The Overlap of the Private and the Public in Gordimer’s ‘My Son’s Story’

Also published on the online literary journal O CAPTAIN! MY CAPTAIN!

Nadine Gordimer’s novel My Son’s Story (1990), set in the decade prior to the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa, examines through a meta-fictional narrative, the way in which political ongoings invade and seep into the personal lives of families and individuals living in the country. Gordimer’s characters often seem to represent a philosophy rather than an active element of the story. Sonny, Will, Aila, Baby and Hannah are not mere ‘types’. She eventually allows room for their complex individual stories to unfold, ensuring that every aspect of the overlap between the personal and the political is brought to the foreground for her readers. One may say that the narrative passes through lenses focussed at multiple characters and refracts into several stories running parallel to (and yet intertwined with) each other.   

At the centre of the plot lies the scandalous love affair of Sonny, a coloured man living South Africa, and Hannah Plowman, a white social activist from the International Organisation for Human Rights. The affair coincides with Sonny’s political awakening – his love for Hannah emerging alongside his developing passion for revolution and justice, two experiences which remain inseparable throughout the course of the novel. Heavily influenced by Western cultural thought and ideas, Sonny seeks intellectual fulfilment which Hannah provides to him along with sexual fulfilment. It is this torrid love affair which creates the fissures and cracks in the lives of his family members which allow for the percolation of the political into the personal domain. Simply put, the boundaries between the “outside” and the “inside” blur to an extent that the two become indistinguishable. The deepest crack in the family unit is created right at the beginning of the novel when Will, Sonny’s fifteen year old son, discovers his father’s infidelity after stumbling upon him and “his woman” walking out of a cinema together. As Will, the narrator in this chapter notes, cinemas had been open to the black and coloured populations of the country only about a year or so ago. The cinema thus on one hand becomes symbolic of Sonny’s deceit and disloyalty in the personal space, and on the other of the coloured people’s struggle to enjoy the same rights as whites during the apartheid regime in the political space. The encounter leaves Will with a deep psychic split:
“Then I ran from the cinema foyer, my vision confined straight ahead like a blinkered horse […] and I took a bus home, home, home where I shut myself up in my room, safe among familiar schoolbooks.” (pg.9)
The emphasis on the word “home” depicts the narrator’s desperate need for a refuge, a safe haven. The young, inexperienced and naive Will still believes that his home, so meticulously made up as a cradle of love by his mother Aila, would provide him some relief. What he does not realise is the fact that the home too, would soon disintegrate as did his parents’ relationship.

Sonny’s political activities then lead to the weakening of the family unit. A violent protest breaks out against the imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction led by students of the school where Sonny teaches. Sonny is unable to contain the violent outraged and is ultimately charged with instigating the youth against the white authorities. Sonny’s arrest pushes his family into the eye of the storm, and the members unwillingly become consumed by the currents of the political and historical forces. Later on in the story, Sonny reaches the height of his political career as a great mover of political passions through his oratory skills. Sonny’s political fervour and carnal desire both reach fulfilment through Hannah. By fighting for the same cause as she does – the liberation of the coloured communities, and by sharing a bed with her – a bed which was not as sacrosanct as that of Aila’s (for this bed was representative of limitless passions and unrestrained desire), he lets the political and the personal spaces of his life overlap with each other. As critic Stephen Clingman points out in his essay Afterthoughts on My Son’s Story (1992), “politics itself is sexualised in the novel. Each character is ‘seduced’ by politics and politicised by the ambivalent forms of love.” On a certain level, politics and Hannah are almost synonymous for Sonny. And the more Sonny gets intertwined in an intimate relationship with both politics and Hannah, the more he alienates himself from his family. Sonny occupies an ambivalent position as far as political activism is concerned, however. On one hand he sides with students protesting against Afrikaans, presumably empathising with the stances contemporary African writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who wrote against the hegemonising of languages by colonial administrators in his book Decolonising the Mind (1986). And on the other, he idolises Shakespeare and Kafka, wanting to be like them, and consequently idealising Western cultural thought, unaware that this idealisation and want for acquiring sophistication in the midst of the European paradigm itself has come about as a result of colonisation. The politics of the world, therefore, of colonisation and Orientalism, have impacted Sonny’s personal ambitions and life choices without him being aware of it.

Sonny’s family suffers as a result of his preoccupations outside the home. When his daughter Baby comes to know of his unfaithfulness, she is struck by the image of a raging, animalistic sexual passion being shared by her father and his woman – “like a pack of drunk wildebeest”.(pg.80) This becomes the breaking point for her, and she attempts suicide by slitting her wrists. Her scars are representative of the trauma and heartbreak that keeps on surfacing throughout the course of the novel. As a coping mechanism perhaps, Baby joins the military wing of the African National Congress – the Umkhonto we Sizwe. Towards the end of the novel, we also discover Aila falling prey to political passions as she takes up a far more dangerous an incriminating role – that of smuggling guns and hiding them in her home as a member of the military wing, although her motive is more personal than political – to protect Baby’s branch of the family. Here, once again we see the tensions between the personal and the political spaces merge together in a perilous scheme of events.

Political-political tensions are also evident in other instances throughout the novel. For instance, Sonny does not have any idea about his family lineage. All he has is an old, nameless photograph of his family patriarch. The photograph thus assumes a metaphorical significance. It is a metaphor of the loss of identity of a race, of the erasure of ethnic identity carried out by their white masters. Another instance could be the division of South Africa’s territory into “white” areas and “black” areas for members of different ethnic groups. These are spaces created by the State to maintain State Power. The French philosopher Michel Foucault explains this division in his essay titled Of Other Spaces (1986). Foucault discusses the concept of Heterotopia or the “other spaces” such as prisons, asylums, brothels.  He notes that civilised society relegates what it does not want to see to these “other” spaces and defines itself against them. Evidently, in the case of South Africa, the ghettos of the blacks and the coloured people are the spots where Heterotopia is seen as being played out.

It is revealed at the end of the novel, that the story is written by Will – “What he did – my father – made me a writer […] I am a writer and this is my first book – that I can never publish.”(pg.271) As is evident, Will’s personal experiences have shaped him into a skilled writer. However, one cannot ignore the fact that the role of a writer in itself is extremely political, especially in a post-colonial set-up. The Nigerian post-colonial novelist Chinua Achebe, in 1964, wrote an essay titled The Role of a Writer in a New Nation, where he placed special emphasis on the need for bringing the dignity of the African people to the forefront. Will, in documenting the ravages of apartheid and its effect on personal lives, takes up a political role that all post-colonial writers aspire towards. When he writes, “The whole world is lying and fornicating”, he very adeptly brings out the frustration his family experiences. Unfortunately however, as critic Mita Bose points out, he still compares himself to Shakespeare, seeing him as the perfect idol to match up to.

We may therefore conclude that Gordimer’s novel accurately and sufficiently examines the tensions and overlaps between the relationships of the personal and the political domain.


  1. Gordimer, N. My Son’s Story. 1990. Worldview Critical Edition.
  2. Clingman, S. Afterthoughts on My Son’s Story. 1992.
  3. Greenstein, S. My Son’s Story: Drenching the Censors – The Dilemma of White Writing. 1993.
  4. Thiong’o, N. Decolonising the Mind. 1986.
  5. Foucault, M. Of Other Spaces. 1986.
  6. Achebe, C. The Role of a Writer in a New Nation. 1964.

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