Ambivalence in Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians

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In Waiting for the Barbarians, the line that divides the so called ‘civilized’ from the ‘barbarians’ is shown as deeply ambivalent. Illustrate this with examples and discuss the larger implications of this portrayal.

J.M. Coetzee unravels the complexities behind the concepts of ‘civilised’ versus ‘barbaric’ in his book Waiting for the Barbarians. These concepts are reflective of the larger ideas of “Self” and “Other”, and are shown to be problematic in its definition. In the novel, the ever present fear of the barbarians proves to have been misdirected, misunderstood and misinterpreted as a whole. This essay looks at the physical versus mental disparity in defining the “civilised” and the “barbarians”, how these concepts are but relative terms, and how it may co-exist in a single entity.

By classifying the Other as being barbaric, and the Self as civilised, the individual is able to find self-definition and a more concrete sense of self-worth. In this case, the Empire takes this to the extreme, and identifies the barbarians as the ultimate threat and evil, and thus distinguishes itself as being heroes and protectors of goodness. They further underscore the dichotomy between the “civilised and the “barbarians” through ways such as writing “ENEMY” on the backs of the captured barbarians, and encourage the townspeople to physically abuse them (106). Yet despite these efforts, the “enemy” or the “barbarian” is not universally agreed upon, as reflected through the Magistrate who states that “We are at peace here…we have no enemies…Unless I make a mistake…Unless we are the enemy” (77). Similarly, this ambiguity is reflected through our understanding of the Empire. Initially, the Empire (with Colonel Joll as its representative) is seen as “important”, and worthy of the “best” (2). As the story progresses however, the Magistrate provides us with an epiphanic realization that the Empire is, in reality, the mythical ‘evil barbarians’ that come in stealth and destroy...
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