“The Knot Loops in upon Itself”: Futility in Language, Communication, and Meaning in J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians

UNCA Author/Contributor (non-UNCA co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Katherine Tavener, Student (Creator)
University of North Carolina Asheville (UNCA )
Web Site: http://library.unca.edu/
Lorena Russell

Abstract: South African novelist J. M. Coetzee’s 1980 novel Waiting for the Barbarians explores how systems of oppression work to destroy language, impede communication, and divert meaning from lived experiences. Focalized through the experience of a rural township’s Magistrate, the novel largely deals with acts of oppression inflicted upon a group of barbarians who are given no voice and little agency. After he establishes a physical relationship with an unnamed barbarian woman, the Magistrate becomes obsessed with reconciling his position in the unidentified Empire with that of the barbarian experience. He fails at this reconciliation for three reasons: the failure of language to express horrific bodily pain, the disconnect between the physical body and meaning, and Coetzee’s own hesitancy as an author to impose a single interpretation. This thesis explores these “failures” by examining both verbal and nonverbal forms of language and communication in the novel. Many aspects of the text, including torture, spoken language, and historiography, perpetuate the oppression of the barbarian people but fail to allow an easy interpretation or signify a conclusive meaning. In fact, a singular meaning in the text proves elusive for both the Magistrate and readers. Political and historical implications aside, Waiting for the Barbarians challenges readers to accept the pitfalls of language and communication and thus, the evasive and complex presence of meaning.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2015
J. M. Coetzee, language, communication

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