30 pages 1 hour read

Nadine Gordimer

The Moment Before the Gun Went Off

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1991

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off”

Content Warning: This story contains racism and gun violence.

“The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” is a short story by the South African Novel Prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer. Gordimer’s writing often addresses the evils of systematized racism in South Africa. This short story was published in 1988, toward the end of what is known as South Africa’s apartheid period. The word apartheid, which means “separation” in Afrikaans, refers to the government policy in South Africa that strictly enforced segregation among Black citizens, people of color, and white people descended from Dutch and British colonists. Under apartheid, it was illegal for different racial groups to live in the same neighborhoods, share public spaces, and have sexual relations. Apartheid officially began in 1948 and didn’t end until 1994.

This guide references the version of the story in the anthology Jump and Other Stories (Gordimer, Nadine. Jump and Other Stories. Picador, 2012).

“The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” is told in third person, primarily from the perspective of a white farmer named Marias Van der Vyver, who spends the piece reflecting on his accidental shooting of a 20-year-old Black worker named Lucas on his farm in South Africa. Van der Vyver is an “Afrikaner farmer—a regional Party leader and Commandant of the local security commando” (Paragraph 2); his immediate concerns therefore circle around how international news will portray the incident. He is certain “they” will use this tragedy to continue persuading readers that apartheid is wrong, fueling boycotts and divestment efforts. The American and English readers—who, in his mind, don’t understand the ins and outs of South African apartheid society—will scoff when he’s quoted as saying, “He [the victim] was my friend, I always took him hunting with me” (Paragraph 2). The local papers will then print the same quotes.

In contrast to the “city and overseas people” (Paragraph 4), his white neighbors in the farming community will feel sympathy toward him: “Bad enough to have killed a man,” he believes they will say to themselves, “without helping the Party’s, the government’s, the country’s enemies, as well” (Paragraph 2). In the worldview of Van der Vyver and his white compatriots, anyone who opposes apartheid within or beyond South Africa counts as one of these enemies. If anything, his fellow white South Africans will be surprised about how sad Van der Vyver actually seems. When he goes to the police station after the death takes place, the captain of the police is shocked to see Van der Vyver weeping. The captain keeps Van der Vyver’s emotional reaction a secret.

Van der Vyver’s account of the accident starts when he leaves his house at 3pm for a farm chore. He picks up Lucas, the 20-year-old Black worker who Van der Vyver has taught to use tractors and farm machinery. Lucas jumps on the back of the truck, where he can easily spot animals to hunt or capture. In the front seat, Van der Vyver has a rifle that belonged to his father (his own is under repair) and .300 ammunition. Because the rifle is so old and hasn’t been used in years, Van der Vyver believes it to be empty of ammunition. Unfortunately, he is wrong. Lucas pounds on the truck roof to direct Van der Vyver toward an antelope they want to catch, and Van der Vyver drives over a pothole. The jolt makes the rifle go off, and when it fires, the bullet passes through the truck’s roof to strike Lucas, who is leaning over. The bullet enters his throat and exits through his brain. Van der Vyver’s friends in his farming community phone with condolences, their underlying message being that Van der Vyver is lucky, because he could have died in the car as well—driving over potholes often triggers land-mines planted by anti-apartheid infiltrators.

After the accident, Van der Vyver gives a statement to the police station and, to his chagrin, must swear to the accuracy of the events. The statement will be at the local police station, he knows, for generations to come: a record of his tragic mistake.

Van der Vyver pays for Lucas’s funeral. Lucas’s young wife is pregnant, and she stands at the burial with her other small child, a boy who Van der Vyver assumes doesn’t yet understand that his father has died. The wife sobs. All the other attendees of the funeral work for Van der Vyver on the farm, even the women and children, who help during harvest season. Van der Vyver notices Lucas’s mother, who is only in her late thirties, standing between her own parents. The woman markedly does not meet Van der Vyver’s eyes. Van der Vyver’s own wife, Alida, stands next to him; she has dressed for the occasion as she would for a white funeral, wearing her summer church clothes. The narrator observes that Alida is always supportive, though her husband’s reserved nature suggests he doesn’t notice.

Both Lucas’s mother and Van der Vyver stare at the grave, almost as if communicating through it. The moment is tense, with Van der Vyver reassuring himself that he does not need to fear Lucas’s mother turning her gaze on him. The narrator likens the tension to the moment before the gun went off, “a moment of high excitement shared through the roof of the cab” (Paragraph 14). Such moments happened occasionally between Van der Vyver and Lucas, even though Van der Vyver more often ignored Lucas when they passed each other on the farm. Van der Vyver reflects that when the gun first fired, he assumed Lucas had simply fallen off the truck because he was startled. Laughing, ready to tease Lucas, he climbed out to see otherwise. Van der Vyver carried Lucas back to the truck, covered in his blood.

The ironic closing lines reflect on how the newspapers, on seeing Van der Vyver’s face and calling him guilty, will be correct, but for the wrong reason: Lucas was not just a farmhand, but Van der Vyver’s son.