Gordimer Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Nadine Gordimer, whose fiction depicts South Africa’s racial turmoil, was awarded the Nobel Prize for her achievement as an artist and as a humanitarian.

Summary of Event

After being passed over several times because of disagreement among Nobel Academy members, Nadine Gordimer was named on October 3, 1991, as the year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Interviewed in New York City on the day of the announcement, Gordimer commented, “I had been a possible candidate for so long that I had given up hope.” As is the custom of the academy, the nature of the disagreement that delayed Gordimer’s being honored will remain secret for fifty years. Gordimer was presented with the award, which carried a stipend of approximately $985,000, in a ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, 1991. Nobel Prize in Literature;Nadine Gordimer[Gordimer] [kw]Gordimer Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature (Dec. 10, 1991) [kw]Nobel Prize in Literature, Gordimer Receives the (Dec. 10, 1991) [kw]Prize in Literature, Gordimer Receives the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1991) [kw]Literature, Gordimer Receives the Nobel Prize in (Dec. 10, 1991) Nobel Prize in Literature;Nadine Gordimer[Gordimer] [g]Europe;Dec. 10, 1991: Gordimer Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[08250] [g]Sweden;Dec. 10, 1991: Gordimer Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[08250] [c]Literature;Dec. 10, 1991: Gordimer Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[08250] Gordimer, Nadine Allen, Sture

The academy may have taken several years to name Gordimer, but her international audience greeted the announcement with immediate approval and genuine enthusiasm, considering the Nobel Prize an honor long overdue. News reports stressed that Gordimer was the first woman in twenty-five years to receive the literature award and only the seventh woman selected in the literature prize’s ninety-year history. Although such statistics are revealing, they in no way reflect the thrust of Gordimer’s writing. Never considering herself a feminist writer and sometime even castigated by feminist critics, Gordimer has created a world of women and men—lovers, parents, children, husbands, wives, friends—who struggle most often to establish relationships in what the Nobel Academy called, in its statement on her work, “an insupportable society.”

This “insupportable society” has always been South Africa, where Gordimer was born, the daughter of immigrant Jewish parents from Europe. That Gordimer received the Nobel Prize during the dismantling of South Africa’s infamous apartheid system led some observers to call the award politically motivated. Sture Allen, the Nobel Academy member who announced Gordimer’s selection, pointed out that the Nobel Peace Prize is given for outstanding political contributions. (South African Bishop Desmond Tutu had received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.) Gordimer’s award, Allen stressed, was “literary,” adding that “her works have a political basis, but her writing is different.”

What makes Gordimer’s writing “different” may be explained in two ways: first, through its structure and style; second, through its universal concerns in spite of the specific time and place. During a period when many writers were experimenting with postmodern techniques such as unreliable narrators and unexplained shifts in time, ignoring the line that divides fantasy and realism, and taking language to sometimes incomprehensible limits, Gordimer has remained a traditional novelist, more similar to the great British and European writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than to many of her contemporaries. Gordimer’s major works, such as A Guest of Honour (1970), Guest of Honour, A (Gordimer) The Conservationist (1974), Conservationist, The (Gordimer) Burger’s Daughter (1979), Burger’s Daughter (Gordimer)[Burgers Daughter] and A Sport of Nature (1987), Sport of Nature, A (Gordimer) are all big novels, big in that they fully and faithfully realize the basic elements of fiction: plot, character, and setting. This realization comes about through a distinctive style, yet one that is in itself traditional.

South African writer and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The style bears resemblance to the diamonds for which South Africa is famous. Like them, it is tempered and durable, admirable in its clarity, varied in its facets. Again, like a diamond, the style draws no attention for its flashiness, but gains notice for its inexplicable beauty and perfection. At times the prose turns bright and lyrical in description of the landscape; at other points, it takes on a harsh, dark quality when depicting human cruelty in graphic detail or when describing the ugliness of poverty-striken South African townships. The style is also purely African in the way it makes use of nature—animals, sounds, plants, trees, the texture of the soil, the shape of rocks, the sky’s colors. The integration of these natural elements into the narrative not only establishes setting but also serves to formulate metaphors delineating the human condition.

The other aspect that makes Gordimer’s fiction “different” from purely political writing lies in the way it handles the polarity created by a social system based on racial separation. Neither didactic nor outwardly censuring, Gordimer’s short stories and novels pit individuals against an ideology that intrudes on their lives—apartheid. Apartheid;literature and theater Human relationships are ultimately what matter in the fiction, however—relationships between white and white, black and black, black and white, male and female, young and old.

Gordimer’s work records how the political ideology that controlled South Africa for almost half a century affected those who lived it, but to label the work a mere history of what life was like during the apartheid era would be to limit its moral vision. Gordimer’s fellow South African Nobel laureate, Archbishop Tutu, commented when he learned of her award, “She’s an outstanding artist . . . but more than anything else she has had this tremendous commitment and caring about people, caring about justice.” Those are the qualities that imbue Gordimer’s fiction and will continue to do so long after the policies of apartheid become mere historical notes.


Unlike some of those who received the Nobel Prize in Literature before her, Gordimer had established an international reputation before she was honored with the Nobel. Therefore, although the prize certainly enhanced her standing, it seemed likely to have a greater impact on other writers. In particular, the award’s prestige carried over into the field generally called international literature in English—that is, writing from countries other than Great Britain and the United States. English-language literature coming from such places as the West Indies, Africa, Australia, India, Canada, and New Zealand had for some time been considered a minor appendage to the long-established literatures of Great Britain and the United States. This attitude changed in the late twentieth century, as the literary world began to look with greater interest and respect beyond traditional boundaries. The publicity surrounding Gordimer’s Nobel Prize definitely served to heighten awareness of such literature.

This prestigious award brings recognition first to the writer, then to his or her country, and then to the literature represented. When two other writers of international literature in English were so honored, Patrick White White, Patrick from Australia in 1973 and Wole Soyinka Soyinka, Wole from Nigeria in 1986, other writers from White’s and Soyinka’s countries, as well as those from the regions that once made up the British Commonwealth, probably gained far more than did the Nobel laureates themselves. White placed the money that accompanied the Nobel honor into a trust fund that provides from its earnings a sizable cash award given each year to an Australian writer. Gordimer planned to carry out a similar project with part of her Nobel stipend by assisting the Congress of South African Writers, Congress of South African Writers a predominantly black organization. She explained that most of these black authors write in English, the imposed language of the colonizer, but she hoped that they could be encouraged to make use of African languages as well.

The establishment of a black literature in South Africa, South Africa;literature whether in English or in native tongues, is long overdue. Many of the African countries that gained their independence after World War II built indigenous literary traditions both in English and in African languages, but the political climate of South Africa was not conducive to such development. Publishing opportunities for black writers were either scant or nonexistent; in fact, government oppression and censorship often prevented black writers from even speaking to their fellow South Africans. A major figure such as Alex La Guma, La Guma, Alex for example, spent most of his life in exile, and his work was never published in South Africa.

Given the restrictive conditions of South African life from 1948 to 1994, it is surprising that a literature of protest developed at all, but books critical of the system did appear—by white authors. The first such novel to receive international recognition was Alan Paton’s Paton, Alan Cry, the Beloved Country (1948). Cry, the Beloved Country (Paton) The novels of André Brink Brink, André and J. M. Coetzee Coetzee, J. M. and the plays of Athol Fugard Fugard, Athol also found audiences overseas. Much of this work, along with Gordimer’s, was long banned by the South African government, but its white authors were not jailed or exiled, perhaps because the government feared the diplomatic consequences of persecuting white writers with reputations abroad. Some observers concluded that books inveighing against the regime in truth did little good, as the works were not generally available in South Africa. Nevertheless, the Nobel citation called Gordimer “the doyenne of South African letters” and praised her for a “continual involvement on behalf of literature and free speech in a police state where censorship and persecution of books and people exist.”

In a country with a small population, the emergence of one writer who overshadows all the others creates both bad and good effects, no matter how generous the major writer may be with time, attention, and money. This was certainly the case with Patrick White and Australia; even though White died in 1990 and his Nobel award is long in the past, younger Australian writers still feel their work is too often judged in the light of his brilliant achievement. Soyinka has been both lionized and denigrated in Nigeria, called the voice of Africa in one breath and in the next called a panderer to the literary tastes of the white world overseas. On a more positive note, the attention accorded Gordimer may help to validate her country’s literature in the eyes of the rest of the world. From that validation, her contemporaries and successors, black and white, cannot help but gain. Nobel Prize in Literature;Nadine Gordimer[Gordimer]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clingman, Stephen. The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside. 2d ed. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986. Covers Gordimer’s work through July’s People (1981). Focuses for the most part on the way Gordimer creates a historical chronicle of South Africa in her novels. Emphasizes the relationship between the fiction and political events. Provides valuable background on the political and legal events that help to shape the outward form of the fiction. Includes extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooke, John. The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: Private Lives/Public Landscapes. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 1985. Close readings of the texts emphasize how all the novels are essentially about the private concerns of individuals who live their lives in the shadow of a “public landscape” formed by political oppression and social injustice. Also addresses the recurrent theme of a daughter rebelling against an overbearing mother. Includes extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordimer, Nadine. Conversations with Nadine Gordimer. Edited by Nancy Topping Bazin and Marilyn Dallman Seymour. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990. Collection of reprints of selected interviews with Gordimer over two decades provides insights into Gordimer’s work through her comments on South African politics, the place of the writer in society, and her own theory of writing. Includes extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, Ronald Suresh. No Cold Kitchen: A Biography of Nadine Gordimer. Johannesburg: STE, 2005. Biography provides some context for Gordimer’s works over the course of her lifetime and also offers interpretations of those works. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Rowland. “Truth, Irony, and Commitment.” In International Literature in English: Essays on the Major Writers, edited by Robert L. Ross. New York: Garland, 1991. Examines how Gordimer’s work constantly scrutinizes the peculiar role of whites in South Africa. Shows how Gordimer has always been truthful and committed in her fiction while stressing the irony of white South African life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. Critical Essays on Nadine Gordimer. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990. Collection of previously published material on Gordimer’s work includes some pieces not otherwise easily available. Offers a variety of approaches and a wide span of critical appraisal from 1953 to 1988. Provides discussions of Gordimer’s novels and short stories through A Sport of Nature. Includes extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yelen, Louise. From the Margins of Empire: Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998. Focuses on the issue of national identity in the writings of these three women, all of whom were born or grew up in British colonies or former colonies. Includes bibliography and index.

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