The old man initially tries to sell his carved lion for three shillings and sixpence to the young couple, but fails. Later, he shouts to the young man already on the train that he will sell it for one-and-six. His acceptance of such a low price and his breath, visible “between his ribs,” indicate that he is desperate and probably very poor. His polite manners, his “smiling, not from the heart, but at the customer,” indicate both his dire circumstances and his dependence on tourists like the young couple. Gordimer offers little description, but indicates that he is very old, a man who murmurs,’ ‘as old people repeat things to themselves.” Gordimer refers twice to his feet in the sand, thus showing the old man’s connection with the land, which contrasts with the young couple who are enclosed in the train.
The Stationmaster appears briefly in the story. As the train approaches, he comes ‘ ‘out of his little brick station with its pointed chalet roof, feeling the creases in his serge uniform.” His discomfort in the suit represents his attempt to fit in an unnatural role imposed on him by his job. The presence of his barefoot children and wife emphasize the poverty of the small town. When his children collect “their mother’s two loaves of bread,” the Stationmaster’s dependence on the benevolence of the train from white, European-dominated Rhodesia is emphasized.
The young man accompanies the young woman on the train. He is surprised when she declines to buy the lion from the native at the train station. Despite the woman’s decision, he bargains with the Nadine Gordimer old man “for fun” and then “automatically” accepts the old man’s low offer of one-and-six. He throws the money to the old man and catches the lion as it is thrown to him. Whereas the young woman’s conscience is torn, the young man simply seems to be enjoying his trip. Thus, with “laughter and triumph” he presents the lion to the young woman and is ” shocked by the dismay of her face.” He is finally depicted, “sitting, with his hands drooping between his sprawled legs.” His silence implies an inability to understand the young woman.
The young woman is the central character of the story, since it is her thoughts upon which the pathos of the story depends. Upon arriving at the train station, she admires a carved lion but declines to buy it, saying that the old man selling it wants too much money. When she retreats into the train, though, it is revealed that she already owns several similar items and does not know what she will do with them once she is home. The woman becomes upset after her husband buys the lion for a few cents. “If you wanted it, why didn’t you pay for it?” she asks, “Why didn’t you take it decently, when he offered?” This outburst indicates that the woman feels guilty over the patronizing and demeaning way her husband has treated the old man. As the train pulls out of the station, her shame overwhelms her, and they sit in an angry silence. Their relationship has been affected by the racial injustice her husband defines as “fun, bargaining.”
Gordimer reveals the thoughts of only the young woman, thereby focusing the exchange in the train station on the human toll exacted by apartheid. The woman is wealthy enough to travel in style; as a white, she is a beneficiary of the government’s system of racial discrimination. Nevertheless, even as she participates willingly in an unjust society, she tries to appreciate the natives—especially for their fine artistry. When unsettling feelings overcome her, she blames them on ‘ ‘being alone and belonging too much” to herself. The incident on the train, however, makes her realize that she is upset by larger social issues. The starving man was made to beg for a few coins in return for an elaborately and skillfully carved animal. Yet, she remains with her back towards her husband, indicating that she is still unable to discuss the topic; she is too bound by her complicity in society.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Nadime Gordimer, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.