Spatial Arrangements and Narrative Conventions in Gordimer and Dangarembga

Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions and Nadine Gordimer Burger’s Daughter, two examples of the female bildungsroman, do not share many of the same stylistic features. Burger’s Daughter is characterized by imaginary confessions, interior monologue and shifting narrators while Nervous Conditions is characterized by its direct first person narrative and its manipulation of metaphors such as anorexia. However, both books do share one stylistic convention, the use of space a motif. This essay seeks to evaluate which novel’s stylistic features better complements the bildungsroman and emancipation themes within the works. A comparison of the novels’ narrative structures and their use of the space motif demonstrate that Nervous Conditions provides a more compelling depiction of the bildungsroman. The direct first person narration and the expanding spatial arrangements in Nervous Conditions effectively convey Tambu’s maturation while the constricting spatial arrangements and convoluted imaginary confession structure of Burger’s Daughter obscures Rosa’s own maturation. The imaginary confessions structure of Burger’s Daughter makes it difficult to assess the influence of Cathy Burger and Conrad on Rosa’s development as accusations made during these confessions can be directed to either character. One example of a convoluted imaginary confession passage occurs when Rosa is contemplating the ‘prostitution’ her parents forced her to engage in. She describes her objectification in these terms: “Mine is the face and body when Noel de Witt sees a woman once a month. If anybody in our house—that house, as you made it appear to me—understood this, nobody took it into account…Alone in the tin cottage with you, when I had nothing more to tell you, when I had to shut up, when I didn’t interrupt you, when you couldn’t get anything out of me, when I wasn’t listening, I accused her” (66).Her reference to the tin cottage she shares with Conrad indicates that she is addressing her lover during the end of the paragraph. However, it is unclear whom she is addressing when she states, “If anybody in our house—that house, as you made it appear to me.” The “you” in this phrase could be referring to Conrad, as the first part of the novel is an imaginary confession to him. If one takes this interpretation one must conclude that her sexual relationship with Conrad causes her to distance herself from her house and her parents. This distancing is implied by the conscious replacement of “our house” with “that house”. On the other hand, the reader could reasonably conclude that Rosa is addressing her mother when she states, “that house, as you made it appear to me,” as this section of the novel is principally concerned with Rosa’s feelings of resentment towards her mother for being used as a mediator to Noel de Witt. Thus, one can read the sentence as an indictment against Cathy Burger. Cathy Burger did not accord Rosa a place of privilege in her home and thus Rosa bitterly rejects her childhood home and instead describes it as an alien place. The ambiguity of the phrase makes it difficult to assess which character, Cathy or Conrad, has alienated Rosa from her childhood home and the ideals and values her parents preached to her. The alienation is a key step to Rosa’s maturation as she, towards the end of the novel, becomes alienated from her father’s ideology, and yet still embraces his altruism and humanism. Thus, the style of the novel weakens its effectiveness as a bildungsroman as it obscures the role secondary characters played in Rosa’s alienation and subsequent maturation. Unlike the imaginary confession structure, the direct first person narration in Nervous Conditions complements the bildungsroman theme as the reader has constant access to Tambu’s voice and thus can witness Tambu’s educational development through her gradual use of more sophisticated language. While it is evident from the novel’s opening that a fully-grown adult is reflecting back upon and chronicling her childhood, Dangarembga still reserves the more sophisticated language in the book for its ending in an attempt to highlight Tambu’s educational maturation. In the beginning of the novel, Tambu has had little formal education and absolutely no instruction in English and thus Dangarembga constructs the language of the text to conform to this reality. In the first chapter of the novel, Tambu lays out Nhamo’s crimes in relatively simplistic language. “I thought naively…Nhamo was not interested in being fair. Maybe to other people, but certainly not to his sisters, his younger sisters for that matter” (12). Later in the novel, Tambu describes her frustration towards another male, her uncle Babamukuru, in much more eloquent language when describing the comical wedding her uncle is arranging for her parents. “Whenever I thought about it, whenever images of my mother immaculate in virginal white satin or (horror or horrors) myself as the sweet, simpering maid fluttered through my mind, I suffered a horrible crawling over my skin, my chest contracted to a breathless tension and even my bowls threatened to let me know their opinion” (149). The above passage has more descriptive language and displays a more complex structure than the previously quoted sentences dealing with her brother. This later sentence is also lyrical, as Tambu uses alliteration, while the early sentence is flat. This example demonstrates how Tambu’s direct first narration provides the reader a sense of Tambu’s educational advancement by illustrating how her English becomes increasingly sophisticated. Spatial arrangements in Nervous Conditions, like Tambu’s language skills, expand during the course of the narrative thus providing a compelling metaphor for Tambu’s increasing maturity and emancipation. In the beginning of the novel we are introduced to the motif of space as Tambu complains of being, “cramped in an airless bus for such a long time” (2). Tambu finds relief from the cramped bus by walking. Literary critic Christopher Okonkwo argues that in this simple scene Dangarembga establishes, “space/spatial congestion and the need for escape and expansion as a major motif in Tambu’s story” (Okonkwo 3). In Nervous Conditions, women rather than men are more likely to face spatial congestion and inhibit constricted spaces. At the beginning of the novel, Dangarembga presents us village women whose washing section is infringed upon by the colonial administration’s District Council Houses (3-4). This is just the first example of numerous instances where men infringe upon the private spaces delineated for women. Nhamo trespasses into Tambu’s own plot to steal her harvest. Furthermore, Babamukuru tends to barge into Nyasha’s and Tambu’s room without knocking (112, 166). Okonkwo points out that although Babamukuru’s house is described as a spacious place he denies the women in the household privacy and autonomous space to express dissenting opinions (5). Tambu, at the end of the novel, emancipates herself from the patriarchal structures men like Babamukuru embody and couches this emancipation in spatial terms: “It was a long and painful process for me, that process of expansion. It was a process whose events stretched over many years and would fill another volume, but the story I have told here, is my own story” (204). Thus, Tambu emancipates herself from the colonial and patriarchal hierarchy by composing a novel that directly critiques these hierarchies. Rosa, like Tambu, is also confined to restrictive spaces in her youth yet Rosa, unlike her counterpart, does not find autonomous space at the end of the novel to express her voice. Her parent’s household is one example of a confining space Rosa inhabits. After musing over her brother’s death Rosa states, “In that house, we children had few exclusive rights with our parents (84).” In Lionel Burger’s household Rosa was not allowed to date boys seriously, “Rosa was a pretty thing as she grew up; many boys would follow her, not knowing she was not for them (17).” Rosa spent her adolescence, not only in her constricting home, but also in an even more confined place, South African jails. Rosa was denied a carefree childhood as she was forced to become a mediator for her jailed mother, father and bogus fiancé Noel de Witt. Rosa articulates her feelings of bitterness towards her father in spatial terms. “I prowled about the abandoned garden, old Lolita’s offspring caught Hottentot Gods in the grass that had taken over the tennis court, and I knew I must have wished him to die; that to exult and to sorrow were the same thing for me (63).” This abandoned garden is reminiscent of a tomb with its overgrown grass and dead inhabitants. (Lolita and her daughter perish during childbirth in Nabokov’s novel.) The image of a tomb as a lifeless, constrictive space is meant to suggest how Lionel Burger has suffocated Rosa’s personal life. Although Rosa is able to make peace with her father’s memory, at the end of the novel, she still finds herself confined in a restrictive space. She has developed an independent voice but has difficulty expressing it fully as her speech is monitored in the prison and her letters are censored by the prison warden. At the end of the novel Rosa, unlike Tambu, remains a subject of the patriarchal colonial hierarchy. Therefore, Burger’s Daughter, unlike Nervous Conditions, is not as compelling an account of the bildungsroman as emancipation does not accompany the protagonist’s maturation. Dangarembga’s stylistic conventions complement the novel’s development theme while Gordimer’s own conventions tend to obscure this theme. Burger’s Daughter is not a completely coherent bildungsroman as it is difficult to determine which secondary characters had an impact on Rosa’s growth and as Rosa fails to win emancipation from patriarchal, colonial structures. Neither novel, in its conclusion, provides a complete sense of closure as the reader is left with a myriad of questions left unresolved. We do not know Nyasha’s fate or whether Rosa will survive prison. While both novels may leave the reader with questions, Nervous Conditions provides a more complete sense of closure as Tambu’s educational maturity is made completely evident. Works Cited: Okonkwo, Christopher. “Space Matters: Form and Narrative in Tsitsi Dangaremgba’s Nervous Conditions.” Research in African Literatures, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Summer, 2003), pp. 53-74.