The Function of Symbolism in Nadine Gordimer’s ”The Ultimate Safari“

Seminar Paper, 2014

7 Pages, Grade: 2,0




Effects of the narrative technique

Functions of symbolism




People are different all over the world. Some are rich, some are poor, some live in peace, some live in war, some have a dark skin, and some have a bright skin. Nadine Gordimer describes in “The Ultimate Safari” the life situation and experiences of some African inhabitants of a little village, called Mozambique, during wartime. The characters of the story are not only confronted by racial segregation and oppression by the white people but also by hunger, death and sorrow. In order to survive, they have to leave their home country and to go on a dangerous trip through Kruger Park to a refugee camp, where they are kept in peace and safety. Gordimer manages to convey the terrible circumstances of these people through her way of telling. In “The Ultimate Safari” many characters, objects, animals, and places become highly charged with symbolic meaning because they are described by a naive child narrator. This paper starts with the general effects that the use of this kind of narrative technique has on the reader and continuous with detailed descriptions of the different functions of symbolism.

Effects of the narrative technique

The first person narrative develops a certain relationship between the reader and the protagonist. The story is presented by a little girl, as the reference “I am the middle one, the girl [...]” (34) shows. The neutral and objective language that Gordimer uses is another hint that a child is telling the story, for example “There was a man in our village without legs- a crocodile took them off [...]” (36). Furthermore, the knowledge is limited to the knowledge of the protagonist and the narration is rather unreliable as it is told through a naive child, which is too young to understand the seriousness of the circumstances. Additionally, because there are direct addresses of the reader such as “If you meet them, they will kill you.” (33) and descriptions of feelings like “We were frightened to go out [...]” (34), the narrator is overt, too. This kind of narrative technique shows the visual perspective of the little girl and gives access to the girl’s thoughts and feelings; therefore, the reader gets an idea of what it is like to grow up during wartime instead of growing up in peace and harmony and also gets included into the plot. Thus, it builds up an emotional relationship to the narrating girl and also creates sympathy towards her.

Functions of symbolism

The different characters of the story create symbolic meanings not only connected to the terrible consequences of war but also to belief and hope of the victims. First of all, the little girl symbolizes a lack of identity or the triviality of identity because she is unnamed throughout the whole story. She has no home because “they burned the thatch and the roofs of our houses fell in.” (34); in addition, both her mother and her father are absent as the statements on the first page “That night our mother went to the shop and she didn’t come back.” (33) and “My father also had gone away one day and never come back [...]” (33) show. Moreover, the facts that the bandits took away everything (33) and that they were in war (33) demonstrate the poverty of the girl and the whole village during wartime. Another reason why the girl got no name could be to emphasise that she is not the only girl that has to live under such tragic circumstances, but that there are hundreds of other children who are homeless, poor, and alone. Indeed, this kind of symbolism should illustrate that all children have the right to grow up in security. Secondly, the grandmother is a symbol of hope and strength. She represents the strong will of all refugees to survive and to never give up working towards peace and justice. Also, when she is at the end of her forces, for instance when “flies crawling on our grandmother’s face and she didn’t brush them off” (38), or when her husband disappears (40), she is “still strong” (43) during their trip through Kruger Park. Moreover, she also supports the children and is seen as “big and strong” (34) while the grandfather is rather “small” (34). Finally, she “finds work where people are building houses” (45) in order to enable her grandchildren to go to school and to be able to afford buying clothes for them (44). Finally, the disappearance of the mother, the father, and the grandfather symbolize the tragic and cruelty of war. This should show that the sudden death or simply the absence of people is not a rarity; thus, war is one of the causes why thousands of people are confronted by loss of family members, sorrow, and loneliness.

On the one hand, the animals symbolize the Mozambique people themselves; on the other hand, they signify the reasons why they are under these tragic circumstances, namely the bandits and the white people. First, the elephants stand for the white, richer people of a higher living standard. In the story, these animals represent a harmonious family life because the girl tells that “The babies leant against their mothers.” (37) and “The almost grown-up ones wrestled like my first-born brother with his friends [...]” (37). It seems that the little girl envies the elephants because they are “too big to need to run from anyone.” (37), and she is so fascinated that she even forgets about her fears (37). Moreover, the elephants seem to be happy as they jump high (37), and they always have enough to eat while there is nothing left for the refugees (38). The white people also live a harmonious family life and do not have to be afraid of anyone because they live in peace and security. Additionally, they can choose between a variety of foods, whereas poor people often die of hunger. Second, the hyenas stand for the hiding refugees, who always have to beware of the bandits and the police. In the story, they “slope as if they’re ashamed [...]” (38), and they are compared with the refugees as the girl states that they have “big brown shining eyes like our own.” (38). In a way, the refugees also feel embarrassed by the fact that they are not accepted in their own country but have to hide from others instead of being free and independent. Third, the lions represent the bandits or the police because they are dangerous and “were the colour of the grass [...]” (38); so, they cannot be seen immediately. Furthermore, lions are powerful animals and similar to the bandits, who have power over the refugees and are cautious strolling through Kruger Park in order to find them. The refugees “heard the lions very near” (39) and they know that they are waiting for them like the bandits do. Finally, comparable to the lions, the birds signify the cruelty of the bandits. These animals are always flying above the refugees and are described as “ugly birds with hooked beaks and plucked necks [...]” (40), which shows the girl’s aversion to them. They are “feeding on the bones of dead animals”, leaving nothing left for the poor travellers; similarly, the bandits steal all valuables and foods of the Mozambique inhabitants, too. That is, they are cruel and egoistic like the birds.

Certain objects and settings in the story carry symbolic meaning, too. Firstly, the grass in the story is called “elephant grass” (40) and is also “as tall as an elephant” (40). The elephants represent the white people, who go on safari in Kruger Park in order to watch the animals (36). Thus, the Kruger Park is an area which is ruled by the white people, too. The refugees do not belong to anywhere because they have to “go away, again.” (41). Throughout the story, the grandfather “went off into the grass to be on his own” (40) as he is the only ‘black’ person in the ‘white’ grass; in addition, the grass is described to be “so high”(40) whereas he is “so small”(40), which should signify the power of the white people over the refugees. Secondly, the tent of the refugees stands for a new home because the girl sees it as “a kind of whole village [...]” (42), where “each family has a little place closed off with sacks or cardboard [...]” (42). Moreover, she describes that “if you’re standing up and you’re not a small child you can see into everybody’s house.” (42). So, there is a mixture of people living under one roof, but each family lives separated from each other in peace. The girl even compares her own place with the other ‘houses’ when she says “Our grandmother got us this place [...], it’s the best kind of place there [...]” (43). In fact, in reality the beauty of houses in a village gets also often compared by people; as a result, there is a clear connection between the tent and the house in their home country. Finally, the shoes and the polish symbolize hope for the future. The statement “Our grandmother hasn’t been able to buy herself a pair of shoes for church yet, but she has bought black school shoes and polish for [...] my first brother and me.” (45) proves that the grandmother wants to help her grandchildren to get access to a normal life. Moreover it is recommended that the children clean their shoes with polish properly every day before school; in addition, “No other children in the tent have real school shoes.” (45). That is, it is specially to have nice shoes and signifies a kind of prosperity. Moreover, it was a pity when the grandmother had to sell her shoes for church (36) because going to church is also an act of hope and belief in something. Therefore, the grandmother does without her shoes, but she buys shoes for her grandchildren because she believes in their future and wants to support them. She also states, “I want them to learn so that they can get good jobs and money.” (46). Although the circumstances are still bad, there is hope that things will change one day.


To sum up, the story is told through the voice of a little naive girl; in fact, this kind of narrative technique gives symbolic meaning to certain characters, animals, objects, and places. Furthermore, the child narration puts the readers in the girl’s place in order to enable them to understand the tragic circumstances of war and to create sympathy towards her. The unnamed little girl signifies the loss of family members and home and therefore the loss of identity, whereas the grandmother stands for strength and hope. Moreover, the disappearances of the parents and the grandfather should show the tragic of war. The animals represent either the white people, the bandits, and their cruelty or the refugees on their trip through Kruger Park. Certain objects and places like the grass and the Kruger Park stand for the white people, too. In contrast, the tent symbolizes a new home and the shoes signify the belief in a better future. All in all, Gordimer chose to present the tragic circumstances of these people indirectly through the use of symbolism in order that people think more about the meanings beyond the story and to make them aware of the absurdity of war, racial segregation and oppression.


Excerpt out of 7 pages


The Function of Symbolism in Nadine Gordimer’s ”The Ultimate Safari“
University of Salzburg
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Symbolism, Nadine Gordimer, ”The Ultimate Safari“, Narrative technique
Quote paper
Silvia Dreiling (Author), 2014, The Function of Symbolism in Nadine Gordimer’s ”The Ultimate Safari“, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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