Gordimer and Uncovering a Character’s True Identity

gordimer_Jump_bookNadine Gordimer’s stories often circle around themes of belonging and identity.  Author and Vice President of International PEN, Per Wästberg wrote in his essay “Nadine Gordimer and the South African Experience” that “behind the most intimate relations, as well as the most public, there is the same search for an identity, a self-confirmation, and a wish to belong and exist” (n.p.).  The main character in Gordimer’s short story “Jump” is no different.  What makes this story unique and compelling is the way Gordimer uses physical appearance and personal pronouns to convey and support these ideas.

In “Jump”, we come to understand the main character not by name but by his physical appearances, of which he has two.  These different physical appearances, the bearded and the clean-shaven identities, come together to create a complete and human character.  Gordimer states of her characters, “there are no ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ among the main characters; blacks and whites represent a full range of human qualities, which are never unmixed within the individual” (Gordimer 152).  The use of physical appearance provides us with a literal map of his character arc.

In the story, no characters, whether the main character, the girl he encounters, the counter-revolutionaries or the government officials, have individual names. These characters remain as he, the girl or she or they.  The most prominent personal pronoun used is they, which represents the faceless political groups that bring about his different identities. The closest we do get to individual identities, are the physical appearances of the main character.  He understands the power of these groups, because “they are prepared to spend foreign currency on him” (5) and supply him with the imported brand of cigarettes he prefers and whiskey that he orders, “although he had never been one to drink spirits” (5).  They are the ones who transact the deal of a “house with a garden and watchman for privacy, security (for his circumstances)…a house and a car” and “some kind of decent position” for his betrayal, or “debriefing” (6) of his counterrevolutionary activities.

They are also the “white people to whom his parents had successfully appealed to get him released” (9) from jail, where the seed of his hatred, of the other they, begins to take root.  Here is where the political begins at the personal level.  Prior to this moment, his life had been relatively unaffected by “the reality of the black’s lives, the black’s war” (7).  When he is “detained for five weeks in a dirty cell the colonial regime had used for blacks” (8), all because “he took a photograph of a sea-bird alighting on some sort of tower structure” (8), “for the first time in his life he thought about the blacks –and hated them” (8).  They, who represent the new black government, “smashed his camera and locked him up like a black” (8).  This hatred comes with the belief that “they could never do anything good for the country where he was born” (8-9).

This thrusts him into the other camp, the they who “soothed him with their indignation over what had happened to him and gave him a substitute for the comradeship of the parachute club” (9).  He is thus well on his way “into the patrimony of counter-revolution” (9).  This political group uses him for “his gift for languages”, and they reward him with a house “in the privacy of one of the best quarters, and his study or office there was not only lined with documents and books but equipped with the latest form of telecommunications” (10), and “a full-time maid” (11).

It is here he begins to hide his true self.  The character’s “delicate, adolescent chin” disappears “in the soft flesh of good living, and then he grew the beard that came out dark and vigorous giving him the aspect of a man of power” (11).  This new face and army fatigues  create a counterrevolutionary persona that is “commanding the respect accorded the superiorily disciplined personality” (5).  It is telling that he is unable to reveal this new identity to his parents, choosing to forego “the rest of its attributes: the bulky fatigues and the boots and the beret” (11) when he visits them.  Instead, wearing “civilian clothes that had come to be his disguise” (11).  But as his counterrevolutionary identity, “when he travelled on his European missions, he himself was that fighting man: the beard, the fatigues, the beret” (13).

He then begins to understand the atrocities he has helped them commit: “male refugees captured at the border brought in starving” and “made to join …forces..or die” (15), “their villages burned, their families hacked to death” (15).  The false counterrevolutionary identity begins to unravel when he sees what “they” are doing to twelve and thirteen year old refugee children (16).  He may not have been directly involved with the “murderous horde that burns down hospitals, cuts off the ears of villagers, blows up trains full of innocent workers going home to their huts, rapes children and forces women at gunpoint to kill their children and eat their flesh (13), but he realizes by identifying with this group, by wearing “the boots and uniforms made in their factories. (That outfit of mine must have come from there)” (15), he is just as responsible. It is when he makes the decision to turn away from the counterrevolutionary group that he arrives at the crossroads that Gordimer has once described:

There always have been and still are people who, once having accepted social responsibility and its logical consequence, political action, are torn in deciding how best to change the South African way of life which all now admit, to one degree or another, is unjust to blacks and must be changed.  (Gordimer 152)

Unsure of the consequences, he goes to them, those who are part of the new government power, wearing his bearded, uniformed identity, to offer all that he knows of the counterrevolutionary group he had belonged to, in hopes of some kind of redemption:

In that rebel army’s outfit, with the beard, so that they could shoot him if they wanted; so that they would realize who he was and what he knew…all that he could offer to efface his knowledge of the atrocities: complete information about the rebel army, its leaders, its internal feuds, its allies, its sources of supply, the exact position of its secret bases.  Everything. (Gordimer 17)

Once he has rejected them, he can no longer wear the identity associated with them.  His bearded identity is associated with the past, as the one who wore “camouflage fatigues tucked into boots that struck authoritatively with each step, the leather-bound beret” (4).   He must remove it all and bare his true, “hidden self” (4):

Day by day, divested of the boots, fatigues, the beret and the beard, the first class flights, the house in Europe, the dinners of honour, the prestige of intelligence – his life.  He had been discovered there beneath it, sitting quite still on a chair in a dark room, only a naked full neck pulsating. (17)

But after the debriefing, after he has confessed and bared all to the other them, those now in government as well as to the press, he finds his true identity so foreign to him. He sits in his apartment staring at the television screen that “reflects a dim, ballooned vision of a face, pale and full” (4).  He “passes a hand over cheek and chin, but there is no beard there – it’s real that he shaved it off” (4).  Worse, his true identity is still too vulnerable and exposed.  He cannot face “the bright stare of the beggared city, city turned inside out, no shelter there for life, the old men propped against empty facades to die, the orphaned children running in packs round the rubbish dumps, the men without ears and women with a stump where there was an arm” (20).  He retreats into his self-imposed exile, neither belonging to they who are the new government nor they who opposed them, and left with the terrifying reality of his true identity.

Identity and belonging have always been important themes in Nadine Gordimer’s fiction.  Her earlier works focused on characters who struggle to attain political or racial freedom in lieu of their personal freedom, but in her later works, such as in “Jump”, she explores the construction of individual identities through the construction of form.  By using strategies such as a character’s physical appearance juxtaposed against powerful political groups, impersonally referenced as they or them, she is able to show a character’s discovery of his true self, as painful as it may be.

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Copyright© 2010 Lisa Abellera

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