Tool Late the Phalarope
Tool Late the PhalaropeIntroduction
For Further Study
Following his successful debut with Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton wrote a second novel set in South Africa, Too Late the Phalarope. This second novel continues to be overshadowed by its predecessor, despite considerable critical opinion that it is the more polished of the two. Both books carry Paton's imprint in their portrayal of unfairness in a system designed to keep the races separate. As a dedicated political activist, Paton saw his writing as a means to a higher end. Too Late the Phalarope clearly exhibits the author's disgust with injustice in a supposedly "moral" society.
Cry, the Beloved Country centers on the black experience in South Africa, while Too Late the Phalarope depicts the lives of Afrikaners (descendants of Dutch settlers who traveled to South Africa three hundred years ago). Specifically, Paton depicts a heroic protagonist, Pieter van Vlaanderen, grappling with private issues in the face of a strict law forbidding interracial sexual relationships. Pieter's internal struggles are intensified by the fact that, as a top-ranking police officer, he represents lawfulness and duty. His inability to resolve his dilemma with self-control leads to his ruin.
Numerous critics regard Too Late the Phalarope as a modern-day Greek tragedy. The story features an extremely virtuous and upright hero whose downfall comes about as the result of his own tragic flaw. Further, secondary characters (such as Pieter's family) are destroyed by forces outside themselves and over which they have no control. The narrator, Sophie, is somewhat re-moved from the rest of the characters because of her disfigurement, and thus serves as the chorus, commenting on the action of the plot. By updating the Greek tragedy, Paton refers to the universality of human suffering and weakness while demonstrating the dangers of an unjust social structure.
Alan Paton is remembered as an exceptional writer, a passionate activist, and a compelling educator. He was born on January 11, 1903, in Pietermaritzburg in Natal, a province of South Africa. Paton's father, like Jakob van Vlaanderen in Too Late the Phalarope, was a domineering, harsh, and religious man. Although he was a tyrant at home, James Pa-ton also passed along his love of literature and writing to his children. Alan Paton married in 1928, had two children with his wife, and was widowed in 1967. He remarried two years later.
After completing his education at Pietermaritzburg College and Natal University, Paton taught for three years in rural Ixopo, which would later serve as the setting for Cry, the Beloved Country. In 1935, he became the principal of Diepkloof, a school for delinquent boys. Paton changed the dynamics in the school from force and conflict to trust and respect. This experience prompted him to travel around the world to study prison systems. He wrote his first novel during these travels. Upon his return to South Africa, Paton went to live on the south coast of Natal, where he wrote articles about issues pertinent to South Africa. In the early 1950s, he became a founder of the liberal Association of South Africa, which would later evolve into a political party. In the 1960s, the South African government attempted to control Paton's actions by revoking his passport, so that if he left the country he would not be allowed to return. This did not, however, slow him down in his fight against racism and apartheid on his native soil.
In 1948, Paton published his first and best-known work, the novel Cry, the Beloved Country. Too Late the Phalarope was published in 1953, and although most critics regard it as his best work, Paton's reputation as a writer rests largely on his first novel. Both novels reflect the author's anti-apartheid sentiment and his hope for a brighter future for South Africa. Paton also wrote poetry and short stories, but felt too strongly about remaining politically active to devote all of his time to writing.
Critics admire Paton's fiction for messages that are clear without being heavyhanded and for his sympathetic portrayal of black characters suffering exploitation. For a short while, members of the South African black community criticized Pa-ton for depicting black characters as either victims of uncontrollable passions or as members of a beaten-down race. This controversy soon subsided, and the continued popularity of his works today suggests that readers around the world are still responsive to his writing.
Paton died of throat cancer on April 12, 1988, at his home in Natal, South Africa.
The narrator, Sophie van Vlaanderen, begins by describing her nephew Pieter's childhood. Because Sophie has lived with her brother and his family for many years, she has known Pieter his entire life. His relationship with his father has always been strained because his father is harsh and distant. Sophie believes that Pieter has his father's strength and masculinity and his mother's gentleness and caring nature.
From the very beginning, Sophie refers to the family's eventual destruction and how she might have saved Pieter from his fall. Because she tells the story in past tense, she often foreshadows events to come.
Pieter has grown up and was a decorated soldier in the war, after which he was given a high-ranking position with the police. As second-in-command, he is resented by Sergeant Steyn, who is older and more experienced than Pieter, and yet must report to him.
Pieter is a well-known rugby player who often plays with the younger men in the town. One night, he catches one of the players pursuing a young black woman. Because of the Immorality Act of 1927, which forbids sexual relationships between blacks and whites, the young man could face serious charges. Instead, Pieter talks to him and allows him to go free.
The next day, Pieter visits his friend Matthew Kaplan ("Kappie"), with whom he shares an interest in stamp collecting. While Pieter is looking over some stamps for purchase, Pieter's father, Jakob, enters Kappie's store. Because of past incidents related to stamp collecting, Pieter becomes uncomfortable in his father's presence, and finishes his business quickly. This interaction brings about one of his "black" moods that haunts him throughout the story.
A man named Smith is sentenced to hang for murder. He had impregnated one of his black servants, and knew that it would be obvious that he was the father. To avoid punishment under the Immorality Act, he and his wife killed the girl and cut off her head so that the body could not be identified if it was found. The crime is discovered, however, and Smith faces murder charges, of which he is found guilty and sentenced to hang.
Pieter is sent to find Stephanie, a young woman who makes a living for herself and her illegitimate child by brewing and selling illegal liquor. She is often arrested and seems unaffected by serving jail time. When Pieter finds her, he experiences a strange attraction to her, which he terms "the mad sickness." He denies it to himself and takes the girl to town to face charges. The judge warns her that if she does not find legal work, she may lose her child. She reacts strongly; this threat pierces her veil of nonchalance.
A new minister arrives in town and everyone comes to see him, having heard that he is an impressive speaker. Pieter's sister, Martha, blushes as she looks at the new minister, as do all the young unmarried women.
A large party is planned for Jakob's birthday. Pieter gives his father a book, which is a bold gesture because Jakob only reads from the family Bible. Pieter gives him The Birds of South Africa and Jakob is so pleased that the entire family is proud of Pieter.
Nella leaves with the children to visit her parents for an extended stay. Her marriage to Pieter has been tense; both are relieved but also anxious at the prospect of being apart for a while. Stephanie stops by Pieter's house to tell him that she has gotten legitimate work, and Sophie notices a look pass between them. She senses danger and from here on is nervous for her nephew.
Plagued by his attraction to Stephanie, a woman who should repulse him, Pieter decides to talk to Kappie about his problem. However, he cannot bring himself to confess the desire that shames him. Kappie can tell that something is wrong, but does not try to push Pieter into telling him.
A few days later, Pieter meets with his cousin Anna, and they talk and drink brandy. Pieter does not usually drink, so the brandy takes effect and he goes to a place where he knows he will see Stephanie. He finds her, and they sleep together, and when Pieter returns home there is a note on his door that reads, "I saw you." Overwhelmed by guilt and terror, he becomes paranoid. He imagines that everyone has found out about his crime and judged him until Kappie tells him off-handedly that he left the note because he saw Pieter drinking brandy with his cousin.
Deeply relieved, Pieter returns to his routine. Sergeant Steyn leaves on vacation with his family, where his daughter picks up small seashells as souvenirs. Sophie mentions this in a mysterious, foreshadowing way.
Nella returns home with the children and she and Pieter enjoy a very romantic evening that rekindles their love. The joy is only temporary, however, because they soon return to their old habits and patterns. As a result, Pieter's "black mood" returns, and he seeks Stephanie out and has sex with her a second time.
Once again filled with guilt, Pieter feels profoundly ashamed of himself. The young minister visits, asking Pieter if he thinks Jakob will allow him to marry Martha. In a lightened mood, Pieter assures him that Jakob will approve and gives the young man advice on dealing with Jakob.
Pieter, Jakob, Sophie, and the rest of the family go on a picnic. Sophie describes it as the last time they were all truly happy before they were destroyed. In an unusual moment of togetherness, Jakob takes Pieter on a walk to show him some of the birds from his book, most notably the phalarope.
Back at work, Pieter learns that Stephanie has lost her job. She is distraught at the thought of losing her child, and when she runs into him in the street, she explains that she needs a lawyer but has no money. He offers to give her some money, but they must meet privately so as not to arouse suspicion. They agree to meet at night, and when they do, she seduces him, even though he promised himself he would not have sex with her again.
The next day, he is called into the captain's office. The captain is the highest-ranking police authority and he tells Pieter that a charge has been made against him of violating the Immorality Act. Pieter denies it repeatedly until evidence mounts against him. The final proof is a small seashell placed in Pieter's pocket by Stephanie. Steyn has given it to her for that very purpose. Stephanie's knowledge that there is a seashell in Pieter's pocket, and her accurate description of it, are proof that she has been intimate with him.
Jakob disowns Pieter, crossing his name out of the family Bible. He demands that Pieter's name never be mentioned in the house again. He changes his will, removing Pieter and adding Nella and the children on the condition that they never have anything more to do with Pieter. When Jakob's wife says she must see her son Pieter once more, he tells her that if she leaves the house, she cannot return. Sophie chooses to see her nephew, even though she will no longer be allowed in her brother's house.
Pieter loses his job and faces imprisonment, but his aunt, Kappie, and the captain stay by his side. As it turns out, the captain is the father of Stephanie's child. Martha is forced by the scandal to break off her engagement to the minister, who leaves town shortly thereafter. The townspeople whisper about the incident, and soon after, Jakob dies. Before he goes to prison, Pieter gives Sophie his diary that tells the story of his downfall. He says it is for Nella to read, in hopes that she will come back to him. It is the diary that enables Sophie to tell the story of the novel.
Anna is Pieter's cousin. She claims that she is not married because the only man she would have married was Pieter, and he married someone else. Anna is a modern woman who smokes and wears "yellow trousers" that Sophie detests.
Esther is the elderly woman with whom Stephanie and her child live. Esther is reportedly the oldest woman in the village—more than a hundred years old—and claims to remember when the Boers first came to the area although Sophie doubts this.
Japie is a childhood friend of Pieter's who grows up and becomes a social worker. He and Pieter attended school and college together before their careers took them in different directions. When the new Social Welfare Department opens in Venterspan, his hometown, Japie is sent to run it. This delights him, as he holds fond memories of Pieter, Frans, and Tante Sophie (Aunt Sophie), who still live there. Japie is always joking, so Jakob does not take him seriously.
Japie works hard to try to help Stephanie find a job when she is threatened with losing her child. While Pieter pushes him to find work for her, Sophie (suspecting trouble for Pieter, her nephew) encourages Japie to send her away, which he cannot do because there is no law for it.
Kappie is a good friend of Pieter's, with whom he shares an interest in stamp collecting. A friendly Jewish man, Kappie respects Pieter and enjoys having him for coffee and to listen to music.
When Pieter considers telling someone about his strong attraction to Stephanie, he chooses Kappie as his potential confidant because he knows that instead of being judgmental, Kappie will be sympathetic and supportive. Pieter cannot bring himself to talk about his problem, however, although Kappie is sensitive enough to see that something is troubling his friend. At the end of the story, Kap-pie is one of the few people who stays by Pieter's side.
The only man of higher authority than Pieter, the captain is a respectable and wise man who thinks highly of Pieter. He is a serious man who respects duty above all else. He does not joke or laugh, having lost his son in gunfire and his wife soon afterwards. He lives with his mother, and although he is English, he speaks Afrikaans like a Boer.
When the captain behaves toward Pieter almost as a loving father, Pieter comes close to telling him about his crime. Pieter eventually learns that Stephanie's illegitimate child was fathered by the captain, who would have helped Pieter if he had known what Pieter was experiencing.
Smith is introduced as an example of how seriously the Immorality Act of 1927 is taken in Ven-terspan. Having impregnated one of his servant girls, he panics because he knows that it will be obvious that he is the child's father. To avoid punishment and shame, he and his wife murder the girl, cutting off her head so the body cannot be identified if discovered. The crime is found out, however, and Smith is tried and sentenced to hang.
Stephanie is a black woman in her mid-twenties who becomes the object of Pieter's sexual obsession. On three different occasions, she has sexual relations with him. Stephanie is a mysterious woman whose constantly alternating smiles and frowns do not seem to reflect her true feelings in any given situation. In chapter 2, Sophie remarks, "She took her sentences smiling and frowning, and would go smiling and frowning out of the court to the prison, and would come out from the prison smiling and frowning,… She seems completely unaffected by anything except the threat of losing her illegitimate child.
Stephanie lives with Esther and brews and sells illegal liquor to support herself. As a result of her lifestyle, she is well-known by the police, who have arrested her often. When she is threatened with having her child taken away from her, she seeks out legal work, but is unable to hold onto such a position, so she returns to earning money illegally. Faced with the reality of losing her child, she goes along with Sergeant Steyn's plan to destroy Pieter, and betrays him.
Because Pieter is given the high-ranking position of lieutenant in the police force, Sergeant Steyn is resentful at being made subordinate to a man who is younger than he is. Steyn's resentment is made worse by a few incidents in which Pieter is harsh to him, and he resolves to destroy Pieter. He conspires with Stephanie to trap Pieter into sleeping with Stephanie a third time so that evidence can be collected, including a shoe print and a seashell placed in Pieter's pocket by Stephanie.
Emily van Vlaanderen
Emily is one of Pieter's three sisters. She is the middle sister and is married to a man from Johannesburg.
Frans van Vlaanderen
Frans is Pieter's younger brother.
Henrietta van Vlaanderen
Henrietta is the eldest of Pieter's three sisters. She is married to a quiet man who is afraid of Jakob.
- Too Late the Phalarope was adapted as a play by Robert Yale Libott, first produced on Broadway at the Belasco Theater on October 11, 1956.
- An audio adaptation was made by Books on Tape in 1982.
Jakob van Vlaanderen
Jakob is Pieter's harsh and distant father, whose physical stature matches his strong personality despite his limp. He is cold, intimidating, and intolerant, and is unable to understand Pieter, who is equally comfortable riding and shooting with the neighborhood boys, or admiring flowers or collecting stamps alone. He is the chairman of his political party although he rarely appears for meetings, feeling that the members of the party are his "oxen." His prized possession is the family Bible brought over by his ancestors from Holland, and he often reads from "the Book." In fact, until Pieter gives him a book of pictures of South African birds, the only book Jakob ever reads is the Bible. When he learns of his son's crime, the first thing he does is cross Pieter's name out of the family Bible.
Jakob is depicted as a rigid and religious man who demands control in his home. Many critics claim that his sudden death at the end of the story is the result of his shame and hurt over his son's act.
Koos van Vlaanderen
Koos is Frans's ten-year-old son, who idolizes his uncle Pieter and hopes to become a police officer. When Pieter is shamed by his crime, Koos loses all affection for Pieter and becomes withdrawn.
Martha van Vlaanderen
Martha is Pieter's youngest sister. She and the new minister fall in love, and she anticipates great joy in married life. Because of Pieter's crime, however, she coldly breaks off the engagement, hiding her pain from the world as she resigns herself to life as a spinster.
Mrs. van Vlaanderen
Pieter's mother's first name is never revealed in the story although her personality is described on several occasions. She is a warm and compassionate woman who loves her family unconditionally. In chapter 1, Sophie notes, "If ever a woman was all love, it was she, all love and care." Sophie believes that Pieter inherited his father's masculinity and his mother's sweet temperament. Even when Mrs. van Vlaanderen learns of her son's crime, her first instinct is to run and see him, but Jakob forbids it. As a widow, however, she is free to see her son, whom she tries to comfort as best she can.
Nella van Vlaanderen
Pieter's wife, Nella, is a sweet, shy woman who is afraid of the roughness present in the world. Not only does she fear the big city of Johannesburg, she also fears such things as the coarse laughter of men in bars. She is a loving mother and a dutiful wife although she and her husband are sexually incompatible. After her husband's crime is revealed, her response is unknown because Jakob sends Nella and the children away from Pieter.
Pieter van Vlaanderen
The novel's main character, Pieter, is the lieutenant of the police. He breaks the law forbidding sexual contact between whites and blacks. Depicted as a divided personality from childhood, he suffers an internal struggle between what he knows to be moral and legal, and what he finds himself uncontrollably compelled to do. The strife within Pieter manifests itself as "black moods" that are described as falling upon him, almost as if they are separate from his true self.
Pieter is a charming, virtuous, and athletic man who is a pillar in his community of Venterspan. He is respected for being tender and understanding toward blacks as well as whites, an attitude he developed at a young age. Pieter enjoys reading on a variety of subjects, even though his father only reads the Bible. Like his father, he is tall and radiates an imposing presence. Pieter regularly attends church and is a well-known rugby player who is admired by many. He has a wife, Nella, and children, and lives near his parents, aunt, and siblings. His relationship with his father has always been strained, a situation that temporarily lightens just before Pieter's crime is discovered.
Sophie van Vlaanderen
Sophie is the narrator of the story. She is Pieter's aunt, who, because of her facial disfigurement, lives with her brother and his family although she remains a bit of an outsider. Having never married, she regards Pieter as the son she never had, and dotes on him shamelessly. Her position in the family is subordinate to that of both Jakob and Pieter; she loves both, but feels overpowered by them. She is a religious woman who attends church regularly and reads the Bible often.
A keen observer of those around her, Sophie notices that something is wrong with her nephew early in the novel and, based on a look that passes between Stephanie and Pieter, she becomes very anxious for him. Even before this, she realizes that Pieter is a deeply divided person in many respects. Throughout the book she remarks that if she had only been more assertive with her nephew, she might have prevented the tragedy that befell the family.
Vorster is a young man who works in the police station. He admires Pieter greatly until Pieter falls from grace after which Vorster completely turns on him.
Vos is the young minister who arrives in town amidst great anticipation. The townspeople have heard that he is a wonderful speaker, and he upholds this reputation with his first sermon. Also an avid rugby player, he is thrilled to meet Pieter, whose reputation as an athlete is well-known. Before long, the minister and Martha fall in love and plan to marry. He leaves the town, however, after Martha breaks their engagement.
In Too Late the Phalarope, Paton depicts morality as something that resides within and also as something that is imposed by external forces, such as church and government. Pieter's fall suggests that morality, when imposed on individuals by outside forces, is merely a façade. Despite Pieter's position in law enforcement, the external morality imposed by the law is inadequate to prevent him from breaking the very law he is sworn to uphold and enforce.
In contrast, Stephanie's sense of morality is wholly internal, directed only by her maternal drive to keep her child. To this end, she is comfortable brewing and selling illegal liquor, seducing Pieter, and later betraying him. She has no difficulty breaking the law forbidding sexual relations between white men and black women because she sees it as an opportunity to gain the favor of a powerful man. Her duty is to herself and her child, so she is easily recruited by Sergeant Steyn to deceive Pieter to better her chances of keeping her child.
Justice and Consequences
Paton is very clear in his message that breaking political and moral laws brings severe consequences, just or not. Even before Pieter meets privately with Stephanie, he understands the ramifications of acting against the Immorality Act of 1927. Not only has he seen the terror of men who violate it (like Smith), but in chapter 16, his diary reveals his thoughts when Stephanie visits him briefly at his home:
I should have said to her, let them take your child, and send you to prison, let them throw you into the street, let them hang you by the neck until you are dead, but do not come to my home, nor smile at me, nor think there can be anything between you and me. For this law is the greatest and holiest of laws, and if you break it and are discovered, for you it is nothing but another breaking of the law. But if I break it and am discovered, the whole world will be broken.
Pieter indeed suffers greatly when his crime is discovered: He loses his position as lieutenant of the police; he loses the respect of many of his friends; his father, Jakob, disowns him and forbids the very mention of his name; and his wife and children are sent away. He endures shame, humiliation, and imprisonment. Additionally, his family suffers for Pieter's actions. His young sister, Martha, must break her engagement to the minister, after which she resigns herself to life as a spinster. His mother is forbidden to see him. His aunt, by choosing to see him again, is permanently cast out of Jakob's home. Jakob lives in a state of rage and sorrow after his son's crime is revealed, and he dies shortly thereafter.
The case of Smith portrays the seemingly inescapable nature of justice. Smith tries to cover up his crime of impregnating a servant girl by murdering her. The crime is found out, however, and Smith is sentenced to hang for his actions. His attempt to sidestep justice only brings it upon him more harshly as he faces a charge of murder, along with the contempt of the townspeople who know him as a man who has murdered a young girl and an unborn baby to avoid just punishment.
The Divided Self
Sophie frequently refers to Pieter's divided self. At the beginning, she describes him as a child who could out-ride and out-shoot other boys, and at the same time enjoy delicate things like flowers and stamps. She considers him both a boy and a girl for this reason, and explains how disturbed Jakob is about his son's softer side.
Later in the story, when Pieter is a man, Sophie describes the battle raging within him as a struggle between what he knows is good and right and what he finds repulsive. She adds that his struggle is intensified because he cannot control his attraction to that which repels (or should repel) him. Ultimately, he gives in to his "evil" side and indulges his attraction to Stephanie on three different occasions. Sophie remarks in chapter 4, "Darkness and light, how they fought for his soul, and the darkness destroyed him, the gentlest and bravest of men." Much later, after having sex with Stephanie the third time, Pieter bathes while
trembling with the secret knowledge of the abject creature that was himself, that vowed and could not keep his vows, that was called to the high duty of the law and broke the law, that was moved in his soul by that which was holy and went reaching for that which was vile, that was held in respect by men and was baser than them all.
Sophie is not alone in her view of Pieter as divided; he sees himself that way, too. He refers to his attraction to Stephanie as the "mad sickness," and views it as something that comes to him of its own will. He sees it as a force separate from him, and yet one he cannot cast out of himself. Pieter's "black moods" are portrayed the same way—each one is a separate entity that shrouds him and refuses to be wished away.
Once Pieter has broken the law, he is overwhelmed with guilt. He perceives his whole world differently, imagining that everyone around him knows what he has done. Immediately following his first offense, he prays with deep humility, hoping not to offend God by being presumptuous in thinking He will hear his prayer. Pieter imagines:
that a trumpet had been blown in Heaven, and that the Lord Most High had ordered the closing of the doors, that no prayer might enter in from such a man, who knowing the laws and the commandments, had, of his own choice and will, defied them. As he makes his way home, he is covered with the smell of the kakiebos (a weed with a pungent smell) he had lain down in, and he feels that he is stinking with corruption, with a smell that will travel through the entire town, notifying everyone of his deed. Watching a group of oxen, he envies them because they are "holy and obedient" animals.
Topics for Further Study
- In Too Late the Phalarope Alan Paton depicts a racially divided society in which laws govern relationships between individuals of different races. Can you think of other historical instances of racism supported or encouraged by laws or government leaders? Prepare a chart that compares and contrasts such situations with the one Paton describes.
- Throughout the novel, Sophie refers to "the door." How does Paton use the door as a symbol, and what does it symbolize? Prepare a brief lecture as if you were explaining symbolism to young students unfamiliar with the concept. As an illustration, refer to Paton's use of door imagery.
- Read Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Tell-Tale Heart." How does Poe's depiction of guilt compare to Paton's depiction of Pieter's guilt after the first time he meets with Stephanie? How can you account for the different outcomes?
- Research the life of Nelson Mandela and his fight against apartheid in South Africa. What do you think are the three most important things he has done for the cause? Then speculate on how the course of history might have been different without his efforts.
- Review the climate, resources, and population of South Africa, along with its history since the arrival of the Dutch. Now look at a map and consider what geographical factors are significant to the tumultuous past of this country.
- Pieter's awkward relationship with his father is typical of many families. Take into account psychological, sociological, and personality factors, and provide an explanation for the distant relationship of the father and son in the novel. Can your conclusions be generalized to other people's situations? Why or why not?
Reflecting on how other men his age tell raunchy jokes, Pieter writes in his diary in chapter 15 (when he is only thinking of committing the crime but has not yet done so), "Yet they were all cleaner and sweeter than I. That is a thing I never understood." When Vorster, the young man who works at the police station, is in low spirits, Pieter suspects it is because he has found out what Pieter has done and no longer admires him. The captain's distant mood makes Pieter wonder if he has heard of the crime. When a neighbor sees Pieter and spits and turns away, Pieter can think of no other reason for such behavior than that he, too, knows what Pieter has done. In his relationship with his wife, Pieter becomes more helpful and thoughtful, speaking kind words because of his desire to be with his loving family. At the same time, he is less physically affectionate to his wife because even a kiss on the lips tears him apart. In chapter 21, Pieter's diary reads:
And what madness made a man pursue something so unspeakable, deaf to the cries of wife and children and mother and friends and blind to their danger, to grasp one unspeakable pleasure that brought no joy, ten thousand of which pleasures were not worth one of the hairs of their heads?
Readers are less sympathetic to Pieter when, after his first offense goes unnoticed, he repeats it. The first time, his guilt is fueled by terror that the note on his door ("I saw you") was from someone who had seen him with Stephanie. The second time, his guilt is fueled completely by his own shame and feelings of weakness.
Paton's use of Sophie as the story's narrator is unusual because she is a secondary character yet has special knowledge of Pieter's thoughts and feelings by virtue of having Pieter's diary as a resource. Consequently, she is in a position to tell the reader about events and conversations that happened outside her personal experience.
Although she is a secondary character, Sophie is a reliable narrator for three reasons. First, she includes excerpts from Pieter's diary to support what she is saying. Second, she explains early in the novel that because of her facial disfigurement, she has always been slightly apart from everyone else, even in her own family. This unique position has enabled her to become an especially keen observer of those around her. It is Sophie, after all, who suspects something is happening between Pieter and Stephanie simply because of a look she notices that Stephanie gives to Pieter. Third, Sophie is honest and never claims to fully understand everything in the story. She readily admits it when there is something she does not understand, as in chapter 4 when she tells about the stamps that Kappie shows Pieter. She says that they are particularly expensive, but since she is not a stamp collector, she cannot say why: "If you cannot understand it, I cannot explain it, never having understood it myself." Rather than omit this passage from the story, she includes it, despite her admittedly limited knowledge in the area.
Paton's father was a very religious man who conducted his own church service every Sunday in the Paton home. From the early age of five, Alan Paton preached on biblical subjects to his family, as he was assigned to do by his father. In Too Late the Phalarope, the author's familiarity with the Bible is evident in various passages that draw on biblical language or passages. His application of biblical ideas indicates an ability to draw from the Bible excerpts applicable to a variety of situations.
Chapter 26 contains a paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 3:1-5; Sophie remarks
For I know there is a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.
At the end of the same paragraph, she adds that "to have a feast is good, and to eat and drink and be merry, but one cannot live on feasting." This is a clear reference to Matthew 4:4 and Luke 4:4 in which Jesus says that man cannot live by bread alone. At the end of the novel, Jakob is found dead, "bowed over the Book of Job." This is significant because in the Bible, Job is a righteous man who suffers and endures much.
Sophie frequently uses similes to illustrate her points. This may be a result of her observational skills, which would enable her to see similarities between images or experiences that may not occur to those around her. Sophie regards Stephanie, for example, as being like a tigress in protecting her child. In chapter 26, Nella's sexual distance from her husband is offered as a partial explanation for Pieter's seeking out Stephanie's company. Pieter is compared to a man who loses a jewel and then seeks it out among filth and garbage. After Pieter confesses to his transgression, Sophie says in chapter 35 that she expects the dreadful news to "go like fire from every house to every house, and from every farm to every farm in the grass country."
In chapter 23, Pieter notices that Vorster seems withdrawn. Because Pieter imagines that the boy knows about the crime, the narrator describes Vorster as having "a drawn and unhappy face, like a man who has taken great steps for God and has publicly given his life and his possessions, and then finds that he no more believes in Him." As Kappie tries to make sense of Pieter's changing moods, Sophie notes in chapter 25, "Kappie sat there like a man with a puzzle with a hundred pieces, with a picture all but complete, with six or seven pieces that would not fit at all." In the same chapter, she recalls the family's momentary return to happiness as she comments, "And I remember that time, for our happiness came back again, like a moment of sunshine from a heavy sky."
Because she is telling the story in past tense, Sophie occasionally holds the reader's interest by the use of foreshadowing. By interspersing intriguing "teasers" throughout he novel, she keeps the reader engaged in the action of the plot. At the end of chapter 6, for example, Sophie describes Nella as sweet and innocent, adding, "Then the hard hand of Fate struck her across the face, and shocked her into knowledge, but only after we had been destroyed." The destruction to which Sophie refers occurs much later in the book, when the family is torn apart by Pieter's crime. Similarly, in chapter 15, Sophie comments on sudden changes in weather, concluding, "So did my summer turn, not into quietness and peace, but to the dark black storm that swept us all away."
Hinting at how Pieter's crime would eventually be discovered, Sophie notes in chapter 25 that Sergeant Steyn went on vacation with his family, and his daughter picked up bits of seashell. Sophie concludes that the girl "collected them in her innocence, and put them in a box, and brought them back to Venterspan; and by one of them collected in innocence, the house of van Vlaanderen was destroyed."
Jan Christiian Smuts
A statesman and philosopher, Jan Christiian Smuts was a well-known military leader in South Africa during the early twentieth century. He was a Dutch-speaking Boer whose family originally arrived in South Africa in 1692 as farmers. Smuts grew up in the hostile political climate in which the British and the Dutch were fighting for control of South African land. Educated in law, Smuts adhered to the idea that to cultivate the continent, compromise and peace were necessary between the warring European nations. After the Jameson Raid (an effort by the British to provoke a war), however, Smuts sided with the Boers and proclaimed his loyalty to Afrikaner nationalism.
When the Boer War erupted in 1899, Smuts was still hoping to achieve peace between the British and the Dutch, but was consistently disappointed by efforts to negotiate. Smuts distinguished himself as a military leader during the war, and he and General J. H. de la Rey organized resistance against opposing forces in western Transvaal (one of the two Afrikaner republics).
When the war was over, Smuts returned to law and was the principal designer of the constitution of the Union of South Africa. As he delved deeper into politics, he made enemies of miners and politicians on the far right. Chief among his opponents were members of the National Party. In both world wars, Smuts led South Africa against Germany; in World War I, he led troops as a military leader; during World War II, he was prime minister, and under his leadership South Africa entered the war.
Segregation in South Africa
As British and Dutch forces fought for control of South African land, the native populations were subject to new laws governing their social and political separation from the white citizens. In the early twentieth century, both Jan Christiian Smuts and his political opponent, J. B. M. Herzog, supported racial segregation in South Africa, although Smuts did not favor abolishing all rights for blacks.
The first parliament was established in South Africa in 1910, and one of the first decisions made was to restrict blacks to purchasing land within designated reserves. The reserves, however, accounted for only seven percent of the total land. This extreme limitation ensured that migratory labor would continue to be available for white landowners and that blacks would be forced to work for low wages in mines and other industries. When World War II ended in 1945, political leaders realized that South Africa was rapidly becoming an industrialized nation, which meant that the black population was gaining freedom and importance. To address this, the Boers (white South Africans of Dutch descent) adopted a policy of apartheid, the aftereffects of which continue to be a dominant political issue in South Africa.
Even before apartheid, there were laws governing the social interactions of blacks and whites. An example of this is the Immorality Act of 1927, which is at the center of Too Late the Phalarope. This Act outlawed sexual relationships between blacks and whites, and later the Act would be expanded to forbid sexual relationships between whites and any other race. Toward the end of the twentieth century, as apartheid began to crumble, so did these laws.
Modernist Period in Literature (1914–1965)
World War I ushered in the literary movement known as Modernism. While the term is primarily applied to British literature, critics generally consider Paton to have been a modernist author at the time Too Late the Phalarope was published. Some of his later work is considered postmodernist.
The Modernist Period is characterized by lost optimism following the horrors of the war and the beginnings of experimentation as writers intentionally broke with tradition and conventions regarding literary form and content. Literature written during this time often focuses on social issues, attempting to raise the consciousness of readers and introduce them to new realities. Much modernist work emphasizes the individual experience over the larger social context and contains psychological, philosophical, or political elements. Many works, such as T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, reflect a sense of fragmentation and despair. Too Late the Phalarope is an example of a modernist work that depicts self-awareness and the dark side of human nature.
Compare & Contrast
- 1920s: Among the laws governing social behavior in South Africa is the Immorality Act of 1927, forbidding sexual relations between blacks and whites. While originally designed to protect helpless servant women from being exploited by powerful bosses, the law eventually comes to represent the pursuit of racial purity by European settlers. The punishments for violating this Act are severe, and the social consequences are staggering.
Today: In 1991, 74 percent of Americans say they view interracial marriage as acceptable. In 1994, the number of black-white interracial marriages in America has risen to 1.2 million, compared to only 651,000 in 1980.
- 1920s: Education for native South Africans is lacking, and illiteracy is the norm. In a culture with a strong oral tradition, little emphasis is placed on learning to read, despite efforts by missionaries. This is reflected in Too Late the Phalarope, in which the black children marvel at Pieter's ability to read any book he picks up.
Today: According to the United Nations Statistical Yearbook, the literacy rate in the United States is 99.5 percent.
- 1920s: Because political power is held by whites, segregation is a way of life throughout South Africa. As a result, blacks have little control over their social, political, or financial lives until the latter part of the century, when apartheid begins to crumble.
Today: Effects of the racial segregation that once dominated U.S. society still linger. Because of a strong civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, American laws supporting segregation are no longer in effect, but racial tension persists in social interactions, art, film, music, and other elements of culture.
- 1920s: Smallpox is an often-deadly disease feared by people in South African villages. Even into the 1960s there are ten to fifteen million cases reported every year.
Today: Thanks to the discovery by Edward Jenner of a vaccination against smallpox, and a worldwide vaccination effort in 1967, smallpox is nonexistent today. As of 1979, the disease was declared extinct, with only controlled samples of the virus kept in a few laboratories.
Critics generally agree that Too Late the Phalarope, while often overshadowed by Cry, the Beloved Country, is Paton's best work. At the time of publication, reviewers were already recognizing it as superior to its predecessor.
In his 1953 review, Harold C. Gardiner wrote that the novel is a "much more tautly drawn tale" than the first. He added that it is compassionate, while remaining "strong and manly, and manifests … a deeply felt realization of the moral plight, of the agony of soul of others." Nicholas H. Z. Watts of Durham University Journal commented that Too Late the Phalarope "matches the elegiac beauty and power of the earlier novel and the intensity of Pa-ton's most recent one [Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful] and deserves greater recognition than it has yet received." Similarly, Kirsten Holst Petersen observed in Reference Guide to English Literature, "Paton is … at his very best when he explores the Calvinist Boer mind as he does in Too Late the Phalarope, an excellent but much ignored book."
Stylistically, Paton's novel is scrutinized both favorably and unfavorably. Sheridan Baker of English Studies in Africa found the use of Sophie as a narrator to be a too-obvious and old-fashioned literary device. Further, he regarded her as ineffective, commenting, "Paton brings Sophie a long way into reality, but he cannot make her narrative mechanics natural." Baker suggested that Paton uses Sophie as a narrator to avoid dealing with the black-white sexual relationship head-on. He remarked, "Sophie enables him to stop short." In contrast, other critics have commended Paton's stylistic ability in the novel, with special praise for the character of Sophie. In International Review, Irma Ned Stevens named the point of view in Too Late the Phalarope as one of the novel's notable strengths, adding that Sophie's telling of the story is carried out in wisdom and love. F. Charles Rooney wrote in Catholic World that Paton skillfully uses the narrator to express his own beliefs, adding that Sophie "becomes such a real person to the reader that there is never a question of sermonizing. In her, Paton has created his only really well-defined woman; this portrait is a work of technical mastery and avoids a potential sore spot."
Numerous critics point to the biblical elements present in Too Late the Phalarope, as well as to the novel's similarities to a Greek tragedy. In his Books with Men behind Them, author Edmund Fuller refers to Sergeant Steyn as a Judas figure, who betrays Pieter and then disappears from the story. Commenting on the novel's religious language and content, Rose Moss of World Literature Today remarked:
Paton's liturgical style and its clear connections with the Bible and Christian practice offer a way to connect individual virtue with the virtue and sufferings of others, with the history and hopes of devout peo-ple in other times and places and, finally, with the story of Christ, whose suffering and death demonstrate that the end of the story is not despair but hope.
Along with many other critics, Fuller commented on Paton's use of the classical tragedy form. In Too Late the Phalarope, he explained, the author creates a relatively simple story featuring a virtuous protagonist whose tragic flaw destroys his life. The hero ultimately grasps what has happened and understands his responsibility for the outcome. Watts described four classical elements in Too Late the Phalarope: well-known themes, such as the inevitable fall; unity of time, place, and action; the presence of an almost sexless, detached narrator; and a heroic central figure. Generally speaking, critics admire Paton's use of classical techniques in a modern setting, and maintain that, as in the Greek tragedies, these techniques give the story a broad-based appeal and relevance.
While some scholars find the novel lacking in universality, others counter that universal themes are the book's strength. To a small group of critics, the setting is too specific in time and place, and the culture of the community is too foreign, to be applicable to contemporary life. Because Pieter is presented as such a noble and charming man at the beginning of the book (in fact, Sophie compares him to a god), they deem him inaccessible to readers, and they are not particularly sympathetic to his guilt and weakness. On the other hand, critics such as Gardiner regard the novel as universally meaningful. He commented, "It is infinitely more than a mere tale of misguided passion. The great passion that emerges in the pages is of Mr. Paton's own hatred of racial discrimination." Commenting on Paton's fiction, Fuller wrote,
The measure of his books is that while distilling the essence of South Africa, they speak to many aspects of the condition of the whole world. He has struck universal notes, and the world outside his own land honors him for his art, his humanity, and his integrity.
Despite disagreement over where Too Late the Phalarope fits in the context of world literature, most scholars commend the novel as Paton's most polished fiction. Articulating this sentiment, Watts concluded:
This, Paton's finest novel, thus operates with great success on several levels. It is a convincing story of crime and punishment. It is a strong study of individuals who, despite their pronounced characteristics, are always more than stereotypes. As a psychological novel, it is a powerful depiction of the corrosive effect of guilt and the destructive power of a repressed subconscious…. And it turns out to be what we perhaps first expected: a devastating critique of apartheid and the spirit that underlies it. Paton's commitment to social justice and compassion, which rises so movingly from the pages of Cry, the Beloved Country, here finds such unity of composition, such austerity of expression, such integrity of faith and such universal meaning that Too Late the Phalarope stands as an exceptional book.
Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she considers the power of words in Paton's novel.
The first sentence of Too Late the Phalarope is, "Perhaps I could have saved him, with only a word, two words, out of my mouth." Alan Paton establishes from the onset that in this novel, the power of words will be substantial and will play an important role in the plot. Words are in some cases considered as immutable as if written in stone; in other cases they have the potential to bring about life-changing outcomes.
Pieter uses the power of the written word by writing a secret diary, which he gives to his aunt at the end of the book. Readers must remember that it is the diary that allows Sophie to know everything that has happened. Without Pieter's diary, there is no novel.
As an officer of the law, Pieter understands the authority of the written word, especially in the forms of laws and charges. Before he breaks the law, he feels drawn to Stephanie, yet he knows that acting on his impulse is very dangerous. He seems less concerned with the moral weight of his decision to break the law than he does with the legal consequences of doing so. He has sexual relations with Stephanie on three different occasions, and yet the word "adultery" never enters his mind. He feels guilt and behaves more lovingly toward his family, but what frightens him is the thought of being exposed and subjected to legal punishment. This indicates that his psyche is terrorized by the law rather than the ideology behind it; by the letter of the law, not its spirit.
In two instances, the inviolable nature of charges, once written, is emphasized. In chapter 21, Pieter fears that Sergeant Steyn has discovered his crime and will, at any moment, come forward with the charges against him. Pieter thinks:
Then there could be no mercy, for when a charge is made, a charge is made, and once a thing is written down, it is written down; and a word can be written down that will mean the death of a man, and put the rope around his neck, and send him into the pit; and a word can be written down that will destroy a man and his house and his kindred and his friends, and there is no power, of God or Man or State, nor any Angel, nor anything present or to come, nor any height, nor depth, nor any other creature that can save them, when once the word is written down.
This passage is repeated almost verbatim at the end of chapter 35, after Pieter has confessed his crime to the captain. At this point, of course, the charge has been made and, as stated in the passage, Pieter will soon be destroyed along with his family, and will lose most of his friends.
Perhaps the most striking example of the power of written words is the note left on Pieter's door, which he discovers when he returns home after the first time he sleeps with Stephanie. The note says, "I saw you," and all Pieter can think of is the cracking sound he heard just after he and Stephanie finished making love. At the time, Pieter had feared it was a "watcher," who saw everything and would soon destroy Pieter's life by revealing his crime. The note on the door seems to confirm this, and Pieter is engulfed in panic and fear, waiting for his doom. In chapter 21, Sophie writes that he "thought only of the note, the note, with the three small words and the seven letters that could destroy a man." In the next chapter, Pieter looks at the note again, "but it told him no more than it had told him before, that he was in peril greater than any death." The note haunts him to the extent that he becomes paranoid, wondering who knows about him and who does not. He interprets his coworkers' bad moods as intentional distancing from him, and he imagines that a neighbor's unfriendly behavior is a sign of disgust at Pieter's crime. Each day is progressively worse until he learns that Japie innocently left the note after he saw Pieter having drinks with his cousin Anna. He only meant to tease his friend, and as soon as Pieter realizes that nobody saw his crime, his entire reality changes.
The book uses another case of misunderstood words to move the plot forward at a key juncture. In a bad mood, Pieter notices a prisoner while on inspection with Steyn one afternoon. Pieter knows that this prisoner is supposed to be in court, and asks Steyn why the prisoner is in the wrong place. When Steyn answers that he thought the prisoner's court date was the next week, Pieter orders him to get the written instructions that Pieter himself had made out for Steyn. Sheepishly, Steyn returns, explaining that he made a mistake and read the date wrong. Pieter is enraged, and asks Steyn if he is unable to read. Because of this incident, Steyn is humiliated and vows to destroy Pieter. Although he already disliked and resented Pieter, this episode fortifies Steyn's resolve to be rid of Pieter for good. While it may be argued that Steyn was already so close to committing himself to Pieter's ruin that any similar incident would have achieved the same outcome, Paton chose to set Pieter's fate in motion because of a few misunderstood words.
The tragedy of misunderstood words resurfaces when Sophie laments in chapter 31 that she did not act when she could have to save her nephew. She explains:
And now as I write I am like a woman whose man is dead, because of some accident that was not foreseen, or because of some doctor that was not called, or because of some word that sounded like another; and she reproaches herself, and thinks that if for years she had not said … let's go tomorrow, or if she had said, let's go by the lower road, perhaps her man would be alive again.
By equating a misunderstood word with an accident or the failure to call a doctor, Sophie expresses the seriousness of the power of words. Moreover, this passage makes a point that, like the accident and the decision not to call the doctor, misunderstood words are preventable, yet often result in tragedy.
In Too Late the Phalarope, there is also an underlying belief in the action value of words, meaning that written or spoken words have the power to change people's feelings and opinions (and, by extension, other people's fates). Early in the story, in chapter 1, Sophie explains why she is telling the story:
And I write it all down here, the story of our destruction. And if I write it with fear, then it is not so great a fear, I being myself destroyed. And if I write it down, maybe it will cease to trouble my mind. And if I write it down, people may know that he was two men, and that one was brave and gentle.
Sophie hopes that her writing will not only change her feelings about her painful experience, but that it will also change people's minds about what kind of man her nephew is.
When Pieter commits his crime, he becomes very prayerful and engages in bargaining with God. He makes vows and repeats them, hoping that his words will travel to heaven and change the consequences of his actions. He recalls a story of a man surrounded by enemies who dropped to his knees and prayed, and when the man opened his eyes, he was alone. Pieter hopes that, by praying and making promises, his imagined (at this point) enemies will also disappear.
The act of reading figures into the lives of the characters in very different ways. Pieter turns to his books in search of a way to cleanse his spirit of evil, or, at the very least, to learn some way to find peace and relief from his turmoil. Certain the answers are somewhere in his books, "He went into his study, and looked there amongst his learned books that told all the sins and weaknesses of men, hoping to find himself, though this he had already done, finding nothing." Jakob reads the cherished family Bible exclusively until his son gives him a book of South African birds as a gift. This book becomes a temporary bridge between the two men, as the father takes the son on a picnic to show him the phalarope, one of the birds misidentified in the book. After Pieter's crime is exposed, Jakob's first act is to take the family Bible and cross Pieter's name off the family list. This is a symbolic act meant to remove Pieter and his shameful ways from the family. As for Sophie, she reads very little but says at the end of the book that though she is gradually getting past the pain of the events told in the novel, when she reads of a man who has broken "the iron law" (the Immorality Act), her grief returns.
It is not surprising that Paton, a writer, would believe so strongly in the power of words. Indeed, as an activist, he relied on his words to change people's minds, inform his readers, and challenge existing ideas. Today he is still considered one of South Africa's most influential and important writers, which is a testament to the power of his own words on subjects that were so meaningful to him.
Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on Too Late the Phalarope, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
In the following essay, Callan examines Too Late the Phalarope by comparing and contrasting it with Paton's first novel, Cry the Beloved Country.
What Do I Read Next?
- Athol Fugard's play Master Harold … and the Boys (1983) examines the extremes of racial tension in South Africa. Written by a South-African playwright, it is a story that addresses the human capacity for hate and fear in a drama that is emotionally wrenching.
- Nobel Prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer's July's People (1981) tells the story of a liberal white family in South Africa who are rescued by July, their servant, and taken to his village. The story reveals the profound differences and similarities between July's people and the white family.
- The Scarlet Letter (1850) is Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel of guilt, repentance, and vengeance. It tells the story of Hester Prynne, an unmarried woman whose baby is fathered by the town's young minister.
- Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) is the story of Zulu priest Stephen Kumalo, who travels to hostile Johannesburg, where his son is on trial for murdering a white man. This book is Paton's most famous work.
- Robert Ross's A Concise History of South Africa (1999; Cambridge Concise Histories) provides an overview of the last 1500 years of development, turmoil, and triumph in South Africa.
Paton's second novel, Too Late the Phalarope, is similar in certain respects to Cry, the Beloved Country, but, for the most part, the novels differ strikingly. But works have similarities of style and dramatic method, and each relates a comparatively simple story. Too Late the Phalarope tells the story of Pieter van Vlaanderen, a young police lieutenant decorated in war and also nationally famous as a football player. He is a married man with two children, highly respected in the rural Afrikaner community and, indeed, the kind of man in whose presence other men feel constrained to subdue loud talk or off-color jokes. Yet Pieter van Vlaanderen transgresses the strict prohibitions of the South African Immorality Act which forbids sexual relations between members of different races, and thereby brings tragic destruction on himself and his family.
But the differences between the two novels are more significant than the similarities. Too Late the Phalarope concentrates on the inner struggles in the soul of one man in the South African social situation; for the clamor of many voices and the broad overview, it substitutes an inner dialogue between two aspects of a divided personality. Furthermore, while the theme of restoration is still fundamental in the second novel, it is approached indirectly, and its attendant note of hope is muted. This is due in part to its literary method, which resembles the method of Greek tragedy more closely than does that of the earlier novel, but it also may be due to the changes that meanwhile took place in South Africa's political climate.
The note of hope in Cry, the Beloved Country had some real basis in fact. There were signs in the months immediately following World War II that South African society was prepared to accept progressive change in relations among the races. In 1946 Prime Minister J. C. Smuts had appointed a commission to look into South Africa's urban conditions and the problems of migratory African labor—the very conditions and problems that impelled Paton to write Cry, the Beloved Country. It was generally expected that this commission, known as the Fagan Commission, would present liberal recommendations to Parliament. It was also generally anticipated that any such recommendations would be implemented by Parliament through the influence of the Deputy Prime Minister Jan Hofmeyr, who then seemed likely to succeed General Smuts as Prime Minister.
In 1948, the same year that Cry, the Beloved Country appeared, the typical rhythm of South African politics reasserted itself, for any suspicion that the Liberal Spirit is working among parliamentary leaders starts a ground-swell for racial intolerance among the white voters, particularly in rural areas. And in the general elections of that year, Dr. Malan's Nationalist Party received an unexpectedly large plurality for its policy of apartheid. This policy denies Africans the right to permanent residence in the towns, and emphasizes ineradicable cultural differences between their tribal heritage and the heritage of "Western Civilization," which is thought to be the birthright of whites only. Jan Hofmeyr died a few months after this election, and with him went much of the hope of powerful, outspoken opposition to the new government's policies. In these respects at least, the hope of going forward in faith implicitly present in Cry, the Beloved Country was diminished.
By 1952, the year that Paton wrote Too Late the Phalarope during a three-month period in London and in an English seaside boarding house, the new Nationalist government in South Africa had begun implementing its policies of apartheid with little regard for opposition views. Paton did not, however, turn his new novel into an attack on apartheid, nor into propaganda for any political cause. His choice of the magnanimous Afrikaner woman Tante Sophie as the narrator proves to be a valuable device in this respect. He does not even set the novel with any obviousness in the post-1948 period, and he ignores the immediate social and economic manifestations of apartheid. Instead he probes penetratingly into its roots in the ideal of Pure Race; and makes manifest the extent to which this ideal—placed above all other considerations—constitutes a false deity, or "heretical Christianity," as he calls it elsewhere. It is this pride in Pure Race, set up as an ideal, that the narrator, Tante Sophie, has in mind in her summing up: "I pray we shall not walk arrogant, remembering Herod whom an Angel of the Lord struck down, for that he made himself a God." Sophie's view implies that this racial arrogance has affinities with the Greek concept of hybris—the special manifestation of pride that incurs tragic retribution. Hybris is the arrogation by men of attributes proper only to the gods, and tragedy is the inevitable destruction meted out to hybris.
Too Late the Phalarope is a Greek tragedy in modern South African dress. It is set in a small town in the eastern Transvaal—a district populated almost wholly by Afrikaans-speaking white farmers who cherish the four fundamental and inseparable tenets of Afrikaner Nationalism: Volk, Kerk, Taal, Land. The Volk is the separate and unique Afrikaner People descended from the Voortrekkers; the Kerk is the Afrikaner branch of the Dutch Reformed Church to which, ideally, all the Volk adhere; the Taal is the Afrikaans language which, in place of a national boundary, identifies their nationhood; and the Land is the soil of South Africa, sacred to the Afrikaner Volk in almost the same sense that the Promised Land was sacred to the Israelites.
These fundamental ideals are summed up in the novel by the Afrikaner patriarch, old Jakob van Vlaanderen, when he rebukes the besotted Flip van Vuuren who persisted in demanding, "what's the point of living, what's the point of life?": "So Jakob van Vlaanderen stood up from his chair, and said in a voice of thunder, the point of living is to serve the Lord your God, and to uphold the honour of your church and language and people, take him home." Jakob van Vlaanderen represents the attitude of those Afrikaans-speaking South Africans who refused to accept Louis Botha's ideal of bringing all white South Africans together in a common patriotism. His wife and his sister, Tante Sophie, adhere to Louis Botha's ideal discussed in Chapter 1, above; his son Pieter, in the finer aspects of his character, might be said to personify Botha's ideal.
This difference in their estimates of where the duties of patriotism lie constitutes one of the causes of friction between Jakob and his son Pieter. At the outbreak of World War II, the South African Parliament was divided on the question of entering the war against Hitler's Germany on Britain's side, or remaining neutral, and General Smuts carried his motion for participation by a very narrow majority. The people were similarly divided. So it was found expedient to agree that men already in the armed forces and police should be permitted either to retain their positions at home or to volunteer for service abroad. Those who so volunteered were identified by orange tabs on their shoulderstraps, which, unfortunately, sharply distinguished them from those who did not; the oath taken by these volunteers came to be known as "the red oath" from the color of the tabs. Jakob van Vlaanderen was one of those who saw the war as "an English war" in which no true Afrikaner should participate: "And when his son Pieter took the red oath and had gone to war, he would bear no mention of his name …" When Pieter returned, Jakob would refer to his service medals and decorations, which included the Distinguished Service Order, as "foreign trash."
Pieter's volunteering for war service was later to play a large part in his tragic downfall. Since he had attained the rank of major in the army, he returned to the local police force as an officer. He therefore outranked Sergeant Steyn, who had longer service, but who, agreeing with Jakob's Afrikaner patriotism, had refused to take "the red oath." This is the source of the enmity that makes Sergeant Steyn the instrument of Pieter's destruction. Steyn is something of an Iago, but his hatred is not motiveless.
This general climate of nationalism lying behind the conflicts of Too Late the Phalarope is one of the elements that makes it an authentic portrait of an important segment of South African life. As he did in Cry, the Beloved Country, Paton adds to this general authenticity by weaving certain actual events of the time into the action of his plot. In his hands these actual events become dramatic properties inseparable from the action of the story.
One of these "properties" is the book that Lieutenant Pieter van Vlaanderen gives as a birthday gift to his father. The non-fictional model for this fictional book was The Birds of South Africa—a comprehensive work with fine color illustrations like the Audubon series in the United States, published in South Africa in 1948. For Paton, one of whose hobbies is birdwatching, this would have been a memorable event, made even more memorable by the fact that its author, the respected naturalist Austin Roberts, died that year. The title of this book pleases old Jakob van Vlaanderen, to whose intense nationalism the name South Africa borders on the sacred, but the name of the author repels him. He will not even mention it, and he always refers to the author as "the Englishman." Since Paton does not reveal the author's name, readers are left to assume that old Jakob's repugnance is a measure of his hostility to Englishmen in general. But there would be good reason for Jakob's special repugnance toward the name Roberts, for the British general whose armies invaded the Transvaal across the very terrain of the novel's setting, and who for a time during the Boer War virtually ruled South Africa, was General Lord Roberts.
It may be the touch of obscurity resulting from Paton's reluctance to extend to his readers a clearer motive for Jakob's repugnance that leads some to seek symbolic significance in the book of birds and, in particular, in the elusive little bird, the phalarope. The book of birds does affect the relations between Jakob and his son, but it is not a symbol in any exact sense. Neither is the phalarope a symbol. It is an actual bird about whose habits old Jakob, in fact, knew more than "the Englishman" who wrote the book. In The Birds of South Africa, Austin Roberts has some hesitation in classifying the phalarope as a South African bird, because he has only one recorded observation of each of the two species of phalarope, the "Grey" and the "Red-necked," on South African coasts. Jakob knew the phalarope as a fairly common inland bird also, and the Englishman's ignorance was a topic, therefore, that he was happy to discuss even with his son Pieter, with whom he had never before achieved rapport.
Another actual event of the period—or an account closely based on it—helps Paton to establish the atmosphere of obsession with racial purity in a society where the most unforgivable thing is to break "the iron law that no white man might touch a black woman"; and that the most terrible thing in the world is to have such a transgression discovered. This is the case of "the man Smith," modeled on an actual contemporary case of a white farmer who murdered an African servant girl who was pregnant by him. In the hope of preventing the discovery of his victim's identity, which might lead to his own discovery, "the man Smith," with his wife's complicity, cut off and hid the murdered girl's head. In Paton's account, this gruesome crime by an otherwise mild-mannered man is interpreted principally as a consequence of his fear that his illicit sexual relations across the racial line would be discovered.
This account of "the man Smith" provides a dramatic instance of the general air of intense concern with the issue of race-mixture that followed the Nationalist Party election victory of 1948. There was then a law in force against illicit sexual relations between white and non-white. This was Act 5 of 1927, under which Lieutenant Pieter van Vlaanderen is charged in the novel Too Late the Phalarope. In 1949 and 1950 there were further extensions of this basic law: the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949, and the Immorality Act Amendment Act of 1950. The basic law may at one time have had the merit claimed for it of protecting African women from the whims of white overlords, but the extensions of the basic Act reveal the essence of the new Nationalist ideal. By prohibiting interracial marriage even at a church ceremony, and by extending the Act to cover any racial mixing, as for example, between Indian and Cape Colored communities, the emphasis is clearly focused on the ideal of Pure Race, and not on justifiable protection of vulnerable women. One may find interesting corroboration of this attitude in textbooks widely used in Transvaal schools. In the chapter "Race Relations: White and non-White" in one junior high school textbook in social studies, there is a subheading "The Sin of Race Mixture" which argues that God wills separate races. This account culminates in a long quotation from someone identified only as "one of our great statesmen," that begins with what is tantamount to a summary of Too Late the Phalarope: "We must all keep our people white. Great is the pain for blood-relatives and friends if anyone sins against this highest law; greater still is the scandal when a people sins against its own blood."
It is in this context of an ideal of racial purity that classified race-mixture as the ultimate sin—the sin "against this highest law" as the textbook puts it—that Paton sets the tragedy of Pieter van Vlaanderen.
Finally, one should recall in this connection Paton's own account of the times in the Public Affairs pamphlet South Africa Today. This pamphlet, intended for American audiences unfamiliar with the complexities of race relations in South Africa, is a scrupulously fair appraisal of the trend of events in South Africa in 1951—a year or so before he set to work on Too Late the Phalarope. As a contemporary account, South Africa Today provides a very useful background to Paton's novels. It gives a brief historical sketch of the origins and development of South Africa's racial groups, and indicates the current status of each. Its account of "Modern Industry and Tribal Life" with a subsection on "Crime and Disintegration" gives, in small space, the social record dramatized in Cry, the Beloved Country. Its account of "The Immediate Situation," more relevant to Too Late the Phalarope, points out that racial separation was not a new concept introduced by the Nationalist Party.
What was new was the strengthening of the framework of laws requiring the compliance of all with the ideals of apartheid. At this early stage, much of this framework of laws was still only 'projected,' but among those already passed into law, Paton notes: "The present Government has amended and widened the Immorality Act of the Hertzog Government … It has passed a Mixed Marriages Act which now forbids marriages between whites and non-whites."
Paton makes one statement in South Africa Today about his own attitude to Afrikaner nationalism that has a significant bearing on the tone of Too Late the Phalarope, and of his other works, particularly the biography of Jan Hofmeyr. He concludes South Africa Today at the point where he feels he has written enough for his readers to grasp "the complexity and tragedy" of South Africa's situation, saying:
This situation is more tragic for the Afrikaner Nationalist than for the English-speaking South African, for although both know no other home, this is true in a different sense of the Afrikaner. In this I feel for him painfully and deeply. That is why, for example, I never use hurtful language in giving any account of Nationalist policies. But the world will take no account of his fierce devotion … nor of my compassion.
It is this attitude, including its compassion, that Tante Sophie brings to Too Late the Phalarope, and to that extent her fictional character incorporates something of Paton himself.
Various characters in Too Late the Phalarope embody contrasting attitudes to this sin against the highest law. Some, representing a majority view in the town of Venterspan, uphold the law with iron determination. These include Pieter's father, old Jakob van Vlaanderen, and his father-in-law, who declares he would shoot the offender like a dog. The proponents of this kind of justice include also his fellow policeman, Sergeant Steyn, and the previously admiring young recruit, Vorster. Others view Pieter's transgression with greater compassion. But these are a minority, represented by his aunt, Tante Sophie; his mother; the English-speaking police officer, Captain Massingham; and the Jewish storekeeper, Matthew Kaplan, who is affectionately known by the Afrikaans diminutive, "Kappie." It is chiefly through the contrasting attitudes of old Jakob and Tante Sophie that we see the opposing themes of destruction and restoration brought into confrontation; and here the sacrificial justice demanded by the iron law outweighs the compassionate justice exhorted by Christ to his followers. Ironically, this victory of vengeance over compassion is exactly what the novel propounds as the greatest of all offenses from a Christian standpoint. Pieter's superior officer, Captain Massing-ham, sums this up when he says: "An offender must be punished, mejuffrou, I don't argue about that. But to punish and not to restore, that is the greatest of all offences." And Tante Sophie, significantly, responds, "Is that the sin against the Holy Ghost?"
These contrasting attitudes, pitting what amounts to the acceptance of inexorable fate against the impulse toward forgiveness and restoration, bear significantly on the status of Too Late the Phalarope as a tragedy in the literary sense. It may, therefore, be useful to look more closely at Jakob and Sophie, the two chief embodiments of these attitudes.
Jakob van Vlaanderen, as his name suggests, combines some of the qualities of an Old Testament patriarch with the Afrikaner's elemental Flemish roots. Enshrined in his Transvaal home is the great family Bible in the Dutch language version, containing the names of the van Vlaanderens for 150 years. His forebears had brought it with them from the Cape Colony when they trekked inland to set up their independent Boer republics beyond the reach of British laws and their equal application to white and black. Jakob van Vlaanderen was a strong-willed giant of a man who understood the word obedience "better than he understood the word love." He was an upright man, just in accordance with his own unwavering principles. He believed that his duty to God demanded that he uphold the separateness and racial purity of the Afrikaner people. As befitted his exclusive nationalism, he was a lover of all things South African, including the birds of the veld.
Jakob understood strength and determination in a man, but not sensitivity; he treated the sensitive side of his son's character—his pleasure in such fragile beautiful things as flowers and stamps—with harshness and suspicion. Eventually, prompted by his son's gift of a book of South African birds, he took hesitant steps toward reconciliation. He arranged to show Pieter the phalarope, the little wading bird about whose habits the author of the book was mistaken; and, although perplexed by the whole thing, he even purchased some expensive stamps for him.
This thaw in the iciness of his attitude toward his son adds great poignancy to the novel by suggesting what might have been; but it is not the fact that father and son recognized a common interest too late that supplies the essential element of tragedy. An essential element of tragedy, in addition to the flaw in the hero's character, is that the fate of those enmeshed in its web is determined, like that of King Oedipus, by a power outside their control. This external determining element is present in Too Late the Phalarope as a form of historical determinism attendant upon the fundamental assumption that the Afrikaner people are a Pure Race set apart. Therefore, when Jakob hears that his son has "sinned against the race," he knows exactly what his duty to the race demands of him: "So he took the pen and ink, and he crossed out the name of Pieter van Vlaanderen from the book …" Then, referring to Pieter's gift of the book of birds: "You will take the book, he said, and the pipe, and everything that the man ever gave to me, and every likeness of him, and everything in this house that has anything to do with him, and you will burn and destroy them all." This ritual of denial culminates in prayer to God for the destruction of his son's soul; for Jakob solemnly opened the family Bible and read "the most terrible words that man has ever written" from the Hundred and Ninth Psalm, beginning: "When he shall be judged, let him be condemned; and let his prayer become sin." And old Jakob read on, blind to the irony that "the most terrible words" of the Psalm are explicitly directed against the man who "who remembered not to show mercy."
Old Jakob's actions are predictable. The reader, in fact, accepts them as the inevitable expression of his character. But they are ultimately dictated by an impersonal force outside himself rather than by a father's response to a son's transgression. For Old Jakob could not act otherwise and still maintain the purity of race as the highest law.
The contrasting qualities of mercy and compassion are embodied in Jakob's maiden sister, Tante Sophie van Vlaanderen, who relates Pieter's story. Sophie is a watcher set apart from normal family life and love by a severe facial disfigurement. She has lived all her life in Jakob's house, and she has lavished on her young nephew, Pieter, all the affection of her own unfulfilled maternal instincts. We therefore see both father and son from her sympathetic viewpoint. Her concern for these men, and indeed for all men, is deeply Christian; her Christianity, based on love, contrasts strikingly with Jakob's narrower, puritanical Christianity that respects obedience above all. As narrator, Sophie presents the other characters in all their human frailty; but she refrains from passing judgment on them. She is at pains, for example, to show the human side of Jakob: "For some said he was a hard and love-less man, and would ride down any that stood in his way without pity or mercy. But I tell you it was not true." Yet she is not a party to Jakob's extreme devotion to exclusive Afrikaner nationalism; she prefers to retain her allegiance to Louis Botha's policy of reconciliation.
Sophie has other advantages as a narrator besides her magnanimity of outlook. Having lived all her life with the van Vlaanderen family, she can link her knowledge of Pieter's childhood relations with his father to the events of his tragedy. She recognizes that his downfall is not brought about wholly by momentary temptation, but that it is a consequence of accumulated life experience. Her ability to reveal how past events foreshadowed destruction intensifies the element of tragic inevitability in the novel.
Although Sophie is an observer set aside, with little power over events, she is emotionally involved in the fortunes of Pieter and Jakob. This appears to be one of Paton's main motives in creating her. Speaking of the vitality of the South African novel in English, particularly in the hands of writers of English or Jewish extraction, or Colored writers like Peter Abrahams, Paton has remarked that in South Africa, where the racial struggle primarily pits African against Afrikaner: "It is the Englishman, the Jew and the Coloured man, who are, even when they are drawn into the struggle, the observers. It is they who are better placed than either Afrikaner or African … to see the real drama that history has unfolded, even when they are deeply or emotionally involved."
In Too Late the Phalarope, Tante Sophie fills an analogous role. She is presented to us as being clearly aware of her own powers of observation. She knows that she developed these powers because she was set apart from the ordinary stream of life by her disfigurement: "I have learned to know the meaning of unnoticed things, of a pulse that beats suddenly, of a glance that moves from here to there …" It was she who rightly suspected the marital difficulties between Pieter and his wife Nella; it was she who correctly interpreted Stephanie's sensual invitation to Pieter; it was she who felt uncomfortable about the flirtatious Cousin Anna, who wore the yellow trousers. Paton's device of the secret diary as one source of her information may be an arbitrary one, but it proves useful in establishing her reliability as an observer; for, at key points, she is able to quote from the diary to confirm her original intuition.
Whatever her technical limitations, one must admit that only a narrator of Tante Sophie's qualities of mind could provide a suitable vehicle for the religious theme of the novel: namely, that it is not the judgment of God but the judgment of men that is a stranger to compassion.
As has already been remarked, Too Late the Phalarope resembles Cry, the Beloved Country in certain aspects of its artistic method. It is similarly arranged in dramatic sequences depending largely on effective dialogue and the support of a modified chorus. Furthermore its plot has a similar double action. The plot of Too Late the Phalarope is divided almost exactly into two complementary movements. The first gradually unfolds the events leading to Pieter van Vlaanderen's temptation and sin; the second reveals him enmeshed in a web of tragedy and destruction. Chapters 1 through 19 may be said, therefore, to comprise The Book of Temptation; Chapters 20 through 39, The Book of Retribution. The two complementary actions of the plot imply an ironic contrast; namely, that even though Pieter's adultery transgresses the laws of God, it is not God, but an idol—the false deity of Pure Race—that exacts the terrible retribution of Pieter's destruction, and the destruction of all belonging to him.
It should perhaps be noted, too, that just as Cry, the Beloved Country superimposes a religious theme on a primary social one, Too Late the Phalarope superimposes a religious theme on a psychological one. Both novels may therefore be read on more than one level.
In what is here termed The Book of Temptation, Paton represents Pieter van Vlaanderen's temptation and sin as a consequence of several interrelated causes, no one of which is singled out as dominating him so completely that he cannot resist it. Ultimately, he deliberately chooses to seek out the black girl Stephanie; without this element of deliberate choice there would be no intentional offending against the laws of God, and therefore no sin in the Christian sense. The web of contributive causes includes elements that we may tentatively distinguish as psychological, spiritual, physical, and instinctive.
One psychological cause of Pieter's transgression is deeply rooted in the duality of his own nature. He is aware of two conflicting sides to his character: the one, brave and upright; the other possessed by an elemental urge attracting him, he says, to what he most hated. He conceals this side of his character behind a mask of cold reserve, and when this urge takes hold of him he calls it "the mad sickness." Evidently this "mad sickness" is a strong, but unwanted, sexual attraction to women outside his marriage. His comment on his father's simple, matter-of-fact statemen that he had never touched a woman other than his wife is: "I felt … a feeling of envy too, and wonder that I was otherwise." Since Pieter also envies those fellow students at the university who spoke of their physical revulsion to the touch of a non-white person—a revulsion he does not share—it seems clear that by "the mad sickness" he means a sexual desire forbidden by the iron law of his people "that no black woman should be touched by a white man."
The novel suggests that the psychological conflict in Pieter's character has roots in his childhood relations with his father. Pieter, referring to his father's anger at his interest in stamp collecting, says bitterly to Matthew Kaplan: "There was trouble long before the stamps … I was born before the stamps." In this respect Pieter's desire for Stephanie can be explained as a psychological impulse to revolt against all his father stood for. But Paton does not rationalize Pieter's action to the extent of lifting the burden of responsibility from his shoulders and transferring it to old Jakob. Pieter was conscious of his problem, and could have sought help. Indeed, his successive attempts to reveal himself to the young clergyman, Dominee Vos, to Kappie, and to Captain Massingham, constitute one link between the theme of temptation, which he can choose to resist, and the web of tragedy manipulated by forces outside his power. There is tragic irony in his successive failures to unburden himself; on each occasion that he attempts to do so, the regard in which others hold him—their worshipful attitude towards him as their hero—intervenes. Even though he had but one thought in his mind—"to tell one human soul of the misery of my life, that I was tempted by what I hated"—a fatal flaw prevents him from doing so; and he asks, but leaves unanswered, "Was it pride that prevented me?"
Another source of Pieter's psychological conflict is the tension between him and his wife Nella, arising from her attitude to married love. However, it would be more relevant to Paton's wider purpose, embracing the problem of love at several levels, to note the possibility of spiritual, in addition to psychological, roots for Nella's attitude. In her marriage, Sophie tells us, Nella had "some idea that was good and true but twisted in some small place, that the love of the body, though good and true, was apart from the love of the soul." In so describing Nella, Paton seems to be pointing beyond such commonplace categories as prudery or Puritanism, to the classic Christian heresies of the Manicheans and the Gnostics. The extreme Manichean doctrine holds that man's body is the work of the Devil and that the soul is engaged in eternal war with it; it is akin to the Gnostic rejection of man's material nature in favor of an idealized abstraction comparable, for example, to the concept of Pure Race. Nella's attitude to married love may be, partly, a heritage from the religious Puritanism of her people; but her extreme revulsion at hearing that the boy Dick had attempted to accost the black girl, Stephanie, suggests that her other heritage, the ideal of Pure Race, is inextricably entwined with her religious outlook. Since Paton has elsewhere referred to the ideal of Pure Race as "a Christian heresy," Nella's attitude may well embody the view that the racial ideals enshrined in the theories of Pure Race constitute a modern Manichean or Gnostic outlook. The point need not be insisted upon, but it provides, like Book Three of Cry, the Beloved Country, another instance of Paton's distrust of abstract utopian, or totalitarian, schemes that substitute an inhuman perfection for the flesh and blood realities of the human condition.
If Nella's part in Pieter's susceptibility to temptation is remote, the part played by Anna is immediate and physical. Anna occupies Tante Sophie's thoughts to a surprising extent—wholly out of proportion to her two brief appearances in the novel. Anna, who is described as "a kind of cousin," works in the city and has acquired city attitudes towards fashions in dress and social drinking. She says openly that Pieter was the only man she ever wanted to marry. When Sophie reveals her dislike of those city women who wear trousers of various colors, she dwells on the point that "it is the yellow trousers that anger me most of all." Later, she tells us that Anna "smokes and wears the yellow trousers that I most dislike." Not really wicked, Anna is flashy, bored by the small town, and slightly vulgar. She is, ultimately, the temptress who, partly unwittingly, is the immediate instrument of Pieter's destruction. At the critical psychological moment when his black mood is deepest as a consequence of Nella's obtuse letter, Sergeant Steyn's mistake, and the high emotional temperature that caused him to write his letter of resignation, Anna waylays him with feminine wiles and the plea "I'm dying for a drink." So, in the Royal Hotel, they have brandy after brandy, "more than he had every drunk before." Aroused by the brandies, Anna's company, and her parting kiss, he goes to meet Stephanie in the vacant ground. Pa-ton implies, nevertheless, that Pieter's choice is deliberate; for whatever forces the underlying psychological drives, the brandies, and Anna's company may have released, his final preparations for the encounter with Stephanie are calculated.
In contrast to Pieter's agonized struggles to avoid temptation, the black girl Stephanie has a simple, uncomplicated purpose for seeking him out. Her life in and out of prison, where she has been sent for brewing illicit liquor, is devoted to the single-minded aim of retaining her sole possesson—her illegitimate child. In her instinctive preoccupation with the safety of her child, she seizes on the only possibility she can think of for recruiting this great man's protection; it is for the same reason—to avert danger to her child—that she later carries out Sergeant Steyn's plan to destroy him.
The second movement of the plot of Too Late the Phalarope, The Book of Retribution, reaches beyond the interesting psychological and moral aspects of temptation toward the pity and terror of tragedy. The opening episodes of this second movement parallel those opening chapters of the first movement that establish the social atmosphere in which transgressing the prohibitions of the Immorality Act constitutes the most terrible thing in the world. In this case Paton skillfully intensifies the atmosphere, and involves the reader's emotions in the pity and terror that Aristotle identifies as the characteristic effect of tragedy. Pity draws out our sympathy for the tragic character so that we share in his dread of impending evil; terror, in Aristotle's view, is the powerful sense of the utter destructiveness of the impending evil.
First, however, we should note the simple ease with which Paton solves a literary problem that many critics have declared to be insurmountable: the problem of reconciling a Christian viewpoint with tragedy as a literary form. These critics argue on various grounds. One ground is that the Christian conception of free will cannot admit of determined, inescapable fate. Another is that Christianity can admit only one possible form of tragedy, namely, damnation. Paton undercuts the dilemma by building his tragedy, not on the consequences of Pieter van Vlaanderen's act understood as a sin against God (he leaves this as an inner, private matter), but on the consequences of his act understood as a "sin against the race."
Paton therefore disposes of the sin against God's law in a single paragraph, in which Pieter prays to God in Heaven, partly for forgiveness for his act, and partly for forgiveness for presuming to pray at such a moment. This short paragraph closes with a striking metaphor for the theological assertion that sin cuts man off from God's love:
For he had a vision that a trumpet had been blown in Heaven, and that the Lord Most High had ordered the closing of the doors, that no prayer might enter in from such a man, who knowing the laws and the Commandments, had, of his own choice and will, defied them.
From this point on, Paton's literary concern is not with Pieter's guilt, but with his terror of discovery. For even while Pieter was praying he heard a twig crack, and he suspected a watcher in the dark. Thereafter he prays repeatedly, not for forgiveness, but that he might not be discovered: "but now it was another mercy that he sought, not to be saved from sin but from its consequences." In the first movement of the plot we encountered "the man Smith" driven by the same terror to a desperate act. But whereas Smith's terror is merely implied, Pa-ton builds up Pieter's mounting terror in great detail, and skillfully involves the reader. After an account of Pieter's ritual cleansing of himself in Chapter 20, Paton devotes four chapters to his three days of terror. Chapters 21 and 22 concern the first day of terror. Chapter 23 begins: "The second day of terror was as bad as the first …"; Chapter 24 begins: "And the third day of terror was the worst…." The significance of these episodes goes beyond their immediate value as instruments of suspense; for only by demonstrating the intensity of the tragic character's terror of the impending evil, can Paton assure the reader that the tragic blow, when it comes, is tantamount to total annihilation.
But the blow does not fall on Pieter immediately, and for a time he feels assured that his prayers to avoid discovery have been answered. Therefore when the blow does fall, it comes suddenly and from an unexpected quarter. The events he interpreted as signs that his transgression had been discovered turn out to be mere coincidence or the shallow practical jokes of the welfare worker, Japie Grobler. Pieter's endurance of terror brings a full recognition that the consequences of his act, if discovered, will involve not only himself but Nella and his children and all who bore the name van Vlaanderen. There is hope that his determination to avoid bringing destruction on them will strengthen him against the desire for Stephanie.
These glimmerings of hope seem to point toward a new dawn when old Jakob arranges the family picnic where he and Pieter watch for the phalarope together. Their discovery of a shared in-terest opens a breach in the wall of hostility between them. If it was this hostility that nourished the psychological roots of Pieter's compulsion to rebel against the iron laws his father represents, the discovery of a common interest in the phalarope could imply that unconscious motivation would no longer drive Pieter into the arms of Stephanie.
But the growing inner determination, the picnic, and the phalarope come too late. Sergeant Steyn, like Iago in his enmity, takes a hint of suspicion for surety. He sets a trap for Pieter, and Stephanie, out of fear for the security of her child, carries out Steyn's purpose. She plants the evidence on Pieter and turns witness against him, and he is convicted and sentenced to prison for contravening the Immorality Act, No. 5 of 1927.
Pieter's destruction as a public man is more complete and enduring than his prison sentence. As he had once explained to young Dick: "It's a thing that's never forgiven, never forgotten. The court may give you a year, two years. But outside it's a sentence for life." In the society that made the iron laws there is no hope of public forgiveness or restoration. The characters representing the forces of arrogant pride in race treat the transgressor with supreme contempt. Therefore, in Too Late the Phalarope, as in Cry, the Beloved Country, the theme of restoration centers around the acceptance of personal responsibility by those who, while detesting the sin, continue to love the sinner and forgive him. These characters, representing the forces of love, try in their various ways to restore Pieter. His friend Kappie, the Jewish storekeeper, suffers mutely with him, but acts with courage to dissuade him from suicide. Captain Massingham is able to put the theme of restoration into words. It is he who recognizes that to destroy and not to restore is the greatest of all offenses, and it is his words that make Sophie understand that Pieter's future rests with Nella, the injured wife: "There is a hard law, mejouffrou, that when a deep injury is done to us we never recover until we forgive." The most meaningful forgiveness must come from Nella, for she is the person most wronged by Pieter's action.
As Sergeant Steyn's hatred was an agent of Pieter's destruction, his mother's love is the agent of the measure of restoration possible to him. Sophie attributes Nella's return to stand by Pieter during his trial to the agency of his mother's love: "the girl came back, silent but steadfast, borne on the strong deep river of the mother's love." The love personified by Pieter's mother contrasts with the intense self-concern underlying total devotion of others to pride in Pure Race. We learn little of her in the novel beyond Sophie's estimate that "if ever a woman was all love, it was she…." Her unselfish love is set as a healing spring in the desert of destructive racial pride. Significantly, in her personal relations with people and her humanitarian concern for the welfare of others, she shares the characteristic unselfishness of Arthur Jarvis in Cry, the Beloved Country. Thus she provides another fictional parallel for the qualities of Edith Rheinallt Jones that Paton describes in "A Deep Experience." Sophie's final summing up suggests this when she says that Pieter's story would be better told by her sister: "And I wish she could have written it, for maybe of the power of her love that never sought itself, men would have turned to the holy task of pardon, that the body of the Lord might not be wounded twice, and virtue come of our offences."
Source: Edward Callan, "The Pride of Pure Race: Too Late the Phalarope," in Alan Paton, Twayne, 1999.
Baker, Sheridan, "Paton's Late Phalarope," in English Studies in Africa, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1990, pp. 152-59.
Fuller, Edmund, "Alan Paton: Tragedy and Beyond," in Books with Men Behind Them, Random House, 1962, pp. 83-101.
Gardiner, Harold C., "Chapter Three: Alan Paton's Second Masterpiece," in In All Conscience: Reflections on Books and Culture, Hanover House, 1959, pp. 12-16.
Moss, Rose, "Alan Paton: Bringing a Sense of the Sacred," in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring 1983, pp. 233-37.
Petersen, Kirsten Holst, "Alan Paton: Overview," in Reference Guide to English Literature, St. James Press, 1991.
Rooney, F. Charles, "The 'Message' of Alan Paton," in Catholic World, Vol. 194, No. 1160, November 1961, pp. 92-98.
Stevens, Irma Ned, "Paton's Narrator Sophie: Justice and Mercy," in International Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, Winter 1981, pp. 68-70.
Watts, Nicholas H. Z., "A Study of Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope," in Durham University Journal, Vol. 76, No. 2, June 1984, pp. 249-54.
Gordimer, Nadine, "Unconfessed History," in New Republic, Vol. 186, No. 12, March 24, 1982, pp. 35-37.
South African Nobel Prize-winning author Gordimer discusses the voice in Too Late the Phalarope as it compares to the voice in Paton's later novel, Ah, But Your Land Is Beautiful.
Hooper, Myrtle, "Paton and the Silence of Stephanie," in English Studies in Africa, Vol. 32, No. 1, 1989, pp. 53-63.
Hooper reviews the story of Too Late the Phalarope with special attention to the causes, purposes, and outcomes of Stephanie's silence.
Paton, Alan, Journey Continued: An Autobiography, Scribner, 1988.
This is the second part of Paton's autobiography, completed just before his death in 1988.
――――――, Towards the Mountain, Scribner, 1980.
This is the beginning of Paton's intriguing autobiography that describes the author's upbringing and political activism in his native South Africa.
Thompson, J. B., "Poetic Truth in Too Late the Phalarope," in English Studies in Africa, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1981, pp. 37-44.
Thompson examines the novel outside of its obvious historical scope in order to reveal the contemporary relevance and universal themes.