Chapter 1 - He is proving that "each man is an island", yet also pursuing "the light of love, the light of art". He begins an affair with Jacqueline. Chapter 2 - He tries to escape his affair with Jacqueline, but tells himself "better to accept the burden of unhappiness and try to turn it into something worthwhile". He also expresses his desire to exclude his parents from his life. Chapter 3 - He explains his literary influences and his pursuit of the pure (maths) in contrast with the real world (sciences). Yet he grapples with reality as he house-sits for the Howarths and has to face his morally contemptible side when he rejects the ugly Marie. "But fortunately, artists do not have to be morally admirable people. All that matters is that they create great art. If his own art is to come out of the more contemptible side of himself, so be it. Flowers grow best on dungheaps, as Shakespeare never tires of saying." Chapter 4 - Reality becomes messy as he first learns that Sarah is pregnant and helps her obtain an abortion. Then, the political situation becomes more volatile, and he decides that "there is only one course open: to flee". Chapter 5 - John is finally in London. He is staying in his friends Pauls apartment in Belsize Park. John realizes that “He must find a job at once” (42). He is first interviewed at a secondary modern school in Barnet to teach social studies and supervise swimmings. He regrets accepting the job, but is “too much of a coward to go back and say he has changed his mind” (42). Therefore, he sends a note to the school saying that he will not be able to accept the job. He then receives the possibility to work at Rothamsted, a well paid agricultural job. He decides not to take the job for one main reason. “What is the point of coming all the way from Cape Town to London if he is to be quartered on a housing estate miles outside the city...” (43). He finally takes a job from IBM as a computer programmer. Weeks later, John realizes that IBM “...is killing him, turning him into a zombie... Yet he cannot give up” (47).
Chapter 6- Johns new job at IBM is causing him misery and loneliness. He often seeks refuge in the cinema. He wonders whether he made a mistake in coming to England. “Is it took late to move? Would Paris, city of artists, be congenial... And what of Stockholm?” (50). With his new income, John rents a room in a house in north London. Yet loneliness continues to haunt him. “He can feel his face turning shift and stupid with muteness, even IBM and its formulatic exchanges are better than this silence” (52). In addition to his new job, John registers at the University of Cape Town as a Master's student in absentia studying literature.
Chapter 7- Writing is not as good as it was before, and “In fact he is exhausted all the time” (59) from working. He produces few good poems, “is he now in the process of losing the poetic impulse? Will he be driven from poetry to prose?” (60) John experiments with prose, but this is a failed attempt, recalling South Africa even though he wants to leave it behind him, and any English readers would not understand the story anyway. Chapter 8 - “Happiness, he tells himself, teaches one nothing. Misery, on the other hand, steels one for the future.” (65) John, still constantly tired, concludes that “Suffering, madness, sex: three ways of calling down the sacred fire upon oneself,” (66) for him to become an artist. He looks at various authors, Lawrence in particular, who is constantly surrounded by fulfilling women, just as he would like to be. Caroline gets in touch in London. “He is having an affair in which the rules are being set by the woman, and the woman alone.” (70) “They still make love, but it is not as it was before” (70) – her mind is elsewhere. Chapter 9- John joins a Poet's society for a while to cure his loneliness and his improve his poetry. After a failed intimate moment with a British girl he meets there, he decided to quit and in the end of the chapter he ponders his love-life. He has another meeting with Caroline which "devours his time, exhausts him, and cripples his work.." (78) so he tries a homosexual foray, which also disappoints him. Chapter 10- The chapter starts with what John's plan in England had been and leads on to his discovery of how naive that plan had been. Due to laws in England he is bound to his job, but in this chapter he starts describing things he enjoys about his work, even if minute. He finds a co-worker as a friend, he gets assigned on a government mission which intrigues him and makes him feel important, and he describes how during his free time he plays games on IBM's computers. At the end of the chapter he meets Astrid, a young Austrian girl, and after deliberations due to her age, he decides to go further with her than both of them would like. Chapter 11 Chapter 12- John receives a letter from his mother, in which she tells him about South Africa, and the exaggeration of the British media regarding the social problems. Astrid leaves to Austria, and John realizes that he is not made to feel as unwelcome as others in Britain because of his "...protective coloration: his Moss Brothers suit, his pale skin" (104).
Chapter 13- John decides "he must leave IBM" and upon resignation his boss yells and humiliates him, for lack of a better reason than "I couldn't find friends." In the meantime he meets up with Caroline and he wonders why a girl like her "bothers to keep him in tow". At the end of the chapter he wakes up to no work and his hopes are raised that perhaps now "chance will at last smile on him." Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20
Here we will put our comments about plot structure.
William Deresiwicz says in his book review that as the story Coetzee chooses to tell about his youth, this is an awfully strange one, beginning too late to show us why he wanted to become a writer, ending too early to show us how he eventually became one."
the limited perspective of youth, contrasted with its strong idealism
- Separating from family:
- John needs to leave behind his past, his suffocating mother with her oppressive love and their humble home.
- Idealism with being young/Dreams:
- As John starts learning that his dream is in fact in no way possible in the real world the way he imagined it.
- Being an outsider/oppression:
- Which haunts him as he was always been an outsider where he lived, both in South Africa as a white and in England as a South African.
- The search for love:
- John believes that through love and passion he will be able to release his artistic potential, the flame within him, but as he continues to meet women and have relations with them he begins disliking the very notion of a relationship. True love does not simply appear for him as he thought it would.
- John thinks he knows himself before going to London. He is assured of who he is and what will come to him. But everything changes once in London as he starts, to his own horror, realizing things about himself he never knew, or neglected. For example that he is a more skilled computer programmer than writer and that many of the cultures he related to and believed were the most beautiful are in fact not the type of person he is. This can be seen when he praises French authors and culture, but really relates far more to the German culture, which is more dry and organized. He’s essentially in the wrong lane about his personality and is just in the process of discovering himself.
- The main theme of the novel as well as the title. Struggling through the tests and turmoil of youth, realizing that the protection we so desperately seek to leave at a certain age is in fact the only thing that separates us from the misery of finding one’s spot in the real world.
- John lacks social connection with people. This is a big part of his misery, since due to his isolation he overthinks everything, which makes him only further separated from society and more introverted. A vicious cycle which is only briefly broken by his relations with women, which are still isolated as he does not connect on an emotional level with them. And only after a year does he meet Ganapathy who’s his first actual friend.
Note*: Must fill in quotes for each theme.
The novel begins in 1959, first in Cape Town, South Africa and then shifting to the city of London.
Style & Technique
Narrative point of view: Coetzee uses a third person narrator and distances himself in this way from his younger self. Style: The prose is spare and concise, but also revealing.
Book Reviews The Guardian: Portrait of the Artist as a Callow Youth "The two writers (Conrad and Ford) share a distaste for the prevailing intellectual ethos, a profound sense of metaphysical disjuncture, and a corresponding existential struggle with the idea of commitment, even to the artistic act itself."
"What Coetzee mainly draws from Conrad, however, is a method. The technique of both novelists depends on that "nice ironic distance", a discrepancy between the manifest and latent content of the words on the page, a way of saying without asserting."