker at the gate, window bars, and an alarm system. By the time unemployed blacks start hanging around on the streets of his suburb, the husband, too, begins to worry, and he encourages his wife to stop giving them food. He also begins to bring the little boy’s tricycle into the house each night, to protect it from thieves. It is the husband and wife together who examine their neighbors’ security devices, and together they select the razor wire for the top of the wall. When the little boy is killed in the wire, the husband and wife do not get to the boy as quickly as the housemaid and gardener do, and although the housemaid and gardener are described as ‘‘hysterical’’ and ‘‘weeping,’’ the husband does not reveal the same kind of emotion.
The story opens with a first-person account by the narrator, a writer who has refused a request to contribute a children’s story to an anthology, saying, ‘‘I don’t write children’s stories.’’ She tells about being awakened by a sound that made her afraid. She imagined a burglar trying to get in, and lay awake as she interpreted every sound and every shadow as a threat. After a time, she realized that what she had heard was simply the house shifting, perhaps from an underground tremor caused by a cave-in in a gold mine far below the house. She also realized, she says, that her fears made her ‘‘a victim already,’’ although there was no break-in. Unable to sleep, she tells herself a bedtime story: the story of the husband and wife and little boy.
The wife is a middle-class homemaker in a whites-only suburb in South Africa. She has a husband and a little boy whom she ‘‘loved very much,’’ and a live-in housemaid and part-time gardener who are black but ‘‘trustworthy.’’ Typical of white South African women in the 1980s, she does not have much acquaintance with the black population, referring to them as ‘‘such people’’ and imagining that they will sweep through the suburb in hordes. Increasingly anxious, she asks her husband to add bars and alarms to their home. She is perhaps more ignorant than unkind: when she finds unemployed or homeless people on the street near her house she sends the housemaid out to them with bread and tea, until her husband and the housemaid persuade her that this is dangerous. And she is tender with her son, indulging his love for the cat and the dog, and reading him bedtime stories. One night, she reads him a story about a prince, leading to his encounter with the razor wire the next day. Like her husband, however, she shows much less emotion than the servants do when her son is horribly killed.
The Wise Old Witch
The wise old witch is the husband’s mother. She does not have any magical powers, but like the wicked witch in many fairy tales, she offers gifts that seem pleasing but bring hidden dangers. At the beginning of the story, she breeds suspicion by warning the husband and wife to be careful whom they hire as housemaid and gardener. For Christmas gifts, she gives the husband and wife money to buy more bricks for their security wall, and she gives the little boy a Space Man costume and a fairy-tale book that feed his imagination.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Nadine Gordimer – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.