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The Measure of Justice in Too Late the Phalarope: the Tragedy of Pieter Van Vlaanderen

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Is it fair to prosecute someone for breaking an unjust law? Alan Paton’s Too Late the Phalarope, set in Apartheid South Africa, analyzes this dilemma through the story of Pieter van Vlaanderen, a white South African police lieutenant, who must battle the criticism of a stringent community, his family, and his own perception of morality. As a lieutenant and a star rugby player, Pieter is a well-respected member of his society, yet he begins to have sexual relations with a young, black girl named Stephanie, in direct violation of the Immorality Act of 1927. Pieter is a family man who cheats on his wife, and a police lieutenant who breaks the law. One would think that the reader would have no sympathy for Pieter—in fact, it is quite the opposite.
Through Pieter’s “social death,” Paton garners sympathy for Pieter’s tragedy, and ultimately unveils the repressed society as the “tragic figure,” thus conveying a more universal political message. Paton uses this compassion as a vessel to expose and criticize an unjust society, in which an affair of the heart can result in imprisonment. Through displaying Pieter’s inner-turmoil, Paton weaves a portrait of a troubled and alone Pieter who needs support and intimacy to avoid his self-destruction. Sophie, Pieter’s aunt and the story’s narrator, begins the novel saying, “[p]erhaps I could have saved him, with only a word, two words, out of my mouth” (9). Although the reader has no personal connection with either Sophie or Pieter, the narrator portrays Pieter in a positive light and evokes immediate sympathy in the reader. Recounting Pieter’s life, Sophie depicts him as a divided man, both as a “soldier of the war…the lieutenant in the police…the great rugby player, hero of thousands of boys and men,” and as a “dark and silent man,” who hides “secret knowledge of himself” (11). The heroic and honorable side of his personality acts as a façade to protect his inner-turmoil. But, Pieter presents himself as “gentle and eager to please, tender to women and children” (10). The fact that Paton foreshadows Pieter’s downfall from the very beginning of the novel causes the reader to feel that his downfall is not inevitable and that he could have been saved by Sophie, the person who can see both sides. Paton thus condemns silence and its ability to destroy communities. Pieter’s lack of support from and intimacy with his father, Jakob, evokes empathy in the reader because he is a second person who could have saved Pieter, but, because of his belief system, he cannot do so. Jakob does not understand his son since Pieter has “something of the woman in him,” meaning he gravitates toward more “feminine” qualities such as admiring flowers and stamps (10). Much of the tension between Pieter and Jakob derives from Pieter’s refusal to follow his father’s ideals. Jakob reads “only the One, and the newspapers,” while Pieter always reads books (10). Pieter goes to war and wins “ribbons that his father hated” (11). The stamps that Pieter collects are the true embodiment of the tension in their relationship. When Jakob returns Pieter’s adored stamps, which he had taken from Pieter as a punishment for no longer being at the top of his class, Pieter does not shower Jakob with gratitude, but simply says thank you and sits down. It is obvious from their various interactions that father and son do not understand each other at all. One day while Kappie shows Pieter a collection of rare stamps, Jakob walks in and the “hearty and joking mood was gone” (35). From Kappie’s outside perspective, the stamps are the problem, but Pieter knowingly acknowledges “ ‘[t]here was trouble long before the stamps…I was born before the stamps’ ” (36). Before his stamps were taken away, “[Pieter] was never sullen” (37). Through criticizing the stamps, Jakob condemns Pieter’s very identity, which ultimately precipitates his “black moods.” Pieter commits his worst acts during his black moods, and so they represent Pieter’s ability to do wrong. Again, while one could criticize Pieter for these moods, instead the reader understands that Jakob causes these moods and thus sympathizes with Pieter.

The reader feels pity for Pieter not only because he lacks familial guidance and acceptance, but also because of the cruel fact of society’s laws and restrictions. The Smith case exemplifies the influence of the Immorality Act within apartheid South Africa. Ironically, Smith kills his pregnant servant, thus choosing to commit the ultimate act of violence rather than facing the potential consequences of breaking the Immorality Act. He is blinded by fear: “When [the servant] told him she was with child, he was filled with terror, and could think of nothing else by night or by day, nor did he touch her any more” (46). Paton highlights the role of terror in motivating Smith’s actions: No one would have murdered the girl out of greed, for she had nothing; nor out of jealousy, for she had no lovers; nor out of anger, for she was submissive and gentle by nature. Therefore it was done from fear. And if a man of her own race and colour had made her with child, he would not have been afraid and murdered her, but would have gone shamefaced to her father, to confess and make reparation, as was their custom. (47) Paton not only uses the tragic events of the Smith case to prove the immorality within the Immorality Act itself, but also uses it to induce sympathy in the reader. Indeed, since Sophie’s sentiments foreshadow the ending in the very first lines of the novel, the reader speculates whether something equally tragic could affect Pieter in the same way. Pieter himself knows that he is in danger of giving in to his own desires, and is desperate to change and transform, yet he feels it is beyond his own control. When the young dominee preaches to “judge ourselves, because the Lord had called him to be a shepherd not a judge,” Pieter believes that he has found a confidant who can help him be a better person (79). Sophie writes, “I saw that my nephew was watching the young dominee, with some strange look in his eyes, and I guessed that the preaching had struck him in the heart, though I could not have told you why” (84-85). Sophie can sense that Pieter is alone and perhaps troubled, yet only the reader truly knows why he wants to reach out for help. Pieter is tortured by his isolating dark moods and uncontrollable desires: “I had but one thought in my mind, and that was to tell one human soul of the misery of my life, that I was tempted by what I hated, to seize something that could bring no joy” (88). Tragically when the young dominee forms a relationship with Pieter’s sister and thus holds Pieter in such high regard, Pieter can no longer reach out to him because of his “pride” (89). The dominee’s preaching has the ability to reach Pieter’s heart. After the next sermon, Pieter rushes home and tenderly greets Nella, hoping that she can hear his plea for help: “I wanted to tell her every word, to strip myself naked before her, so that she could see the nature of the man she loved” (97). Pieter is unable to connect with Nella because the way she loves him does not combine the “body and mind and soul” (96). As a last resort, Pieter seeks the help of God. Nella prays for Pieter’s black moods to lift, and Pieter watched her “knowing for what she prayed, for the black moods and the angers and the cold withdrawals that robbed her of the simple joys of her quiet and humble life. I said to myself, God listen to [Nella]…ask and it shall be given, knock and it shall be opened, search and it shall be found, before the gift and the opening and the finding are too late” (95). Pieter wants to change his moods, but feels helpless to change. He evokes the Bible verse Matthew 7:7 to call on a merciful God to save him before it is “too late.” Nella is the woman Pieter should be with, but when she does not satisfy him he is left with impulses and desires. For Pieter, Stephanie represents the perfect opportunity to fulfill those temptations, despite legal and racial barriers imposed by society. Although it is hard to feel sympathy for a philanderer, it is in the evident failed attempts to reach out for help to suppress his “black moods” and sexual desires that the reader can pity Pieter’s actions. Jakob, the embodiment of Apartheid South Africa and what it stands for, ostracizes Pieter, representing his “social and familial death.” In most cultures, Pieter’s adultery would not be unlawful; thus his “death” cannot be attributed just to the affair itself, but to the fact that Stephanie is black. For example, if Stephanie were white, Pieter would not be in violation of the Immorality Act, and thus, not have to suffer public damnation and disgrace. Moreover, he would not be figuratively eliminated from his own family: “[Jakob] took the pen and the ink, and he crossed out the name of Pieter van Vlaanderen from the Book, not once but many times” (262). Jakob also demanded “everything in this house has anything to do with [Pieter]” to be burned and destroyed. So rigid is Jakob’s belief system, that despite his love for his son he is willing to erase everything about him, as though he had never existed in the first place. It never occurs to him to forgive Pieter. For all his goodness and kindness, Pieter, through this one action, is condemned and in the eyes of his father, sentenced to “death.” The blind cruelty of Jakob toward his son evokes a deep sympathy from the reader, despite the fact that Pieter broke the law and had an extramarital affair. The Immorality Act is in itself immoral in Paton’s eyes, and Jakob is equally suspect to the author. Paton’s ingenious use of Pieter, who may otherwise seem to be an unsympathetic character, points out in shimmering clarity the evils of the Apartheid system and the courage it takes to confront the illogical and vindictive effects of the law. Paton uses this novel as a political tool to show the unjust imbalance between a transgression, which in other societies would be legal behavior, but takes as its measure of punishment a steep price in a man’s life.…...

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