Family Values as Expressed Through Ostriches and Elephants
In Fiela’s Child, the two families, the van Rooyens and the Komoeties, have a strong connection with animals, albeit not always a positive connection. The van Rooyens have a problem with elephants in the forest. The Komoeties’ ostriches give the family all kinds of trouble. Other animals are made reference to throughout the novel, as well. Given ostriches, elephants, other animals, family values, and various examples of foil, symbolism, and metaphors, the ostriches and the elephants represent the families of the van Rooyens and the Komoeties.
Kicker and Pollie are the Komoetie family’s ostriches. The family had Kicker for a very long time, and then they got Pollie in the hopes of mating the two. However, things do not go according to plan at first; Kicker hardly glances at Pollie, which worries Fiela: “It was more than four weeks since they had started taking the ostriches to pasture and still Kicker showed no sign of being ready to take the hen” (39). Most animals have a very decisive, instinctual way of wanting to mate. However, Kicker did not- it was almost as if he were human, fighting his instincts. Pollie, too, proves to be a strange ostrich: “To get her out of the enclosure was less trouble than they had thought it would be…head in the air and all the old haughtiness about her” (38). The Komoeties did this very soon after they received the ostrich, so they expected her to be less tame, to fight them more. Then, soon after the census men leave, Pollie begins dancing: “Pollie was dancing…she was performing the strange ostrich dance of joy” (41). This is strange because, like Kicker, it is almost as if Pollie is human. It seems as though she is celebrating Benjamin’s safety for the time being, an example of anthropomorphism. Animals do not truly celebrate things. However, once Benjamin appears to be out of harm’s way, the hen begins to happily dance. The ostriches act as though they are human.
The elephants are viewed as dangerous creatures in the Knysna Forest; they are also known as “bigfeet.” The ivory in their tusks is greatly sought after, though their enormous bodies stop most poachers from getting too close, and Elias van Rooyen is no exception. The bigfeet are one of Elias’ biggest fears, and he is justified in that fear: “‘…the cow picked him up with her trunk and threw him…Black and blue he was from head to toe’” (320). When Benjamin comes home from visiting the Komoeties once he has grown up, he finds that Elias has been on the receiving end of an elephant’s fury. The injury Elias suffered is a metaphor for bitterness and hatred. Elias is an angry, jealous, hateful man, and he keeps all of that ugliness inside, and then speaks it. However, once the elephant has attacked him, that ugliness is shown on the outside, visible to everyone before he even speaks. The elephants also have a loving, kind familial structure: “‘First they pushed the one in front up until he got a foothold…Each one, as it got to the other side, turned round and helped the next one up by the trunk’” (44-45). Another example of anthropomorphism, the elephants treat one another as most humans treat their families: they love and help one another, to make sure that everyone is okay.
At first it can seem as though the ostriches and elephants symbolize the families, though at other times, it doesn’t seem that way at all. In some ways, they do: “‘You’re lying, you’re like Kicker, you don’t even look up’” (38). Fiela compared her husband, Selling, to Kicker using a simile; neither Selling nor Kicker find any interest in watching the female ostrich. Also like Pollie and Kicker, Elias and Barta don’t care much for one another, either: “‘What about the blanket, Elias?… It’s just that we are so short of blankets, Elias’” (53). Barta doesn’t seem to care much at all about the fact that her husband experienced a near-death experience with one of the things he seems to be most afraid of. Instead, she concerns herself with his failures, such as the blanket that he lost when he was running away. However, the actions of the ostriches and elephants also point out some of the family dynamics, showing the animals to be foil characters. The elephants and their familial structure highlight the lack of familial structure with the van Rooyens: “‘I see your second son is with Soois’s team’… ‘It’s no use all of us cooking in the same pot’” (49). Elias’ second son is working on logging with another family, rather than with his own. Elias explains this by saying that they don’t all need to be working in the same place, as though it wasn’t a big deal that his own son chose another family over his family. Elias also doesn’t care much for his daughter, Nina: “‘What if the bigfeet trample me, Pa?’ ‘I didn’t tell you to…bloody arses!’” (280). Nina is afraid of the bigfeet, but her father disregards her fears, and all but tells her to “deal with it.” There is very little love in the family, although they all secretly desire love. Nina, even, daydreams about the love of a family, and looks to the elephants for satisfaction: “‘Then the other elephants came and stood in a circle…on his little feet between his mother’s legs. It was sweet’” (205-206). Despite her fears of the elephants, Nina desires the love and acceptance of a family. The elephants act like family, which is foreign to her. She becomes excited when talking about them and loves how they treat each other: like the Komoeties treat one another. The Komoeties care about one another and act like a family, which is pointed out by the actions of the ostriches, and the reactions of the family. Fiela is protective of her family- unlike most families in this time period, she is the head of the house, looking after everyone. She is willing to do anything if it means she can protect her family: “‘Had you kicked open my child yesterday, I would have wrung your neck for you!’” (56). Fiela has spent a lot of time and money on Pollie, and still, Pollie almost hurt Fiela’s child. As previously stated, Fiela is very protective. She was not telling Pollie that she would have wrung her neck just because she’s angry and stressed; she is telling Pollie that because she is serious, and feels the same way towards the census men, though she couldn’t say it to them. Pollie also has strange reactions to things, calling attention to the Komoeties’ reactions: “When they drove away, Wolwekraal came to a dismal standstill. Except Pollie” (66). After the census men leave in their car, a dark mood has set on the Komoetie household, because they were just made aware that they could lose Benjamin for good. However, Pollie does not settle with the dark mood. Instead, she is active,and stands out from the norm. This simply headlines the reaction of the Komoeties, exhibiting the darkness and solemness of the situation at hand.
Other animals played a role very similar to that of minor characters: although they appear very few times, they still highlight some family values as well as some common themes and characteristics of the two families. The spider that killed Dawid, for example: “…Wednesday morning, as cheerful as ever, but that night he was a corpse. Button spider. Must have been in the sheaves he had been stacking” (234). The spider is symbolic of death, its bite a metaphor for the loss of hope. The Komoeties have lost much in their experiences, but they have also gained- one of the themes in the novel is loss, and the mortal loss of Dawid was immense, especially after the physical loss of Benjamin. Another of the minor animals is the skunk; there is repetition to express Elias’ anger once Lukas returns home: “‘Skunk!’ The word came from the mangled body… ‘Skunk!’… ‘Skunk!’” (320-321).The repeated reference to Lukas being a skunk is Elias’ way of dealing with his anger and jealousy towards the elephants. Skunks have a negative connotation, because they stink when they are scared, and Elias feels that that is what Lukas did when he left.
Ostriches and elephants alike establish views on the Komoetie and van Rooyen families- some positive, some negative, some solely a fact about the family. The animals relate to the characters through anthropomorphism, and through symbolism and metaphors. Though Kicker, Pollie, and the bigfeet are not human, the two families treat them as such, and compare themselves to the animals, as well. The ostriches and elephants in Fiela’s Child represent the van Rooyen and Komoetie families in that they both compare and contrast to the families, highlighting the family dynamics.
The Effects of Racism in South Africa in “Fiela’s Child”
Though eventually peaking during Apartheid, the concept of racial prejudice was long deep rooted in nineteenth century South African society. Due to this, it was only natural for these issues to be reflected in Fiela’s Child, especially evident in the fates of the main characters. Ranging from the census’ desperation to separate Benjamin and the Komotie’s, Fiela’s mistreatment by the magistrate, and the Van Rooyen’s view on Benjamin’s upbringing, racist attitudes upheld in South Africa such as segregation and anti-blackness had a big impact on the fate of the protagonists, particularly resulting in the separation of Fiela and Benjamin until his adulthood.
To begin with, the elements of racial segregation in South Africa led to the conflict that influenced the entire story, Benjamin’s forced removal from the Komotie’s home and his forced induction into the Van Rooyen’s home. Although Fiela had taken in Benjamin at a young age and was responsible for him ever since, the census still believed that because she was black and he was white, Fiela’s actions were unjustified, as evident when they stated, “That did not give you the right to keep the child. It’s a white child!” (Matthee 22). Instead of thanking her for taking care of him, they blamed her instead, acting as if she committed a crime because of the internally racist values they held. Back then, though it wasn’t put into law, in South Africa there were elements of racial segregation evident that enforced a separation between the races, discouraging interaction. Because of this, the idea of Benjamin, a white child, intermixing with a black family was heavily looked down upon, which was why the census was so desperate to remove Benjamin from that environment, thus marking the beginning of Benjamin and Fiela’s separation.
Furthermore, in Fiela’s pursuit to retrieve Benjamin from the Van Rooyens, the magistrate completely dismissed everything she was saying, eliminating any prospects of the two reuniting due to his anti-black views. Although there’s a chance the magistrate’s coldness can be attributed to sheerly his character, it’s heavily implied that the reason he treated Fiela so harshly was because he looked down on her because of her race, as shown when he stated “I don’t think you realize where you are. Or that I can have you arrested immediately” (Matthee 169). While perhaps that may not seem like something unusual to say had she been prying, upon this exclamation Fiela had only introduced herself, nothing more. The magistrate had stated this immediately after she opened her mouth, showing that his statement was not made as a response to the things she had been saying, but rather upon his initial view of Fiela’s skin color, and the fact that a black woman was intruding on “white territory”. His prejudice was to the extent that he threatened to arrest her on sight, and later on in the chapter he again threatens to take action against her if she causes trouble. Had Fiela been white, maybe then he would have listened, but as she wasn’t, his lack of desire to listen to anything she says, developed on a basis of internalized racism, prevented Fiela from fighting for Benjamin, separating the two even further.
Lastly, the Van Rooyen’s racist belief that “acting black” was a bad thing pushed the family to separate Benjamin from the culture he was raised in, eventually leading him to stop fighting as urgently for his return to Fiela. Throughout the novel, by inducting him into their white household, Elias, Barta, and the brothers believed that they could make him white again, as evident when Kristoffel stated “…you’re not really white again. Don’t make us sorry that you did not die when you got lost that time.” As twisted and cruel it may seem, the Van Rooyen’s resentment towards black people was so extreme that Kristoffel believed Benjamin’s black culture was worthy of his death.
Along with this event, throughout the novel, the family has repeatedly tried to force whiteness into Benjamin again, as highlighted in the moments where they tried to change the way he speaks. As a result of their continuous efforts to separate Benjamin and his culture, developed due to their racist beliefs against black people, in addition to their clear stance against Benjamin’s return to the Komoties, over time Benjamin eventually lost hope of his return, knowing the Komoties wouldn’t allow him to no matter what. This was made evident when Benjamin refused Nina’s offer to show him the way to Long Kloof, showing that although he still wanted to, his dreams of returning to Fiela was hopeless.