Literary Analysis Essay on Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee

Published: 2023-03-16
Literary Analysis Essay on Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee
Type of paper:  Research paper
Categories:  World literature
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1746 words
15 min read

The story, waiting for the Barbarians, is a story about a Magistrate who is just serving out his term of employment by the Empire but is conflicted about the actions of the Empire and struggles to understand the Barbarians. The Magistrate developed a relationship with a Barbarian girl, whose presence sparks both infatuation and a desire to follow her. However, the Barbarian girl never gives in to the desires of the Magistrate, which ultimately leads him to question his role in torturing her. By looking at the relationship between the Magistrate and the Barbarian girl, we can see that this is used as an example of the peace and harmony that could be achieved between the Empire and the Barbarians, which is important because the story uses this conflict as an allegory of the evils of colonialism. The novel walks us through the Magistrates existential journey, which shows us how humanity is achieved within him as he realizes that all human beings have value.

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There is a certain ambiguity about their relationship that makes the reader question the power dynamics within their relationship. Towards the end of the novel, the Magistrate realizes during a conversation with Mai when she tells him that the Barbarian girl was often confused by the Magistrate and did not know what he wanted from her. Mai begins this conversation by stating to the Magistrate the fact that she did not make him happy during sex, nor did the Barbarian girl. This is all new information to the Magistrate that only adds to the fact that he is haunted by the relationship he had with the Barbarian girl. When the Magistrate took the Barbarian girl in, he viewed himself as saving her from the physical tortures inflicted by Colonel Joll. However, it can be argued that the girl was not spared from torture, but in fact, the Magistrate views the Barbarian girl as an object of his sexual desires.

In a part of a journal by David Graeber, he talks about the theories of desire, which can certainly be applied to the relationship between the Barbarian girl and the Magistrate. He tells us that the primary difference between humans and other animals when it comes to having sexual encounters is the fact that humans need to value their sexual partners. However, in the struggle to achieve this type of recognition from a partner, sometimes humans end up creating a slave-master relationship. Graeber notes that this is ultimately very unsatisfying to the master within the relationship because the master depends on the slave; meanwhile, the slave continues to have a sense of self in his work (pg. 494, par. 3). The relationship that the Magistrate has with the Barbarian girl is one in which he seeks recognition of his own identity. He felt a connection with her when he took her in from the tortures of Colonel Joll, gave her shelter, work, and bathed her every night. There are times throughout the novel where the Magistrate himself even questions his motives towards the girl. In introspection he says, "I behave in some ways like a lover-- I undress her, I bathe her, I stroke her, I sleep beside her-- but I might equally well tie her to a chair and beat her, it would be no less intimate" (pg. 49, par 1). Around this point in the story is where the Magistrate begins to seriously contemplate the actions and intentions of the Empire in which he has passively participated in. These realizations that have come to him as a result of his relationship with the Barbarian girl.

In many ways, the Magistrate would have never been transformed without the Barbarian girl. In an Essay about Waiting for the Barbarians by Grant Hamilton, he explains, "Importantly, it is then precisely this attempt of the Magistrate to solve the riddle of the barbarian girl - which is to say, his attempt to understand the root of his curious desire for this broken body - that ultimately begins his transformation" (Pg. 3, par 4). The Magistrate's relationship with the barbarian girl sparks mediation within the Magistrate, ultimately causing progressive ways of thinking within himself. Hence, "becoming-woman." According to Braidotti, the theory of sexual difference is not solely a critical or reactive king of thinking, but also one that is affirmative (pg. 43). This is primarily based on the veracity that the theory expresses the ontological desires if the women, as well as the structural needs of women that are an essential prerequisite that women use to theorize themselves as the female subjects. The theorization, therefore, provides a channel that is used by women to accentuate the fact that they are corporeal and thus sexed beings and not disembodied entities.

An in-depth evaluation of 'politics of location' claims that the redefinition of the female feminist subjects mainly begins with the revaluation of the bodily origins of the subjectivity, the rejection of any universal, neutral and consequently gender-free understanding of human embodiment (Braidotti pg. 44). Importantly, the feminism of differentiation in sexuality ought to be accentuating the political significance of desire as divergent to the will, and of emphasizing its duties in the constitution of the relevant subject. More so, the desire should be not only libidinal, but also ontological desire as well. This is due to the tendency of the matter to be the predisposition and the desire of the subject towards being.

Consequently, the feminism subject is instantaneously social and sexed. The motivation of the subject is thus based on political awareness of the existing disparities. Hence, its focal point is the pursuit of differences and diversity as an alternative as well as a positive value. The feminist subject of knowledge in multiple subjects, as well as an intensive whose functionality is set on a net of interconnections. Also, the subject is mostly abstract and impeccably, operationally factual, and regarded as one of the main fields of sexual difference operation. According to Braidotti, the feminine for Irigaray is neither an immediately accessible nor one essentialized entity. Instead, it is a practical reality centred on the fact that it is the impact of a conceptual; and political project of exceeding the previously existing molar or traditional subject position of the female gender as other of the same, to express the other (pg. 44). However, the transcendence happens through the flesh and into the locations of the embodiment and not necessarily in a flight far from them (Braidotti 44).Philosophers dealing with the feminism subject matter of sexual differences from aa historical perspective are deemed to be rooted in the deterioration and predicament of Western humanism. These are mainly the critiques of phallogocentrism as well as the European identity crisis. For instance, in the philosophical creation that declared the 'death of Man' primarily lead to the refusal of humanism and went ahead to mark the collapse of the European notion. One of the prime objectives of the practice of feminism, thus, is to oversee the ousting of oppressive and pejorative implications that are mostly based not only upon the notion of difference but also upon the dialectics of others and self (Oliveira, Morais & Mateus, 2019). Hence, the transformation of values is a significant catalyst for paving the way for the reaffirmation of the difference positivity through the realization of a joint reconsideration of the singularity of each subject in his or her complexity. Elaborately, the feminism subject matter is not chiefly woman as the opposite and specular other of man; instead, it is a multilayered and composite personified subject who has gone ahead to distance herself from the femininity institution.

Consequently, she no longer agrees with most of the attempts aimed at disempowering the reflection of a central subject that casts his machismo in a posture that is universalistic. More so, she may have even dropped her she element and taken up a subject that is yet another story. Sexuality, as a prominent discourse of power in the West, mostly demands a unique critical analysis. This is mainly because of the gravitas need to deconstruct the overgeneralized becoming-women notion of phallogocentric identities principally due to sexual dualism as well as its corollary (Braidotti pg. 50). The idea of becoming-woman is acceptably regarded as revolutionary. This is because it is actively inclined towards the revolutionization of the social practices, signs and embodies the histories of the whites through the institutionalization of femininity (Agarwal & Barthel, 2015).

Moreover, several of these transitions are already taking shape in the contemporary world. Consequently, several institutions and bodies are ceasing or malfunctioning in the production of programmed codes that mainly use Prozac. This is because they are a leading aspect of the spread of symptoms related to bulimia and anorexia (Huang, 2018). Nonetheless, it is imperative to note that these breakdowns are relatively not adequate to interrupt machine. For example, the identity of Lesbians is not exempted from the postmodern fragmentation rule. The spread of diversity for the sake of the market economy that is mostly among the leading idiosyncratic qualities of postmodernity has mainly made lesbianism to run an even higher risk of commodification as compared to other brands of sexuality presently (Braidotti pg. 53).

In conclusion, the story Waiting for the Barbarians is a true reflection and manifestation of the vitality of femininity in the attempt to ensure equality to all. The becoming-woman or minoritarian of a given subject should, therefore, not end at the empirical stage. Instead, it ought to compel for a realignment centred on basic subjectivity parameters. In this case, the power of denial, negativity and constraint (potestas) will be subjected to a similarly dominant force of expression, intensity and abundance (potentia). Therefore, through this, in the long run, women will have the knack to battle the separation of self from the societal domain, the symbolic from the material and the psychic from its outside.

Works Cited

Agarwal, S. D., & Barthel, M. L. (2015). The friendly barbarians: Professional norms and work routines of online journalists in the United States. Journalism, 16(3), 376-391.

Braidotti, Rosi. "Becoming Woman: Or Sexual Difference Revisited." Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 20, no. 3, 2003, pp. 43-64.

de Oliveira, M. F., Morais, M. P. A., & Mateus, A. M. L. (2019). South African censorship: the production & liberation of Waiting for the barbarians, by J. M Coetzee. Acta Scientiarum. Language and Culture, 41(2), e45604-e45604.


Huang, H. U. I. (2018). Deconstruction of Ethical Predicament in JM Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians. Interlitteraria, 23(1), 136-143.

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Literary Analysis Essay on Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee. (2023, Mar 16). Retrieved from

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