Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Agency of Hendrik (In the Heart of the Country)

54. No word about the marriage has passed between Hendrik and my father since the day when Hendrik came to ask leave to bring a wife on to the farm and my father replied, "Do as you wish." The wedding-feast was held at Armoede, the wedding-night on the road here, I do not know, and the next day after that Hendrik was back at work. My father increased his rations but offered no wedding-gift.

In this passage, Hendrik, a worker on the farm of the family at the center of J.M. Coetzee's novel "In the Heart of the Country," takes a wife. However, being the colonized, he must first ask permission to do so. Hendrik, the colonized,makes no request other than to being the woman there, and subsequently spends the period of time after the wedding, during which most people would go on a honeymoon, coming back to the farm and continuing work. Hendrik has no time to celebrate the union or get the know the girl whose hand he takes, and the entire event takes a mechanical nature.
The fact that Hendrik does not even attempt to ask for more time illustrates that he either knows it will be denied or that he has subconsciously submitted to the colonizer. As an extension of this, the marriage becomes more pragmatic than romantic, since he is most certainly taking a wife to perform the chores required in his own dwelling and bearing him to children to assist with work and inherit what he owns. The unemotional state of their union is further evidenced by the actions of the main character's father, who, instead of celebrating a normally happy and joyous occasion, simply gives Hendrik more food with which to sustain himself and his wife. His actions, or lack thereof, show the reader the view of the colonizer toward the colonized: disdainful and condescending. One can see these examples by the indifference with which he deals with Hendrik's request and his disinterest when he only gives them more rations.
Hendrik shows little agency in this case. Without even requesting more time, it shows one that he is either aware of his lack of agency or has subconsciously accepted that he has little. One can also see the view of the colonizer towards the colonized's agency, and in such a sacred example it becomes quite demonstrative.


  1. I have noticed that the classroom discussions on this novel have focused almost exclusively on the character of Magda and how she deals with the physical and emotional torment of subjugation. While this makes sense considering the volume of analysis burgeoned by her actions and thoughts, we must not ignore the other characters that are similarly oppressed. Hendrick is a complex character in that he represents both sides of the oppressed/oppressor dichotomy. Much of the early portion of the novel casts Hendrick as a subservient figure who, as you state, finds no means of agency under the rule of Magda's father. However, after the dominant male figure passes away, Hendrick seems to take on the role of domineering male. This is exhibited in his treatment of Magda sexually and emotionally. Even as a subaltern male, Hendrick cannot suffer a woman in a dominant role. He is definitely a complex character we should consider in more detail.

  2. Going along with Austin, looking at Hendrick's character is vital in understanding the dynamics of the story. Hendrick's experience is the exact opposite of what happens to Magda. At one point, Magda has a dominant role over Hendrick but falling upon hard times financially she loses the control she has. As a result, Hendrick, who is once merely a servant to Magda and her father, becomes the dominant figure in the relationship. This involuntary transfer of dominance shows how the male identity of Hendrick overarchs his race identity. Hendrick's character serves to add another perspective in which to view the effects of colonialism.

  3. I definitely agree that we have to look at Hendrick to get a full understanding of the text, but on that bent, we need to take into account the whole text to get a full understanding of Hendrick and his wife. To judge their relationship as unromantic just on the basis that he doesn’t ask for time off for a honeymoon, forgets many instances later on where he’s depicted as sharing sweet romance, even “gentle” lovemaking with his wife. While Hendrick does seem to view the sexual act between man and woman rather pragmatically at times (at least with Magda), even abusively, he apparently can also be quite romantic. Klein Anna is often depicted as “nestling” on Hendrick’s shoulder or “burrowing into his armpit”, and the pair shares a distinct homey-sweet smell. I wouldn’t say they are as passionately in love as Romeo and Juliet, but a husband-wife relationship is never simply about bedroom love. Hendrick cares for her, shares his extra ration of food (we can only assume), and seeks reemployment when his resources to continue doing so dry up. And if this is not heart-warming love, it's at least more than that portrayed in Wide Sargasso Sea between Mr. Rochester and Antoinette, the only other husband-wife relationship we've looked at thus far. Hendrick is always willing to look into his wife's eyes, and the communication they share in their little knowing glances speaks to an existing, if not tight, sentimental marriage bond.