“The Train from Rhodesia” begins and ends with the symbol of the train. Nadime structures her story around this metaphor and uses limited third-person narration to tell it. The narrator reveals only the thoughts of the young woman, thus focusing the story around her perspective, even though the stationmaster and his family are introduced to the reader before the train arrives. The woman’s thoughts are conveyed through interruptions in Gordimer’s detailed narrative. These interruptions reveal her moral questions about her husband’s bargaining for the carving: “Everything was turning around inside her. One-and-six. One-and-six.” That no one else’s thoughts are revealed by the narrator further emphasizes the psychological distance between the woman and the other characters in the story.
Symbolism and Imagery
In a story so short, images and symbols must be chosen carefully and used efficiently if the story’s themes are to be presented clearly. In “The Train from Rhodesia,” the train itself is the most overt symbol. The train comes from Rhodesia, a privileged British colony in South Africa, and thus symbolizes British colonialism. “Creaking, jerking, jostling, gasping, the train filled the station,” Gordimer describes it, thus imparting a view that British domination resembles a huge, mechanical, unhealthy, and overbearing beast. The train only stops briefly and few people get on or off, further symbolizing the indifference and lack of understanding inherent in British imperialism. The train moves along “the single, straight track,” emphasizing the “tunnel vision” of the dominant power. The old man and his impoverished neighbors are incidental; the train is merely passing through on its way to another British outpost. As it leaves, it “cast the station like a skin,” an image that imparts the idea that the village was something to be rid of, unwanted and unneeded.
In contrast to the mechanical, manufactured symbol of the train to represent the whites, the Africans of the small village are identified with images of nature. The villagers are surrounded by “sand, that lapped all around, from sky to sky, cast little rhythmical cups of shadow,” and which closes over the barefoot children’s feet. Furthermore, the stationmaster’s wife is identified with a sheep’s carcass that is hanging over the veranda. This, also, is a symbol of nature, even though it negatively connotes their position in society as nothing more than pieces of meat. Nevertheless, these images reveal that the villagers are an organic part of the environment. When Gordimer describes the old man’s feet “splaying the sand,” she brings to mind a tradition in African art in which exaggeratedly large feet symbolize a connection with the land and the generations of those who have cultivated it. She contrasts this organic connection with the sterile, compartmentalized separation of the British who sit “behind glass, drinking beer, two by two, on either side of a uniform railway vase with its pale dead flower.” Sand connects the old man, the stationmaster and his children to each other, but the British have no symbol to connect themselves to one another beyond the loud, lumbering train that “heaved and bumped back against itself.” When sand is used as an image for the young woman, however, it symbolizes the shame she feels, which “sounded in her ears like the sound of sand, pouring.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Nadime Gordimer, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.