Waiting for the Barbarians Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1980

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: The late nineteenth or early twentieth century

Locale: A settlement on the frontier of an imaginary empire

Characters DiscussedThe Magistrate

The Waiting for the BarbariansMagistrate, the story’s first-person narrator, an administrator of a territory belonging to an unnamed empire. He is an aging and somewhat decadent man who explains that he has lived in the remote settlement for decades and has haphazardly and inefficiently carried out his administrative duties on behalf of the empire. Although he admits to his laziness, his fondness for young native girls, and his satisfaction with the old ways of imperialism, he still emerges as an admirable and sympathetic character. When he comprehends the full extent of the cruelty condoned by the new regime, which is determined to save the empire at any cost, he regrets his initial compliance with the Third Bureau’s orders and rebels, then becomes a prisoner himself. At the same time, he searches for some significance in his own wasted life. In the light of the novel’s allegorical overtones, the character of The Magistrate represents all men and women who face not only their inherent weaknesses but the forces of totalitarianism as well. At the story’s conclusion, The Magistrate simply goes on living, however uneasily, and continues his struggle to find a clear pattern in the complexities of life.

Colonel Joll

Colonel Joll, an official in the mysterious Third Bureau, an arm of the Civil Guard that was created to protect the empire, which is threatened by barbarians. This young officer specializes in torture and interrogation. An elegant sort with affectations in dress, manner, and speech, the colonel has come to terms with the demands made by the forces of evil set loose by a desperate government. Unlike The Magistrate, Joll does not question; he only acts. Ultimately, he encounters defeat at the hands of the barbarians.

Warrant Officer Mandel

Warrant Officer Mandel, an assistant to Colonel Joll. He is a younger version of his superior officer: handsome and vain, sophisticated, cruel, spiritually vacuous, and, above all, blindly committed to the cause he serves. For The Magistrate, a man with a conscience, he feels neither sympathy nor pity. He displays his true colors by fleeing when it appears that Colonel Joll will not return from his expedition into the wilderness.

A young native woman

A young native woman, a victim of Colonel Joll’s torture. She is stocky in build, quiet and long-suffering in nature, and an innocent amid corruption. Blinded and crippled during her interrogation, she is rescued by The Magistrate, who nurses her to health, seduces her, and attempts to use her as a kind of expiation for his own part in the activities of the Third Bureau. The young woman gains a measure of nobility in her suffering.

BibliographyBrink, Andre. “Writing Against Big Brother: Notes on Apocalyptic Fiction in South Africa,” in World Literature Today. LVIII (Spring, 1984), pp. 189-194.Daymond, M. J., et al., eds. Momentum: On Recent South African Writing, 1984.Howe, Irving. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII (April 18, 1982), p. 1.Reed, S. K. Review in Saturday Review. IX (April, 1982), p. 59.Steiner, George. Review in The New Yorker. LVIII (July 12, 1982), p. 102.
Categories: Characters