Shades Summary

Marguerite Poland


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Shades Summary

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Shades by Marguerite Poland possesses a level of complexity greater than what most western readers are used to: a panoply of characters, each related to the others in diverse ways and driven by a diversity of motives and worries – which are often ambiguous and fully revealed only late into the novel. The themes dealt with in Shades also run the gamut: family, love, war, disease, famine, religion, community. The novel demonstrates that the significance of each of these is unstable and malleable. While the complexity may at times overwhelm the reader, it also provides the reader with a window into the complexity and confusion that defined South Africa during the twentieth century.

At the heart of the storm is the missionary community St. Matthias, located in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. The mission is run mainly by Englishmen, who, in spite of a shared national heritage, exhibit a wide array of perspectives on the mission’s ultimate goal. The leader of the mission, Charles Farborough is clearly committed to spreading the Christian message to those in his community, but Charles also believes strongly in respecting his proselytes and treating them always with compassion – in particular in doing what he could to relieve the suffering brought on by drought and the spread of a disease called rinderpest. Others involved in the mission, like Charles, of course support proselytization and in promoting relief efforts in the region; they differ however in their commitment to respecting the proselytes, in particular, in their commitment to respecting their autonomy and traditional spirituality, including their practice of ancestor worship.

Rather than stating each character’s modus operandi explicitly, Poland acquaints the reader with the characters in a piecemeal way, often to great dramatic effect. Poland constantly keeps the reader guessing: just when you think you’ve got a character figured out, he or she does something that throws you off your guard. For example, we can consider Benedict Maitwane, who was adopted and raised by the Farboroughs, along with Emily Farborough, Charles’ wife. From early in the novel, we see that Maitwane feels a deep connection to his adopted family, and to Emily in particular, who seems to have Maitwaine’s best interests at heart. However, as the novel progresses, we see that things are not so simple. Events occur that challenge the reader’s assumptions about Maitwane’s commitment to his family and mission as well as Emily’s compassion for Maitwane.

When his love interest Dorcas Pumani is expelled from the community, Maitwane chooses to violate the Farboroughs wishes, and the expectations of the mission, by continuing to associate with Pumani. Emily’s reaction upon learning of Maitwane’s continued involvement with Pumani is quite severe and stands at odds with the compassionate care that we, as readers, have come to expect from Emily at this point in the story. As the story develops, we find that Emily also has a fanatical side, nurtured by Mzantsi, who also belongs to the mission. In large part due to the influence of Mzantsi, Emily forces Maitwane to perform painful rituals. These rituals, for Mzantsi and Emily, are intended to help ensure Maitwane’s future as a clergyman. Maitwane also receives an education that reinforces notions of Western superiority, thus alienating Maitwane from his African roots.

While Maitwane remains conflicted throughout the course of his education, he nonetheless excels in his academic work. Contrary to what one may have expected, Maitwane is able to attain mastery of the skills needed for Western writing and research without at the same time internalizing the implicit racial biases found in many of the books he studied. Maitwane’s ability to compartmentalize the former from the latter becomes evident as Maitwane begins writing newspaper articles that express strong criticisms of Western involvement in Africa and that promote a nationalist movement in Africa. Maitwane’s journalistic activities also lead to a rift between Emily and Mzantsi: whereas Emily is proud of Maitwane’s accomplishments, Mzantsi fears the possible consequences of the dissemination of radical ideas across the region.

Although Shades contains enough examples of conflict, struggle, and ambiguous motives to make the reader’s head spin, there are also moments where Poland  allows a ray of hope to shine through the cloud of turmoil. Turning our attention to another character in Shades, English missionary, Walter Brownley, we see that missionary work can be accomplished on foreign soil without trampling on the traditional culture that exists there.  Walter began his missionary work at St. Matthias with the Farboroughs but was later transferred to Mbokothwe, where he would take the lead in construction projects there. Walter’s success in leading the construction of buildings sorely needed in Mbokothwe inspires trust that Walter’s intentions in the region are beneficent. And in contrast to many of the missionaries at St. Matthias, Walter does not seek to impose Western culture on his congregation. In fact, whereas missionaries at St. Matthias expected everyone in the community to know and speak in English, Walter takes the time to study and learn to speak Xhosa, that language spoken by the native population. Walter is even willing to accommodate local spiritual beliefs, finding a way to reconcile his Christian teachings with the local practices of ancestor worship.  Poland’s depiction of Walter Brownley conveys hope that multicultural relationships are possible, but that they require that both sides work to appreciate and understand the customs and values of the other.

Poland’s Shades is much more complex and rich than can be captured in a short summary. To close, it will have to suffice to gesture towards a few of the major plot developments not dealt with here: the relationship between Charles and Emily Farborough and their children Crispin and Frances. The former has intellectual difficulties that his parents are unsure how to deal with and struggles with feelings of inadequacy and finding his place in the community. The latter is involved in complex romantic relationships with her cousin Victor and missionary Walter, which arouses jealousy in other characters. Ultimately, one must look to the text to fully appreciate the struggles these characters experience.