Rethinking the Writings of Nadine Gordimer and Apartheid: Racial Capitalism and the World-System

  • David Firth

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis examines the work of South African writer Nadine Gordimer, considering how the form and content of her work allows readers to conceive of apartheid not simply as a system of racial segregation but as a form of 'racial capitalism'. This thesis therefore considers Gordimer's oeuvre from a Marxist perspective, examining how her work invites critique of apartheid as a specific manifestation of economic domination within the wider capitalist world-system. The introduction reviews existing critical approaches to Gordimer's writing and conceptualises a Marxist understanding of apartheid as 'racial capitalism' in relation to Gordimer's own sense of social responsibility as a South African writer. Chapter 1 starts by addressing the very 'representability' of capitalism and the world-system in the form of the novel, through a reading of Gordimer's first two novels, The Lying Days and A World of Strangers. Specifically, I examine how the political and spatial formation of racial capitalism in 1950s South Africa, and the country's place in the world-system, is narrated and represented in Gordimer's early work through a form of 'cognitive mapping'. Chapter 2 analyses The Late Bourgeois World, a text that has received a dearth of critical attention despite its formal complexity and importance as a turning point in Gordimer's writing, both politically and in her use of more experimental forms. My reading engages with two central questions emanating from the text that have not yet been attended to. Why is the world of 1960s South Africa 'bourgeois'? Why is this bourgeois world 'late'? Chapter 3 explores the association between capitalism and violence in The Conservationist. Specifically, I examine how the narrative represents capitalism as an economic system founded on a necessity of structural violence, which is most pronounced in the racial-capitalist model of 1970s South Africa. My key claim is that the novel articulates this structural violence through the 'symbolic violence' of its form and language. This chapter therefore demonstrates how Gordimer's writing is useful to the growing body of research seeking to develop the definition of violence beyond physical forms of assault to include the systems, processes, and practices that cause suffering to human beings. Chapter 4 examines a selection of the short stories Gordimer published during apartheid, reading how the collections' focus on personal relationships and the 'break-up' of life in South Africa form an extended allegory of the destructive capacity of racial capitalism. Reading her stories as an ongoing process of disruptive fragmentation, I focus critical attention on the formal capacity of Gordimer's short stories to communicate her defining political concern with raising social consciousness.
Date of Award31 Dec 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorAnastasia Valassopoulos (Supervisor) & Robert Spencer (Supervisor)


  • Structural Violence
  • World-Systems Theory
  • South Africa
  • Environmental Humanities
  • Cognitive Mapping
  • Marxism
  • Postcolonial Studies
  • Nadine Gordimer
  • Literary Theory

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