Places: The Story of an African Farm

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1883

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: 1880’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Karroo

*Karroo. Story of an African Farm, TheArid, dusty plateau of the southwestern part of what is now the Republic of South Africa and the interior of what was the British Cape Colony during the period in which the novel is set. Most of the action takes place on the plains of the Karroo, a region at once beautiful and oppressive. The blazing summer sun, which makes the earth itself cry for water, oppresses both man and beast, adding to the sense of powerlessness felt by the child characters who are the focus of the story. On the other hand, at night the moon and the stars lend a touch of beauty to the land; and at the end, after seasonal rains again turn the land green, even the sun seems benign, and the landscape becomes lovely–so lovely that Waldo almost melts into it. However, the overall effect of the landscape is that of something oppressively hot and barren, another source of suffering in a novel of suffering. Even Waldo’s union with the landscape at the end is achieved only through his death.


Farm. Ostrich and sheep ranch on the Karroo that gives the novel its title. There, Waldo, Lyndall, and Em live under the control of the Boer farm woman Tant’ Sannie. The farm is a simple place, with a few plain buildings and corrals (kraals) for animals. It is not a place of prosperity; rafters in its buildings are worm-eaten, and the roof and the bricks of its main house are crumbling, contributing to the sense of gloom that pervades the novel. The farm also projects a feeling of claustrophobia. When Tant’ Sannie’s stepdaughter, Lyndall, returns from school, she says that she feels suffocated in the farmhouse–a feeling that perhaps symbolizes the way society suffocates her desires because she is a woman.

A room at the top of the farmhouse contains provisions, books, and women’s dresses. It is a place where characters learn things. When Waldo, the son of the farm’s German overseer, goes there, he discovers books that promise to teach him the meaning of life. When Tant’ Sannie goes there, she finds out that her sweetheart is pursuing another woman. When Lyndall’s admirer, Gregory Rose, goes there, he discovers that he likes to dress in women’s clothes.


Kopje. Stony hill on the Karroo to which Waldo likes to go to think about such things as life, God, and history. The apparently ancient Bushman paintings on the kopje’s stones lead Waldo to speculate about the painter and the passage of time. Waldo concludes gloomily that one day he and the other children will be as remotely gone as the unknown ancient painter, and only the stones will remain.

Imaginary places

Imaginary places. In a long allegorical aside, a stranger tells Waldo about such places as the Valley of Superstition, where one must abandon conventional religious beliefs in order to find the truth, and the Land of Negation and Denial, a dark place through which one must pass when one rejects religious faith on the way to the real truth that is supposed to be found in the Mountains of Dry-Facts and Realities. However, even in these mountains, truth turns out to be elusive, so the hope the stranger seems to offer Waldo–that there may be some way out of unhappiness–turns out to be illusory.

Waldo again sees the stranger when he goes to the botanic gardens in Grahamstown to hear a concert; however, he suddenly feels that he is too shabbily dressed and unworthy to approach the stranger, who is talking to some fashionably dressed women. Once again, Waldo seems cut off from any possible escape from his unhappy life.


Town. Unnamed town in the Cape Colony to which Waldo first goes after escaping from the farm, and before going to Grahamstown. There, he works as a sales clerk. Although the farm had seemed him a prison, the town is no improvement. He lives in a small room with packing cases for furniture, and the people he meets are either vulgar or hypocritical.


*Bloemfontein (BLEWM-fahn-tayn). Capital of the Orange Free State, an independent Boer republic, to which Lyndall flees before going on to other towns. Her admirer, Gregory, tracks her there and eventually finally finds her in a hotel in another unnamed town in the Free State. She is on her death bed in a dark room containing a massive lion’s paw, which perhaps symbolizes the taming or destruction of her dreams.

Oom Muller’s farmhouse

Oom Muller’s farmhouse (ewm MEW-lehr). Site of Tant’ Sannie’s wedding, a vulgar celebration which Waldo and Lyndall soon leave, as it represents a life utterly alien to them. Indeed, the wedding scene helps demonstrate how alienated the two of them are from the life around them.

BibliographyBerkman, Joyce Avrech. The Healing Imagination of Olive Schreiner: Beyond South African Colonialism. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. Stresses Schreiner’s humanistic and progressive sociological views and discusses how they are represented in her fiction.Chrisman, Laura. “Empire, Race, and Feminism at the fin de siècle: The Works of George Egerton and Olive Schreiner.” In Cultural Politics at the fin de siècle, edited by Sally Ledger and Scott McCracken. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Examines Schreiner’s work in the light of the new woman movement of the 1890’s and its contribution concerning gender and imperialism.First, Ruth, with Ann Scott. Olive Schreiner. London: André Deutsch, 1980. Authoritative chronicle of Schreiner’s life and times, co-written by an African National Congress activist, explores the relationship of Schreiner’s life to the history of her troubled nation.Monsman, Gerald. Olive Schreiner’s Fiction: Landscape and Power. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991. Examines Schreiner’s art in aesthetic terms, stressing her sensitivity to nature and her philosophical ambitions. Especially useful for interpreting Waldo’s aesthetic evolution and the development of Lyndall’s character.Van Wyk Smith, Malvern, and Don MacLennan, eds. Olive Schreiner and After: Essays on Southern African Literature in Honour of Guy Butler. Cape Town, South Africa: D. Philip, 1983. Situates Schreiner in the tradition of white South African writing in English that she was crucial in founding.
Categories: Places