“Another Part of the Sky” by Nadine Gordimer (South Africa)

In Collins, the principal of an experimentally liberal reformatory Nadine Gordimer presents a man who possesses a few temperate faults and several moderate virtues, who is extraordinary only in certain ways and in small degrees, who is somewhat given to introspection, and who is reasonably self-aware.  Why, then, should his final realization—that he has not room enough in his caring for the whole world—why should this rather commonplace epiphany have “filled him with desolation…stiffened him from head to foot with failure,” create a “moment of knowledge” so agonizing that “he did not know how he would live through” it?  Our knowledge of Collins does not prepare us for it.

Perhaps our shock and bewilderment are meant to mirror Collins’s own; after all, we know of him only what he consciously knows of himself.  There are, however, two cases in which the words of his inner dialogue give away more than he probably realizes.  In the first of these instances he imagines his runaways living in a “cave of hunched faces painted with cosy fear by the light of a paraffintin fire…[a]troubled dreamlike existence of struggle and fear and horror,” and in the second he refers to his life as a struggle “to read the suffering faces of the nameless, the dispossessed whom God made it incumbent upon him that he should spend his life reading.”  These passages suggest that he sees himself—though he would almost certainly recoil from the thought—as a Christ-like messenger to the Platonic cave (The Republic, Book VII) of south Africa’s lowest caste.  It is his task to lead boys away from the flickering fire, the “hovel of smoke,” the “half-discerned murk,” drawing like Socrates on “some memory beneath their experience,” eventually accustoming them to the world lit by the sun of public and private order, if not that of philosophic truth.

But in Plato’s analogy no one who has been led into the world of the sun ever returns (save against his will) to resume his old place in the world of the cave:  more importantly, Christ, even a type of Christ, never fails in self-sacrificing charity to mankind.  It is not surprising, when we consider the models in whose terms Collins sees the world, and against which he, albeit unconsciously, measures himself, that he should be crushed by a sudden perception of the face and extent of his failure, and should not even reflect on the fact that it is a failure common to all humanity.  Nor is it surprising that Collins, so easily seduced by words as to forget reading them, should be so preternaturally irked by words, and especially by the contrast between their perennial promise of wholeness and their delivery of partial truths.  The words in the newspapers have only belied him; the words in the core visions of Western culture, the words that shape and sustain Collins’s “part of the sky,” have betrayed him to a “desolation” and a taste of “bitter juice” which are merely, terrifyingly, human.

Nadine Gordimer, 1923-

A list of Nadine Gordimer‘s numerous international awards reveals her to be one of the most celebrated of the world’s writers in English: the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, 1973, for A Guest of Honour; the Booker Prize for Fiction, 1974, for The Conservationist; the Commonwealth Award for Distinguished Service in Literature, 1981; the Modern Language Association of America award, 1982; the Premio Malparte, 1985; her naming as an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, 1986; and her receipt of honorary degrees from both Harvard and Yale universities.

Gordimer received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, “through her magnificent epic writing has—in the words of Alfred Nobel—been of very great benefit to humanity.”

Gordimer published her first story at the age of fifteen, and since then she has written more than six novels and a dozen story collections. She has also contributed stories to anthologies worldwide. Born in Springs, South Africa, to Jewish emigrants from London, Gordimer has said she attained political awareness slowly, eventually condemning the country’s race laws she had been raised to accept. She is now widely considered to be one of the strongest voices of social conscience in South Africa.

According to New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, Gordimer’s “enduring subject” is “the consequences of apartheid on the daily lives of men and women, the distortions it produces in relationships among both blacks and whites.”

Nadine Gordimer, 1923—

A list of Nadine Gordimer’s numerous international awards reveals her to be one of the most celebrated of the world’s writers in English:  the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, 1973, for A Guest of Honour;   the Booker Prize for Fiction, 1974, for The Conservationist;  the Commonwealth Award for Distinguished Service in Literature, 1981; the Modern Language Association of America award, 1982; the Premio Malparte, 1985; her naming as an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, 1986; and her receipt of honorary degrees from both Harvard and Yale universities.  Gordimer published her first story at the age of fifteen, and since then she has written more than six novels and a dozen story collections.  She has also contributed stories to anthologies worldwide.  Born in Springs, South Africa, to Jewish emigrants from London, Gordimer has said she attained political awareness slowly, eventually condemning the country’s race laws she had been raised to accept.  She is now widely considered to be one of the strongest voices of social conscience in South Africa.  According to New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, Gordimer’s “enduring subject” is “the consequences of apartheid on the daily lives of men and women, the distortions it produces in relationships among both blacks and whites.

Exploring the Text

  1. The protagonist, Collins, notes that words present the truth inadequately, not just because facts can be recorded inaccurately, but because words are insufficient for recording experience.
    • What mistake was made in the newspaper article about him?  What is suggested by the glib phrase “the man who pulled down prison walls and grew geraniums in their place?”  What is missing from this verbal description?
    • Why are the newspapers “stupid” that said “crime wave…robbery…old man knifed in the street?”  Or “the police are investigating and have situation well in hand.”  What do these factual accounts omit?
  2. The protagonist thinks that the freedom the boys escape to is not very appealing.  Describe it.  Why might the boys see it as preferable to being in a reformatory—even a reformatory without walls?  Are the boys in the reformatory imprisoned by other things?  Is Collins also—trapped perhaps by his self-image?  Explain your answer.
  3. Why is Collins so upset about the boy who escaped?  Is it that he’s “an idealist” and cannot “take the blow to his pride?”  Are Collins’s expectations of himself unrealistic?  Explain.
  4. The police sergeant assumes the boy beat up the old lady.  On what are the police basing their assumption?  What realities of the situation make it difficult for the police to behave otherwise?  Are Collins’s attitudes towards the boys in his reformatory more or less humane?  More or less practical?  Explain.
  5. What does Collins assume Ngubane has come to tell him?  What realization hist Collins as he lies in bed?  Why does he repeat to himself the lines from the newspaper:  “the man who pulled down prison walls and grew geraniums?”  Is this line more true than he had imagined at the beginning of the story?
  6. Look at the references in the story to the sky:  the title “Another Part of the Sky;” “the great hard polished winter sky that shone of itself…without answer” (p. 154); the “pang which had never yet found the right moment to claim attention lifted feebly like an eye of lightning that opens and shuts in another part of the sky” (p.157).  What does the sky seem to represent?  Why do you think Gordimer titled the story as she did?  (Look especially at “another part.”)  Does the sky image relate to the epiphany at the story’s climax?

Personal Response

A “found poem” is a poem made of a group of words not originally intended as a poem, but distilled from its context and arranged effectively on the page using white space and enjambment.  For example, the end of this story might be arranged this way:

The silence
of his wife, going about her business whilst he
worried, nine years
he worried, turned from
her
to this problem or that
if you search
one face you turn
your back
on another.

Choose a segment of this story that seems especially vivid and significant.  Experiment with arrangements on the page that seem most effective in appropriateness and/or tension between the content and the form. If another student has chosen the same passage as you have, compare your versions.

Media

Imagine you are a reporter.  The boy from the reformatory has been found by police and charged with the beating of the woman, and you are assigned the task of interviewing Collins as part of your preparation for writing the article.  What would Collins tell you?  What news article would you write?

Enrichment

To extend the reference to discrimination suggested in the response of the police to the attack on the lady, read or view one of the following texts and write a reader response journal about your impressions:  Cry Freedom, A Dry White Season, Dreamspeaker, Of Mice and Men, Anne Frank:  Diary of a Young Girl,  “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell, or In the Heat of the Night.

Language

  1. Gordimer’s story is characterized partially by the use of colons, semi-colons, and dashes.  Read over the first page and a half of the story carefully, noting where colons and semi-colons appear.  Substitute periods for each of these.  Note where dashes occur.  Substitute periods or parentheses for these.  Comparing the original and altered versions, answer the following questions:
    • What do semi-colons and colons seem to mean?  What connections do they establish between ideas before and after?
    • How does the meaning of words set off by dashes change when placed in parentheses?  when separated by a period?
  2. Revise a piece of your own writing by experimenting with colons, semi-colons and dashes.  How can you establish connections between ideas and subordinate ideas?

Language

Consider this description of Collins attempting to fall asleep:

He lay and the darkness came up to him, the darkness spread out to the edges of his being, the darkness washed away the edges of his being as the sea melts the edges of the sand.  But just as it was about to smooth out his head and wash down the pinnacles of his features like a sandcastle, a return of consciousness rose within him and swept it away.  (p. 159)

To what is falling asleep compared?  What does the comparison suggest to us about falling asleep?  do you find this extended metaphor appropriate?  If not, what comparison would you make?

“The Hobby” and “Another Part of the Sky” Essay

Both the old man in The Hobby and Collins in Another Part of the Sky have become dangerously absorbed in their work.  The old man has clearly passed the point of being able to extract himself from the world of the railways; Collins may have been saved from a similar fate by the experience Gordimer describes in this short story.  Write a couple of paragraphs describing how the old man might, upon learning of the boy’s death, have been as shaken as Collins is at the end of Another Part of the Sky,  or describing how Collins might, as a widower enduring forced retirement, look back on his work and on his marriage if he had not had this experience of shattering self-recognition.