Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in English and University Honors



First Advisor

Sarah Lincoln


J.M. Coetzee (1940- ). Waiting for the barbarians -- Criticism and interpretation, Politics and literature -- South Africa, New historicism, Materialism in literature




Although it has remained a prominent work of literature since its 1980 publication, there has been a considerable resurgence of academic interest in J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians in the wake of 9/11, particularly as the novel’s attention to torture, imperialist violence, and the ideological construction of civilization/barbarism oppositions became increasingly relevant to the escalating “war on terror.” A great deal of that scholarship has taken the form of poststructuralist analyses of the discursive production of barbarian “others” as legitimate targets of violence and domination by the empire within the novel. This paper is largely a critique of a prevailing liberal humanist current that runs throughout much of the contemporary critical works, an ideological framework that I argue Coetzee’s novel is itself a critique of. Using a methodology influenced by cultural materialism and new historicism, I perform side-by-side readings of the Barbarians and essays by Maria Boletsi, Liani Lochner, and Robert Spencer to explore the liberal convictions that the critics’ perspectives share with the novel’s narrator, the Magistrate. Specifically, I find that the core thread tying these perspectives together is what I refer to as the logic of understanding, the liberal desire to know the other—an assumption that the violence committed against the other is legitimized by virtue of our lack of understanding them and a faith that we can combat imperialist violence by expanding our capacity to know the other. I argue that the novel is unequivocal in demonstrating that the liberal logic of understanding is not a challenge to the structures of imperialism but rather a reflection of its core ideological foundations.

Persistent Identifier

Available for download on Tuesday, May 25, 2021