This essay will evaluate the accuracy of the given statement, “Olive Schreiner’s novel, The Story of an African Farm, begins as a simple plaasroman but quickly abandons those roots and develops into a complex and layered bildungsroman through sustained emphasis on character development, specifically in regard to the relationships between certain characters and the various places and spaces they inhabit.”, by discussing three parts of the novel and the relevance they have to the plaasroman and bildungsroman literary genres. It will firstly look at the farm landscape at night, how the landscape changes during the day and what facts that are brought to light with the rising of the sun. Secondly, this essay will discuss “The Hunter’s Story” as told by Waldo’s stranger and its relation to the bildungsroman genre. Lastly, it will examine Waldo’s evolution or rather how he develops as a character, from small boy to adult.
Set in the Karoo in the 1860s, Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm reads like a plaasroman. (Schreiner 2015:13 )Firstly, what is a plaasroman? A plaasroman refers to a genre of literature that focusses on rustic farm-life and the give-and-take relationship between people and the wonders of nature, idyllic and unchanging. This description is typically associated with Afrikaans people as they believe , similar to those in the plaasroman, that farms should be predominantly run by the man of the house (ideally without the aid of people of colour), hard work should be praised and everyone has their own set or “traditional” role to play. (Barnard and Coetzee 2003: 204&210) They also are firmly religious and typically think they are superior. Foreigners are regarded with suspicion and the Afrikaans people generally believe that the land currently being farmed will be handed down through the generations, from father to son, creating a long-lasting legacy.
One can see the influence of the plaasroman in the first pages of the novel, where the beauty of the Karoo farming landscape lit by the moonlight is described, creating a picturesque image of the surroundings; one of the elements related to the plaasroman is the importance of nature or of the land. From the prickly pears and the koppie, to the kraals and the main-house, the land is painted with moonlight, beautiful, calm and largely quiet. “The moonlight cast a kind of dreamy beauty” (Schreiner 2015:3). Yet when the sun rises… the monotony associated with the plaasroman is broken as reality of the desert-like and harsh land existing under a boiling sun is made known to the reader. “The farm by daylight was not as the farm by moonlight…showed the red earth everywhere…reflected the fierce sunlight”. (Schreiner 2015:6)Simultaneously, the reader is introduced to Tante Sannie, a Boer-woman who owns the farm, Waldo, a boy who questions God, and Lyndall, a young girl determined to be educated; all a stark contrast to the standard plaasroman. These characters contrast the ideologies of the plaasroman as traditionally a farm ran on a patriarchal system, where god-fearing men worked and god-fearing women cooked and cleaned, they definitely did not become educated. Another deviation from the plaasroman is the fact that Em is to inherit the farm, for traditionally the ownership of the farm would fall to the closest male relation. Lyndall, Em and Waldo are all small children when they are presented as characters and they age as the novel continues, showing how they grow, physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally. This characteristic is more in keeping with a bildungsroman.
A bildungsroman is a literary genre that focusses on the overall development of the main character or characters, how they learn and mature from their experiences and how through this their life changes. (Esty 2007: 413)Usually a particular event is the start of the character’s desire to change or become better in some way. Aspects of the bildungsroman can be seen in The Story of an African Farm in the scene where a stranger takes the carving that Waldo made and tells “The Hunter’s Story”. (Schreiner 2015:139-149)
This tale or story within The Story of an African Farm follows the story of a hunter who looks upon a white bird, Truth, and longs to hold her. Wisdom tells him he must leave his home valley forever and take nothing of his former life with him when he crosses the threshold. In keeping with the bildungsroman the hunter tries to leave, holding on to part of his past but is unable to move forward until he lets it go. The hunter faces many challenges, he is tried by the “Land of Negation and Denial” (Schreiner 2015:139-149), tempted by Sensuality, tested by the mountain of “Dry facts and Realities” (Schreiner 2015:139-149) and taunted by the “Echoes of Despair”, but he over comes each one. (Like a character would in a bildungsroman) The hunter spends his whole life carving stairs out of the mountain to reach the top and hold Truth in his arms. When he is old, grey and not far from death, he carves out the last stair he is able to. From there he can see the valley. (Schreiner 2015:139-149) The beautiful land and the happy people and animals, all the things he left behind and he finally sees that the truth was right in front of him the entire time. The hunter is not angry, he is glad that he has forged the path for future generations to follow. As he draws his last breath, a feather from Truth falls down and the hunter dies holding it.
The Hunter’s story is almost a mirror of what happens to the main character/s in that of a bildungsroman. A significant event usually propels characters into action, the character leaves all that is known behind and ventures into unfamiliar territory, sometimes followed by the rejection of the original event or rejection of the current event or circumstances. And so the development of the character begins. Opportunities to sate pleasures can appear to characters in various forms, sometimes they give into temptation and sometimes not. Often at some point the character faces the reality of their situation, either that their goal is possible or impossible to reach; this is generally depends on the character’s beliefs and the people and other events surrounding the plot. Typically the character experiences feelings of hopelessness when their goal is “so close yet so far”. Eventually the character pulls through and reaches their goal or finds something they didn’t know they needed, learns an unexpected lesson or discovers the “truth”. Usually at the end of the journey the character has matures and grown in a moral or mental, emotional or spiritual way. Waldo is an example of a character that goes through a similar transformation as his character develops throughout the novel.
Waldo is born a farm boy. (Schreiner 2015:5-7)His job on the farm is to herd the sheep, he sleeps in a hut with his father away from the main-house and was raised to and still believes in God. Most of his childhood corresponds with the plaasroman genre. However, his story dramatically veers to that of a bildungsroman when Waldo rejects God, I love Jesus Christ, but I hate God”, (Schreiner 2015:12) because of his (God’s) failure to show his power and burn Waldo’s offering. A while later Waldo changes his mind, once more happy with God only, until the death of his farther whereupon he wallows in his grief, simultaneously resurrecting his spiritual anguish. This is a turning point in Waldo’s evolution as a character; consistent with a bildungsroman.
From that point Waldo appear to develop a thirst for knowledge and ventures into the loft to discover more. Accused of stealing peaches from the loft he is whipped. (Schreiner 2015:102) Despite the intense pain of the whip lashing his back, Waldo does not make a sound, “A shudder passed through the boy” (Schreiner 2015:103); quite different for the weepy boy in the beginning of the novel. “He had been very strong…never felt pain’. (Schreiner 2015:103)Like in a bildungsroman, misery washes over Waldo and he says to the stranger he meets, “I have never done anything”. (Schreiner 2015:151)The stranger imparts a piece of wisdom to Waldo, “In the end experience will inevitably teach us that the laws for a wise and noble life have a foundation infinitely deeper than any fiat of any being, God or man, even in the groundwork of human nature.” (Schreiner 2015:152) Forging ahead, Waldo creates his own personal religion (still on the fence between God and knowledge or science) and leaves the farm to travel; perhaps to discover himself, in in a bildungsroman.
If The Story of an African Farm were a true bildungsroman, then Waldo would have used the knowledge he has accumulated from reading and somehow ended up better off than before his travels. This however does not happen, Waldo instead returns to the farm, his roots; indicative of a plaasroman. The rest of Waldo’s life-story fits neither plaasroman nor bildungsroman, but something else altogether as Waldo has never really seen the “truth” and doesn’t really learn or become a person through his experiences. He never “sees the light” as after his travels he is still spiritually conflicted, Waldo is never truly accepted in society because he has not embraced all the beliefs of society, as he would have had the novel been a pure bildungsroman.(Literary Devices 2016:1). He also still longs for Lyndall, even though he is aware of her opinions on men and marriage, and he returns to the farm in a worse condition then when he left.
One cannot deny that Waldo developed as a character (largely in a somewhat negative way) as he is not the same person he was when he was a boy, particularly in the instances where became drunk or had a violent outburst. But at the end of this life he has nothing to show for it. He was born a farm boy and yet for all his knowledge, he dies a farm boy.
In conclusion, and in accordance with the given statement, The Story of an African farm does change from a plaasroman to a bildungsroman. However, after the change, the novel doesn’t continue like a “straight-forward” bildungsroman. Instead one can say that Schreiner uses elements of both in her novel, a combination of plaasroman and bildungsroman, and doesn’t follow a particular pattern with regard to when the genre changes. There are however, instances where the plot deviates from plaasroman and bildungsroman and fits into neither genre. It therefore can be said that Schreiner uses elements from a variety of literary genres, not only the plaasroman and bildungsroman.
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- Website.2016. <http://literarydevices.net/bildungsroman/> (Accessed 9 April 2016)
- Schreiner, O. 2015. The Story of an African Farm. 3rd Cape Town: Penguin random House SA.
- van Vuuren, ME. 2010. Chapter Three. The truth of wounded memories’: the question of forgiveness in selected post-apartheid texts, December 2010:95-124.