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Racism and the Status of Romance in “Town and Country Lovers”

In Nadine Gordimer’s story “Town and Country Lovers,” the oppressive force of racism in apartheid South Africa is expressed in the details of the relationship between Dr. Franz-Josef von Leinsdorf and the girl. At a surface view of their relationship the two appear to be the tragic “star-crossed lovers” separated by unjust laws. However with deeper analysis, they are separated not only by the state, but also by their individual habitus and the racist undertones that are created in their relationship because of it. Before they are even caught by the South African authorities they are separated on a physical, educational, and social level, which is illustrated in every aspect of their relationship. While their relationship may seem to be a step against racism, this abstract force is still very present in the details of their romance throughout the narrative.

One of the major and most obvious flaws in their relationship is their physical separation in the public eye. Even though they have sexual intercourse in his flat “every late afternoon” (Gordimer 84), “they never kiss when either [leaves] the flat” (85). By keeping their relationship hidden in the flat, they reinforce the racist views of society because they do not question it or stand against it. The girl justifies the secrecy of their relationship by insisting that “he work[s] at his papers, writing, writing, every night, so it [does] not matter that they [cannot] go out together to public places” (84). The only time they can be together outside of the flat is “when they [drive] to the country… where there [is] no one” (84). Again, the two are physically separated in the public sphere and can only be together when no one else is around. Her justification of why it does not matter that they do not go out shows that she is passive to this racism. As much as society does not allow the two to be together, Dr. von Leinsdorf and the girl also strengthen these racist views by glossing over the flaws of their romance. Their physical separation in the public eye is a specific example of racism in their relationship.

Secondly, although the two have a romantic relationship, Dr. von Leinsdorf acts as an educator and is condescending toward the girl, which acts as another vehicle for racism. The two have very different educational upbringings: Dr. von Leinsdorf being “a cultured man engaged in international mineralogical research” as opposed to the girl who “left school in Standard Three,” separating them educationally and allowing racism to ensue in many areas of their relationship (88). Dr. von Leinsdorf’s condescension is apparent when he teaches the girl how to make “real coffee, fresh, from the beans” as is done “in [his] country” (83). When she tries to explain how she makes coffee, he “laugh[s], instructive” (83). Although subtle, he is mocking her habitus and looking down upon her way of making coffee, enlightening her with his supposed superior method. This motif carries through the narrative. The girl “never attempt[s] to cook anything until she [watches] in silences while he [does] it the way he like[s], and she [learns] to reproduce exactly the simple dishes he prefer[s],” wholly adjusting to do things how he expects them to be done (84). This reinforces racism because it has a negative undercurrent of the white, superior people entering and enlightening the “lesser people” with their better ways. He also teaches her how to type and “correct[s] her grammatical mistakes,” always “explain[ing] his lessons in way she [can] understand” (85). He teaches her to speak English properly, however he never makes an effort to learn Afrikaans, her mother tongue. Every lesson she learns is to meet his educational level, rather than him trying to accommodate or understand hers. In this way, he unintentionally reinforces the racist view that her way is inferior to his because her language is not worth learning for him. The girl also contributes to this notion by submitting to him, thinking “how one day she [will] type notes for him, as well as [make] coffee that way he like[s] it… and [sit](even if only through the empty streets of quiet Sundays) beside him in his car, like a wife” (85). She is unrealistically hopeful that one day in this apartheid state she may be his wife, and as a result she over-looks major signs of racism in their relationship. While at first one may think that him educating her is positive, ultimately he does not value her education and is patronizing, expecting her to “rise” to his educational level. The lack of mutual respect in this relationship due to the differences in their education is another way in which racism is made specific in the details.

Lastly, the disparity in their social and economic standing makes it difficult for Dr. von Leinsdorf to understand the girl’s lifestyle. An obvious example of the difference in their social standing is what they are called in the narrative. Dr. Franz-Josef von Leinsdorf has a long and respectable name and prefix, whereas the girl is not even given a name. She is merely another “young coloured girl” (81) whereas Dr. von Leinsdorf is a “cultured man” (88). This obviously creates a divide between the two and how they are viewed in society and while this is merely a detail, it is still racist. The difference in their social standing is also evident when Dr. von Leinsdorf suggests that the girl call her mother and ask to stay the night. He does not “understand that people don’t usually have telephones in their houses, where she lived,” highlighting his lack of awareness about her life (84). This is problematic because it shows that he does not know her very well, nor is making an effort to get to know her or where she is from. As the narrative points out, “many of these well-educated Europeans have no intentions of becoming permanent immigrants; neither the remnant of white colonial life nor idealistic of involvement with Black Africa appeals to them,” which is shown in his lack of interest in her culture and lifestyle (81). He will not invest in her life because it is not interesting to him, despite the fact that she invests so much in his. Their social separation is another way in which racism is present in their relationship.

On the surface, this romance appears to be torn apart by the oppressive legal system in South Africa, however they are separated in many other ways prior to the arrest. They are separated physically in the public sphere as they are not allowed to be seen together in front of people. Their acceptance and justification of this fact supports racist ideas. They are separated educationally because of their upbringing and habitus, which causes him to be condescending and patronizing, another racist element in their romance. They are also separated economically and socially and as a result he cannot understand her lifestyle and is also unwilling to learn more about it. She also does not mind changing her lifestyle to fit his. Instead of trying to make their lives work together, she adjusts to do things the way he likes, supporting the racist notion that the white way is superior to hers. These separations emphasize how racism is not only enforced by the state, but is also evident in the relationship between the girl and Dr. von Leinsdorf. Racism is manifested in the differences between the two and is made specific in the details of their relationship.

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