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253 PATTERNS OF NARRATION ANO CHARACTERIZATION IN SCHREINER'S THE STORY OF AN AFRICAN FARM By Gerald Monsman (Duke University) In 1883 The Story of an African Farm appeared under the pseudonym of "Ralph Iron." That Schreiner's nom de pi urne pays homage to Ralph Waldo Emerson is axiomatic in analyses of the novel, especially insofar as Lyndall together with Waldo and Em are the novel's pro-, deuter-, and tritagonists. The primary meaning of "iron" is undoubtedly found in Schreiner's admiration of Emerson's theme of self-reliance— firmness of mind, courage, inner strength: "High be his heart, faithful his will, clear his sight, that he may in good earnest be doctrine, society, law, to himself, that a simple purpose may be to him as strong as iron necessity is to others!"l Alluding to 1875-79 when she composed her novel, Schreiner asks Havelock Ellis, "Hasn't your heart ever been like iron?" then adds, "Mine was for five years. Then for the three years I first spent in England I cried every night for hours."2 But over and above its Emersonian resonances , Ralph Iron serves in a manner not unlike the more famous mask of David Copperfield that Dickens chose for his fictionalized autobiographical narration. Just as the field of copper suggests both a humble yet useful metal, malleable and uncorrodible like gold but basic to the currency or seagoing mercantile enterprises, so too in the context of South African gold and diamonds, iron is everywhere underfoot, not least in the iron-stones of the kopjes. But everywhere also, as the imagery of the novel indicates, the eidola of creeds arise as iron bars to lacerate mortal flesh, iron walls to imprison it and against which the individual self often cannot prevail.3 The ostrich and sheep farm of Tant' Sannie typifies not so much a place, finally, as a state of being, a condition of iron necessity and oppression. Schreiner's iron may be a more equivocal image than Dickens' copper. As a novelist, what sort of narrative, then, does Ralph Iron create? Is it a work with a teleological contour of narration grounded in an optimistic, Transcendental spiritual synthesis? Not quite. Despite genuine similarities to the nineteenth-century American frontier, the colonial experience in South Africa as presented in Schreiner's novel has nothing of the new world's pastoral, Utopian optimism. Here all is too vast, with a sense of overwhelming isolation and impermanence--i 11usory opportunity without charter. This spiritual pessimism is conveyed by the novel's mode of incompleteness that some readers have considered a structural flaw but that might better be seen as an experimentally open-ended narrative device. As nineteenth-century fiction expanded in 254 scope and evolved in technique, it carried with it a sort of penumbra of experiments in which imaginative and ideological or critical elements were variously combined. Walter Pater's imaginary portraits would be outstanding examples with the same downplaying of plot-action in favor of an elaboration of action by symbolic means, focusing on universal patterns of mythic reality and on structural parallels or contrasts. Thus, for example, in Schreiner's short story "Eighteen Ninety-Nine," as the men die in war the women carry on life by planting the seeds that will germinate in the first year of the new century. The focus is far less upon plot or specific motivation than upon personified values of female endurance in a land more humanly savage than naturally brutal . Furthermore, the tendency in Ari African Farm to present the characters as mouthpieces for the author's own ideology or to divide them between the purely comic and the purely tragic may be a clumsy and unsophisticated narrative technique or it may be a free experimentation in the absence of dominant, conventional models. Despite received opinion to the contrary, An African Farm can be seen as well-constructed according to the same established canons of taste and judgment against which one would scale the ideological fiction of a Pater or a Carlyle; and, at worst, Schreiner's deviations are, to paraphrase Sir Joshua Reynolds, the defects of admirable qualities carried to excess. Reversing the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 253-270
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2021
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