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Six Feet of the Country

Nadine Gordimer

Six Feet of the Country

Nadine Gordimer

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Six Feet of the Country Summary

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Six Feet of the Country (1956) by the great South African novelist Nadine Gordimer contains seven short stories that present the daily life of South African people living in the 1950s. Gordimer won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991 and is a receipt of a Man Booker Prize Award. Several of the stories in Six Feet of the Country were adapted into a television series or major film. The themes of Six Feet of the Country include interracial relationships, the tragic effects of systemic inequality, and the psychological manipulations of racism.

The collection of short stories opens with the title story, “Six Feet of the Country.” The story first appeared in The New Yorker in 1953. Set outside of Johannesburg, this story follows a man and a wife, two “sort of” farmers, and their reaction to the knowledge that a refuge from Rhodesia has fled to their land and died from overexposure. “Six Feet of the Country” is told from the perspective of the husband, Bass. He regards himself and his wife as pseudo-farmers because he makes most of his money from a “luxury-travel agency” and bought the farm—ten miles outside of Johannesburg—as an idyllic distraction for his wife, Lerice, who is an aging former actress.

One night, Bass is alerted that something terrible has happened in the barracks where the young servant boys--all black--sleep. Reluctantly, the man travels to the dorms. There, he’s informed that another young boy whom he has never seen before has died, likely from a combination of pneumonia and heat exhaustion. He learns that the mysterious boy was the brother of Petrus, one of his trusted employees. Petrus, distraught over the death of his brother, tells his employer that the boy traveled from the extremely poor area of Rhodesia to the big city, looking for work.



Petrus’s family wants to give the boy a decent burial and pay dearly for the expense. But the day of the funeral, they learn that the body in the coffin isn’t that of the young boy. They demand a refund for the funeral home’s mistake, and to have the body of their loved one back. But the funeral home, run by white Afrikaners, refuses, saying that they (technically) already did their job; that they buried the wrong body is not their concern. Petrus and his family exhort their white employers to intercede on their behalf. Bass and Lerice attempt this, but they are neither rich nor influential enough to overcome South Africa's racist bureaucracy. Petrus’s family then must live with the knowledge that their loved one wasn’t properly buried six feet underground, i.e. he was not afforded even “six feet of country.”

“Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants” is narrated from the perspective of a middle aged white secretary who prides herself on appearing no older than 25 . She is driving around suburban Johannesburg, thinking about her life in working in a local garage while wandering through various shopping malls. She’s divorced and has one daughter; for some reason, she’s only seen her grandchildren once. It’s soon apparent that that may be due to her overpowering racism. She thinks of all black people as childlike and can only tolerate their presence when they act obsequious. One day, she confides her fears of dying alone to a black worker. He is very kind in return. She gives him her address and says to bring people there should she ever die. He stops coming to the garage and she starts to become paranoid that he has ill-intentions toward her. She finds him later reading a newspaper, acting like the two of them did not have an emotional encounter. She concludes that a woman living on her own has to be suspicious of everyone.

“A Chip of Glass Ruby” follows the Bamjee and the Pahad family. It is the only story that features practicing Muslims.  A copy machine (or duplicating machine) arrives in their home. The story is narrated by a teenage male named Yusuf. Mrs. Bamjee, the head of the household, makes her living printing posters for various causes.



The first story to be narrated from the third person perspective is “Country Lovers.” This story follows the criminal trial of an interracial couple, white Afrikaner Paulus Eysendyck and an unnamed black woman. Interracial relationships were strictly forbidden during this time. Paulus is accused of poisoning their love child. It’s hinted that he did murder the child, but because South African law favored white Afrikaners in almost all criminal cases, he is not charged with any murder.

“Not for Publication,” also narrated in the first person, follows a white instructor, Miss Adelaide Graham-Grigg, as she witnesses the promise a black boy shows in the Catholic school where she works. The boy has recently been accepted from an orphanage. Just when the boy seems like he’s becoming accustomed to these new, heavily white surroundings, he runs away.
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