Age of Iron
by J.M. Coetzee
Analysis: Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
Mrs. Curren finds out that her cancer is incurable; the very same day, a homeless man starts camping out on her property.
The novel begins with our protagonist, Mrs. Curren, finding herself at the beginning of a new stage of her life; it's also the final stage of her life. She's just received the bad news that there's nothing left to do to treat her cancer. When she gets home, there's another new development: someone is camping out in the alleyway by her house. Even though Mrs. Curren's own life story is coming to an end, the stage is set for a new story to begin.
Florence and her kids move in to Mrs. Curren's house. Bheki and his friend drive Vercueil away by beating him. Mrs. Curren realizes that the police are watching her house.
Up until now, Mrs. Curren has been sheltered from the conflicts in the world around her. While Apartheid has systematically held down the non-whites of South Africa, as a somewhat affluent white woman, Mrs. Curren hasn't had to deal with any racial conflicts firsthand. When Florence and her kids move into her house, though, Bheki and his friend get into some shenanigans that attract the attention of the police right away. All of a sudden, she starts seeing the kinds of conflicts that until now she's only heard of unfolding before her very eyes.
The police trail Bheki and his friend and force them into having a bike accident.
When Bheki and his friend get into an accident, it's completely clear that the police are the ones at fault – they purposely trap the boys next to another car whose door swings open. What makes this moment so important is that we start to see the way the "system" lets everyone down. For the first time, Mrs. Curren is forced to examine what's right and what is wrong from a critical standpoint. The police aren't necessarily there to take care of everyone's best interests; they're there to reinforce a system of oppression.
Mrs. Curren goes to Gugulethu and sees Bheki's dead body. Soon thereafter, his friend John shows up at her house. The police raid the house and kill John.
The deaths of Bheki and John are the pivotal moments of the story. The two may have caused trouble, but fundamentally they're just kids. Mrs. Curren has never witnessed such hatred or suffering in all of her 70 years. Also, since John's murder took place in her own home, she feels a huge sense of violation. Her home is no longer her home.
Mrs. Curren leaves her home and falls asleep under a bridge, not caring whether she lives or dies.
After John is killed, Mrs. Curren wanders off and falls asleep under a bridge where, among other things, some kids fumble through her mouth looking for gold teeth and she pees on herself. At this point, we don't know what's going to happen to her. She's in extreme pain and she doesn't care if she lives or dies at this point. We question whether or not this is going to be the last of Mrs. Curren.
Vercueil takes Mrs. Curren home. Her health continues to decline.
Like some kind of guardian angel, Vercueil shows up and scoops Mrs. Curren up in his arms. He takes her home and tries to make her comfortable. This part of the novel is the denouement because the worst of the worst is over and things are starting to wind down. Not to sound totally morbid or depressing, but right now it seems like Mrs. Curren is just biding her time and waiting for her final moment to come.
Mrs. Curren asks Vercueil if it's "time." He gets into bed with her and holds her in a cold embrace.
Mrs. Curren wakes up one morning and sees Vercueil standing on the balcony, bathed in light and with the curtains whipping around him. She asks him if it's "time" and he comes into bed beside her, holding her in a comfortless embrace. The novel ends here. We can't say definitively whether Mrs. Curren dies right then or if it's just the end of the novel. Still, we mean, what other "time" would she be talking about? Snack time?