‘The Life of the Imagination’ by Nadine Gordimer: Short Story Analysis
‘The Life of the Imagination’ was penned by Nadine Gordimer in the year 1968. Nadine Gordimer is one of the best writers in South Africa. This story is about a woman Barbara, who cheats on her husband Arthur, and has an illicit sexual relationship with a young doctor, Dr. Usher. The story is penned in a surreal way. Sexualism and racism are one of the elements in the story but otherwise, the story is beautifully crafted in a prose form that captures the reader’s attention. We are easily drawn into the world of Barbara and her unreal world. Barbara is artistically talented, a contemplative dreamer, creative, a reader of books, and likes to live in a world apart from reality. Her overall despondent personality reveals itself through the choice of the men in her life.
Three men define Barbara’s life:
- Dan, the director of a municipal art gallery.
- Her husband Arthur who is a successful architect, whom Dan introduced her to.
- Dr. Usher, a young married man with whom she has a secret relationship.
Through these men, we see the detached persona of Barbara. She always seems to be aloof from the world around her and does not take relationships seriously. She has always had a cushy life, on her terms. Even where the affair with Dr. Usher is concerned, she despite her luxury and abundance wanted to be with him. This was because she and her husband did not share a passionate love chemistry. The question then arises, if she didn’t like him then why did she marry him? Arthur was introduced to her by Dan who was also married and used to have an intellectual and semi-sexual relationship with Barbara. It seems very likely that Barbara is so despondent and laid back as a personality, that she did not care who she was marrying or what she was getting herself into. She is certainly living more in her imaginary world than the real world, where relationships matter, people matter and sentiments need to be reciprocated accordingly. Barbara has shown throughout this story that she is a person who likes to live according to her instincts. She is a sexual being and craves physical intimacy. However, the only time when she feels fulfilled sexually is when she is with Dr. Usher, a random man whom she barely knew and who was used to having his way in life. There are a lot of props used here in this short story which all collectively center around the strange personage of Barbara. She seems to be surrounded mainly by men in her life; even her two children are little boys who are the only witnesses of their mother’s otherwise clandestine affair with Dr. Usher. Barbara is a person who likes to keep up social decorum. That is because her mind and thoughts are otherwise in a complete mess. This is apparent when we read about the messy room of her two little boys. She sees it too and dreads the notion that one day when her boys grow up, they will be like all other men and think of her as an old hag with all hair sprouting from her chin. She mentions that if that happened, she would consider herself to be as good as dead. Barbara’s love affair with Dr. Usher is shabby. There is a beautiful line describing it in the story:
She learnt that shabbiness is the judgement of the outsider, the one left in the cold; there are no shabby love-affairs for those who are the lovers.
To her, her love affair was perfect. It is quite possible that Arthur knew about the affair for Barbara was always having African maids around the place dropping in unexpectantly on her privacy. It is also possible that Arthur could not care less about it all. Barbara loved her privacy a lot. To keep her privacy, she also has a pondokkie, or a makeshift little hut, to read in and to be by herself. She does not allow anyone into that hut, even though it could have been the best place to have a clandestine affair. The pondokkie is her soft and tender point. Even when Dr. Usher jokes about it, she remains silent but she is quite unnerved by his irreverence for her little hut. I feel the same for my office-cum-writing hut so I know how the character Barbara must have felt. Like me, Barbara loves to read intellectual books. Very early in life, she read The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke which is evidence of how precocious and knowledgeable she was, wise beyond her years, to read and understand a book of a writer who even influenced Sartre. I did a review on Rilke’s book Letters to a Young Poet recently. You can check that out later if you want to know more about him.
Then there is the topic of Dr. Usher. He falls sexually ‘head over heels’ in love with Barbara. Gordimer mentions in her story that Usher was, in some cases, used to having his way. His wife chose his clothes for him, but he chose which hairstyle to comb his hair and who should be his mistress. But there is only physical intimacy between Barbara and Usher. He has not taken the relationship that seriously. We know this because he was already planning on immigrating to Boston for biological research. He was going to move with his family. Barbara did not fit anywhere into the picture. Gordimer, through this story, shows us the banality and hollowness in the phrase ‘I love you’. Dr. Usher says it to Barbara, but it sounds more like he is doing it for courtesy’s sake than meaning it. Usher is likened to a moth flitting from place to place like he technically does as a general practitioner. The reference to the moth in this story could also be indicative of Barbara and the men she keeps on flirting with. Usher loves his family out of duty, and not because he has a healthy relationship with his wife. If you read the text carefully, you will notice that none of the relationships are ‘healthy’ in this story. There is even a strain in Arthur’s relationship with Barbara. He seems to be a dominating figure with a spot of nonchalance in his overall demeanor. He plays tennis all the time, the self-indulgent game of all time. There is no comradery in tennis. You have no team to work with. You are all on your own. Usher’s wife, Yvonne, too coincidently plays the same game. Barbara pictures Yvonne as the cliched young mother who as a child used to play a lot with dolls. She now plays and dresses up her daughters in the same manner as she used to tend to her dolls. There is a hidden and subtle hint of jealousy in Barbara toward Yvonne when the mention of the ‘doll girls’ is made in the story. Barbara cannot replace Yvonne and she is half-disturbed by that.
There is a very in-depth reference to the pigskin bag Barbara gifts to Dr. Usher who uses it as his carry bag to visit each house as a general practitioner. It is difficult to miss. It is a reference to Barbara trying to ‘drive away her legion of demons’ from herself to a pig. Her demon is her despondency and sexual hunger for Usher and the pigskin bag is what she tries to throw her ‘demon’ into.
“Have You come here to torment us before the time?” Now there was a herd of many swine feeding at a distance from them. The demons began to entreat Him, saying, “If You are going to cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” And He said to them, “Go!” And they came out and went into the swine, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the waters. —Matthew 8:29-32
Usher is a doctor and so smells like a hospital, the operation theater, or of hospital soap. This is Barbara seeing the very practical and ‘clinical’ side of Usher who is only in this relationship for physical intimacy and nothing else. He reminds her of a busy Dr. Dolittle who looks like President Paul Kruger of South Africa. In other words, he was a rather plain-looking and an otherwise unattractive man, easy to get lost in a crowd. Barbara sees all these points and wonders about her affections for this man with a hairy and wet chest on which she loves to rest after they have sex. There is a mention in the story of bonsai trees related to Barbara’s life in Japan. She feels sorry for Usher because he thinks bonsai trees are distinctive and a symbol of elegance. The bonsai tree is a reference to her; she was a symbol of elegance in the life of her architect husband. She had become a showpiece for all his friends. She had no friends of her own. All the people she knew were ‘Arthur’s friends’ and she wonders since when it had come down to that? I have noticed that Nadine Gordimer loves to introduce her characters first in her narratives and then describe them later. It is a way of writing which is commonly practiced among contemporary twentieth-century writers, as well as modern-day millennial and Gen X writers. There are some beautiful lines in this story. Some of them are:
- It was the anonymous telecommunication of long marriage. This was concerning the phone conversations between Usher and Yvonne.
- From the depths of his uncertainty, he and Barbara looked at each other like two prisoners who wake up and find themselves on the floor of the same cell. Which is a reference to their impending separation with Usher leaving for Boston.
- This is the image of the mother that men have often chosen to perpetuate, the autobiographers, the Prousts. This was probably a reference to how men saw women in general, and Barbara in particular. This she was sure would also be how Pete and Bruce, her children, would see her.
The conclusion of the story is haunting. There is a lot of pain and chaos on the last night Barbara and Usher are together. Usher and she make love in her house on her marital bed. Things have gone too far and out of hand, and to think it could not last forever! Usher leaves the terrace door open and, strangely, Barbara fears for her life because of the African black community of robbers who were creating a ruckus in the area. She hopes, however, that they do come for her and stab her to a painful but quick death. Why she seeks the extreme thought of death is embroiled in the mysteriousness of her persona. It is also embroiled in the confusion of her vivid imagination.
It was a great pleasure to review Nadine Gordimer’s work. I have always loved her short stories from a very young age, and hope to review more of them soon. ‘The Life of the Imagination’ was fascinating and enchanting. If you are interested in more book reviews, book review analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, then you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you want to buy my books then you can visit my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you always!
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