Prose Study: Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

FRom the pRL / ORIGINALLY WRITTEN IN ENGLISH / C20TH / africa/OCeania / south africa/Australia

“In innumerable guises [he] portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider.”

2003 Nobel Prize committee on awarding J.M. Coetzee the Nobel Prize for Literature


This painting by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre depictsThe Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410. Painted in 1890, it is held at the Musee Paul Valery in France. Here is a link to art inspired by the fall of empire at Daily Art magazine.

An unnamed magistrate is stationed at a frontier border town of an expanding empire. He’s been posted here for a long time and, despite how far away he is from the capital, he is happy to live out his ‘easy years’ in this remote area on the border of the empire; approaching sixty, he will retire soon and, apart from the occasional sheep raids and sporadic attacks, his posting is not at all dramatic. However, rumour is spreading about a possible barbarian attack by the indigenous peoples who live on the empire’s fringes. Displaced by the foreign settlers, are they now massing together to counter-attack?

The magistrate’s easy days are thrown into turmoil by the arrival of Colonel Joll. A ruthless army man, he’s been sent from the capital to discover the truth about the barbarian invasion. The magistrate welcomes Joll uneasily, and soon his suspicions about the officer’s mission are borne out. Joll ruthlessly adopts brutal torture tactics to discover the ‘truth’ from nomadic prisoners abducted from the desert lands around the settlement. The magistrate is repulsed by these techniques, and by the death of an elderly father who could not bear the sight of his daughter being tortured in front of him. Because of his compassion, he is reluctantly drawn into conflict with the empire he is meant to serve.

IB Student Learner Profile: Risk-Takers

When the magistrate encounters a superior officer who employs torture in the pursuit of his political aims, his first instincts are to obey the chain of command. He reasons that it’s none of his business and, besides, after a short time, Colonel Joll will return to the capital and the whole sordid affair will be forgotten. But, when he comes across the site of brutal torture and sees the pain and misery of others with his own eyes, he finds himself compelled to act. He thinks, “where civilization entailed the corruption of barbarian virtues and the creation of a dependent people, I decided, I was opposed to civilization.” He places himself in opposition to his imperial superiors – at considerable risk to himself. As you read Waiting for the Barbarians, consider where your own thoughts lie in relation to issues such as the use of torture during wartime, and whether one can stand aside when presented with human misery. What risks would you take to uphold your values should they conflict with situations in your own life?

IB Lang and Lit Concept: Culture

While the novel unfolds in an unspecified, unnamed culture, Coetzee is a South African writer and the resemblance between the empire and real-world South Africa is unmistakeable. Coetzee attended the University of Cape Town and, after spending part of his life in London and the US, returned to South Africa in the 1970s, where he taught English at his old alma-mater. At this time, South Africa was divided by the apartheid system – which Coetzee loudly denounced. The plot and themes of Waiting for the Barbarians, written in the 1970s and published on October 27th 1980, parallel the events and history of apartheid South Africa. For example: the death of prominent anti-apartheid activist, Steve Biko, is alluded to in the first chapter of the novel. Like Colonel Joll’s explanation for how a prisoner in his custody fell and hit his head on a wall, Biko died in police custody – supposedly during a ‘scuffle’. Biko’s monstrous injuries later came to light and it was revealed that he had been tortured.

More generally, when the British and Dutch settled in South Africa, they expelled indigenous people from their ancestral homelands. Waiting for the Barbarians can be read as an examination of how political and colonial regimes secure power through creating fear of the ‘other’; outsiders who are oppressed yet simultaneously depicted as a threat to a supposedly-civilised culture.

1. The arrival of Colonel Joll

‘First I get lies, you see – this is what happens – first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth. This is how you get the truth.’

The narrator of the story is an unnamed magistrate, sent to administer a remote post in the imperial colony, who wishes for a peaceful life. His life is thrown into disarray when Colonel Joll arrives. Joll has been sent from the capital to unearth the truth about a possible barbarian invasion – and he’s going to use every means at his disposal, including torture, to fulfil his mission. The magistrate is not against interrogations, but he finds it hard to deal with the knowledge that prisoners are being tortured and this fact is covered up in official reports. He struggles with the pain and injustice inflicted by the Empire because, in his view, the barbarians pose no significant danger. His sensitivity makes him sympathetic towards the outsiders, who could do no more harm if they were simply released.

The magistrate is unable to establish any meaningful communication with Colonel Joll. They seem to communicate on different levels. Joll’s interests concern only those matters that uphold his own position, while the magistrate considers the human cost of the empire’s settlement on this land. Joll disregards local customs and never considers the damage caused through his actions. In a chilling exchange, we see him unconcerned about the number of animals killed in a hunt, whose bodies were left to rot away.

Hidden in the desert

In chapter 1, the death of a prisoner during interrogation deliberately alludes to the death of Steve Biko, a prominent anti-apartheid activist, in 1977 while in police custody. Colonel Joll’s report cites a ‘scuffle’ – language used in the inquiry into Biko’s death. You can dig for more information about Steve Biko’s life and death by visiting this page from South African History Online.

Learner Portfolio: Others and Othering

In general the ‘other’ is anyone who is separate from one’s self. The existence of the others is crucial in defining what is “normal” and in locating one’s own place in the world. The other is perceived as lacking the essential characteristics possessed by a group and hence is considered to be a lesser or inferior being and therefore is treated accordingly.

Read this definition of ‘othering’ by Dr Susan Nirmala then write a piece for your Learner Portfolio about how J.M. Coetzee presents the theme of othering at the start of his novel Waiting for the Barbarians.

2. The Blind Girl

‘I am tired of talking.’

Once Colonel Joll leaves town, the magistrate tries to go back to his normal routine. But he is disturbed by the sight of a girl begging in the street. He recognises her as the daughter of the man who died during Joll’s interrogation and sees that she had been partially blinded by the torture she was subjected to. Motivated by pity, the magistrate takes her in and provides her shelter and food.

Their relationship is complicated by a bathing ritual that develops between them. After washing and dressing her wounds on the first night, the magistrate becomes obsessed with the lines and scars of her body. He wonders about his own sexuality as, to begin with at least, he is not motivated by desire. Instead he seems determined to uncover the truth about her experiences under torture; after a while he begins to feel that his way of digging for answers bears an uncomfortable similarity to Joll’s methods of interrogation…

HIdden in the desert

Coetzee named his novel Waiting for the Barbarians after a poem by Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy. The last line of the poem reads, “those people were a kind of solution.” Cavafy implies that so-called ‘barbarians’ are a code for ‘foreign’, ‘threatening’, ‘criminal’— any outsider who can be used to scare people and justify an authoritarian regime or measure. Dig for more insights by reading this poem and discussing the significance of this allusion.

Learner Portfolio: Compare and Contrast

“It has not escaped me that an interrogator can wear two masks, speak with two voices, one harsh, one seductive.” (p8)

By the end of the second chapter. the reader has met all three characters central to the themes and concerns of Waiting for the Barbarians: the unnamed magistrate, Colonel Joll and the unnamed nomadic girl. While both nominally serving the empire, Joll and the magistrate go about their business in markedly different ways while the girl is caught in the middle.

Choose a suitable method, such as a Venn diagram or mini-essay, to compare and contrast the characters of Colonel Joll and the magistrate. Despite the differences between the two men, is Coetzee implying that they are two sides of the same coin? Include a range of references and quotations from chapters one and two in this piece of work.

3. Into the Desert

‘The terrain is more desolate than anything we have yet seen.’

Frustrated by the distance that has grown between them, the magistrate impatiently decides to return the nomadic girl to her family by venturing into the desert even though the winter snows have not yet passed. He gathers together guards and a guide, before venturing into the desert wilderness.

It will be a journey filled with hardship, and one that will change the magistrate’s fortunes, as he suffers in the harsh environment outside the settlement walls. On the first day, dust and sand irritate the small group; by the fourth day the terrain has become desolate and they lose one of their horses; after eight days of travel there is little food left and the horses are unable to bear the weight of riders. By the tenth day the bedraggled group are enveloped in a fierce storm; sand, grit and rain and ice assail the travellers and they lose one of their tents. Fortunately, at the point where they have to give up and turn back, they come across a small group of nomadic herders. But, at the last moment, the magistrate has a change of heart and asks the barbarian girl to stay with him. Will she return to the settlement with him, or does she choose to stay with her people?

Hidden in the desert

‘White guilt’ or ‘white colonial guilt’ is the shame and remorse felt by some white people when they learn about the legacy of slavery and racism that was endemic to European colonial missions around the globe. While the term can be politicised and is not as straightforward as it might first appear, white guilt can also lead to feelings of empathy and help repair damaged communities. Dig into this idea and ask if the magistrate’s actions in returning the girl to her people is a genuine example of white guilt.

Learner Portfolio: Create an annotated map

“Now that I have committed myself to a course I sleep more easily and even detect within myself something like happiness.” (p63)

The magistrate’s journey into the desert is the turning point of his life. Readers are entitled to wonder about the magistrate’s impatience? Why doesn’t he wait a few more weeks until winter has passed and milder spring weather arrives? It may be that the journey into the wilderness is more than just a physical journey; In what way is the journey a psychological or subconscious journey as well? You can research Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Inner Journey’ to discover more about the way physical journeys symbolise the transformation of characters in novels.

Draw a map of the fort settlement and the surrounding desert into which the magistrate journeys. Include places of interest and sites of importance on your map. Annotate your map with notes and quotations demonstrating the physical and symbolic importance of the magistrate’s journey. Display your map and add a copy to your Learner Portfolio.

4. Torture and Dehumanisation

‘I too, if I live long enough in this cell with its ghosts… will be touched with the contagion and turned into a creature that believes in nothing.’

This chapter is devoted to the imprisonment and torture of the magistrate after he comes back from his trip to the mountains. Based on false evidence given by the soldiers who accompanied him on this trip, he is accused of conspiring with the barbarians and betraying the Empire. While imprisoned alone, he analyzes the events of the last few weeks. He considers his feelings for the nomad girl, questioning his pity for her, and thinking that she became less and less human because of her torture; in the end she became only a creature who believed in nothing.

Meanwhile, Colonel Joll returns to the settlement and intensifies the pre-emptive strikes against the barbarians. Fires are set around the village, destroying trees that could be used to screen an attack, but also destroying the farmland and crops the settlement needs to survive. Joll orders more prison compounds to be built and, when more prisoners are brought in, continues his application of torture to discover the barbarians’ plans. This time, the magistrate finds the courage to look at Joll’s methods: the prisoners are degraded and dehumanised, branded with the word ‘enemy’, beaten, and forced to kneel in the sand bound with wires which tighten and inflict more pain, while Joll’s soldiers go about their grisly work.

hidden in the desert

The novel’s author, James Maxwell Coetzee, is reclusive and shuns publicity. However, he has occasionally been interviewed in his long writing career. In J.M. Coetzee’s words, Waiting for the Barbarians is a novel about “the impact of the torture chamber on the life of a man of conscience.”

Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 1 (Literature students only)

If you are a Language A: Literature student, at the end of your course you will sit Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis. This paper contains two previously unseen literary passages. SL students write a guided analysis of one of these passages; HL students write about both passages. The passages could be taken from any of four literary forms: prose, poetry, drama or literary non-fiction. Each of the passages will be from a different literary form.

Here are two passages taken from Waiting for the Barbarians; as this is a novel the literary form is ‘prose’. Each passage is accompanied by a guiding question to provide a focus or ‘way in’ to your response. Choose one passage and complete this Learner Portfolio entry in the style of Paper 1: Guided Literary Analysis.

5. A Heart of Darkness

The town becomes more anxious about the upcoming barbarian attack; the army who people thought might protect the town have yet to return from their campaign. Little do the townspeople know that the army has been defeated – not by the barbarians but by their own tactics. The nomads simply led the army into the desert where they starved or froze to death. The remaining soldiers and citizens find it hard to believe that such primitive people, armed only with bows, could defeat the educated officers of the empire. The ripple effect of fear is evident in the town as Mandel – in the absence of Colonel Joll – has lost control of his own soldiers. The men who are supposed to enforce the law instead loot the town. They feel no obligation towards their duties and the town is left exposed and unable to defend itself.  

In the absence of any effective leadership, the magistrate resumes his old duties, takes up his old hobbies, and even sparks up a romance with one of his old sexual partners. However, his desire to live out his ‘easy years’ has been spoiled by feelings of responsibility for the torture and deaths of the local people. The brutality of the empire is laid bare in these chapters; he discovers mass graves, witnesses the destruction of innocent fishermen’s huts, and realises the law of the empire is powerless. By the end of the novel, it is evident that those who were supposed to protect civilisation from barbarian savages have become barbarian themselves. If there even were any barbarians, they don’t need to attack the town because it is set on a course towards its own self-destruction.

hidden in the desert

Throughout the novel, the magistrate has been associated with writing letters, some of which he does not send, and collecting ancient scripts. He desires to go down in history as a ‘good man’. At the end of the novel, he commits to writing a history of the settlement, but seems unable to know where to start. Dig into the desire to leave a legacy that preoccupies the magistrate by discussing the motif of writing as it appears throughout the novel.

Learner Portfolio: Practise for Paper 2

Write this Learner Portfolio in the style of a practice Paper 2 response. You can use one of the prompts below, or another prompt given to you by your teacher. Although Paper 2 requires you to write about two literary works, for the sake of this exercise you could focus only on your response to Waiting for the Barbarians, or you could try to compare your ideas to another literary work you have studied (visit this post for more help with Paper 2 compare and contrast skills).

Choose one of the following prompts (or use another prompt you have been given), talk with your teacher about how to approach and structure your writing, then complete your portfolio entry:

  1. How valid is the assertion that literary works are a voice for the oppressed?
  2. Examine the role and function of the outsider in works of literature you have studied.
  3. Show how aspects of literary works can be better understood with a knowledge of the time and place in which they were written.
  4. Does good always triumph over evil in works of literature?

Towards Assessment: Higher Level Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 marks).††

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Much of your study of Waiting for the Barbarians will involve thought and discussion about the three central characters: the magistrate, Colonel Joll, and the unnamed nomadic girl. You can use an aspect of one of these characters as the starting point for this essay. Questions you could profitably pursue include, but are not limited to:

  • What is the significance of the scars on the body of the nomadic girl in Waiting for the Barbarians?
  • How does Coetzee suggest that Colonel Joll and the magistrate are both complicit with the atrocities committed in Waiting for the Barbarians?
  • Examine the significance of Colonel Joll’s sunglasses in Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee.
  • How do the magistrate’s dreams develop both his character and the themes of Waiting for the Barbarians?
  • Discuss the ways by which people are ‘othered’ in J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians.
  • What is the role and importance of setting in Waiting for the Barbarians?
  • Investigate the effect of telling the story of Waiting for the Barbarians from the magistrate’s perspective.
  • Explore the significance of the magistrate’s preoccupation with writing in Waiting for the Barbarians.

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work (or two literary works if you are following the Literature-only course), students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

Please find suggestions here; but always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

Waiting for the Barbarians could be an excellent text to talk about in your oral assessment. Themes of torture, justice, colonialism and guilt and complicity can easily be developed into a Global Issue. Now you have finished reading and studying the novel, spend a lesson working with the IB Fields of Inquiry: mind-map the play, include your ideas for Global Issues, make connections with other Literary Works or Body of Works that you have studied on your course and see if you can make a proposal you might use to write your Individual Oral.

Here are one or two suggestions to get you started, but consider your own programme of study before you make any firm decisions about your personal Global Issue. Whatever you choose, remember a Global Issue must have local relevance, wide impact and be trans-national:

  • Field of Inquiry: Power, Politics and Justice
  • Global Issue: miscarriages of justice
  • Possible Pairings (Lit course: if you are following the Literature-only course, you must pair a text originally written in English with a translated work): Broken April by Ismail Kadare; The Vegetarian by Han Kang; The Visit by Friedrich Durrenmatt.
  • Possible Pairings (Lang and Lit): The Post directed by Stephen Spielberg; Nelson Mandela’s speeches;

In Waiting for the Barbarians, Colonel Joll feels no compunction about torturing and murdering the nomadic people who live at the fringes of the empire. Later, when the town magistrate is subject to the same torture methods, he is denied the right to a trial. In Coetzee’s novel justice is a flexible concept and miscarriages of justice are never investigated nor resisted.

Coetzee reveals how the consolidation of colonial power depends upon the manufacturing of fear of invasion. Fear of the barbarian threat, whether real or not, is stoked and people fall back on stereotypes of the savage barbarian, despite the fact that the promised invasion never seems to materialise.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s