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The Story of an African Farm

March 17, 2008

It’s probably a cop-out, but today I am writing about a novel that I was made to read for class. I would rather write about books that I have read for pleasure, or have at least chosen myself, but graduate school gets in the way of pleasure reading so this is what I am reduced to.

The novel The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner is not a book that I much looked forward to. It was assigned for my 19th Century Victorian Empire, Sex, and Gender course and I have never been a huge fan of Victorian literature. I have been pleasantly surprised by how much I have enjoyed many of the texts we have read and was not disappointed by Schreiner. The novel takes place on a ‘kopje’ is South Africa on the farm of a Boer-woman and follows the lives of those living on the farm. The primary characters are Waldo, Em, and Lyndall. Curiously, Schreiner was heavily influenced by Emerson so she published the novel under the nom de plume Ralph Irons and has characters in the book named Waldo and Em–I would argue that she is, perhaps, a bit obsessed.

Though many scholars view this novel as a bastion of feminist ideals, I read the primary character to be Waldo, the son of a German farm-hand, not the niece of Tant’ Sannie, the farm owner. Rather than focusing on feminism and the female struggle for power, Schreiner dwells on the universal human struggle for intellectual place. Her primary characters struggle with a belief in God that does not seem plausible and eventually find an element of the divine in nature, not in the God of their ancestors. The novel is not wholly atheistic as much as it is agnostic. Schreiner, after the death of her sister at a young age, put her faith in nature and the tangible and that faith shows itself in her novel.

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