In “The Train from Rhodesia,” a train’s short stop in a poor African village highlights the racial and class barriers that typify South African life in the 1950s. Though only a few pages long, Gordimer’s story encompasses several themes besides racial inequality, including greed, poverty, and conscience.
Race and Racism
In South Africa, apartheid, the legal separation of races, became law in 1947. It is not necessary for Gordimer to mention the race of the characters in the story. Readers in the 1950s understood that the “old native” was black and the rich tourists were white. In a society so harshly divided, Gordimer writes of an instance in which the two races interact, thus revealing the patronizing attitudes of whites towards blacks and the blacks’ virtual enslavement and dependency on the whites. The whites, moreover, are not native to the country; just as the train passengers are merely “tourists” in the village that exists frozen in time before and after the train leaves. The villagers are shown as belonging to the land: “the sand became the sea, and closed over the children’ s black feet softly and without imprint.” In contrast, the white tourists are removed from nature and from the land: in their compartments with “caged faces, boxed in, cut off after the contact of outside,” they are indifferent to those on the outside. The beer drinkers”looked out, as if they could not see beyond” the windows of the train. Some passengers throw scraps of food to the dogs that hover near the train, just as others throw pennies to the children. In this image, Gordimer emphasizes the effect of the whites’ superior attitudes on the natives: it forces them to act like animals. That the young couple has collected tribal art on their vacation further represents their patronizing attitude towards the country’s natives. The tribal objects, which have great symbolic meaning to those who make them, become nothing more than decorations in the houses of the upper, ruling class. The woman wonders “How will they look at home…. Away from the unreality of the last few weeks?” To her, a honeymoon journey through Africa seems “unreal,” but to the people who live there, like the barefoot children who live in mud huts, it is very “real” indeed.
Wealth and Poverty
Enmeshed in the law of apartheid is the sharp division between wealth and poverty. While the inhabitants of the small village are so poor that they cannot afford shoes, the woman and man return to the city with bags of souvenirs that they do not know what they will do with. After picking up the coins thrown to him by the man on the train, the old man’s “breath [blows] out the skin between his ribs,” indicating the hunger and malnutrition prevalent in South Africa’s rural areas. The stationmaster’s children are depicted “clutching” a mere two loaves of bread. Meanwhile, the train passengers sit comfortably in their cabins—one woman actually gives her excess food to the dogs, ignoring the children begging at the train’s windows. Desperate to make money, the merchants are reduced to acting “like performing animals, the better to exhibit the fantasy held toward the faces on the train.”
The man selling the lion initially asks for “three-and-six.” Though probably a fair price, the man on the train balks in an effort to get it for less. Since he and his wife already have several items like it, this bargaining is just a game to him. Thus, the impoverished seller is at the man’s mercy. He needs the money more than the man needs the lion; this discrepancy becomes a prime opportunity for the young man to exhibit his greed. In waiting until the last possible moment—when the train is leaving the station—the man obtains the lion for just a fraction of its original price. He has made the poor man beg for the few coins, and he has received a finely crafted artwork for his wife. He does not recognize his greed:”I was arguing with him for fun, bargaining,” he tells his wife, oblivious to the fact that his “fun” reduced the native to “gasping, his skinny toes splaying in the sand.”
The young woman wrestles with her conscience over her appreciation for the lion and her outrage at her husband’s greed in obtaining it. She represents those who are not entirely comfortable with apartheid but benefit from it anyhow. Her initial reaction to the seller’s offer is “No, leave it.” Though she says it is too expensive, it seems likely that she is troubled by the dichotomy of wealth and poverty the train trip has presented to her. She retreats inside the train rather than deal with the poor natives. This action represents many whites’ preference for going along with the travesty of apartheid rather than deal openly with the painful issues of inequality it presents. She feels shameful and sick for exploiting the native Africans, but refuses to explain these feelings to her husband. Previously, she had attributed such feelings to being single and alone. She argues with her husband and they both end up feeling hurt and disconnected from one another. Thus, her conscience has divided them; this event illustrates how apartheid can drive a wedge between all people and even divide families. In the end, the woman rejects both her husband and the lion, which had “fallen on its side in the corner.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Nadime Gordimer, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.