Study Guide

Age of Iron Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By J.M. Coetzee

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory


Things seem like they'd be bad enough in Age of Iron even without throwing a terminal disease into the mix, wouldn't you say? So what's up with the fact that Mrs. Curren has to be dying from cancer while everything around her goes so terribly wrong, too? Lucky for us, Mrs. Curren gives us a couple of clues that link what's happening in the outside world to the disease that's running rampant inside her body. Let's take a look at things from her perspective as she tells John about her disease:

You know I am sick. Do you know what is wrong with me? I have cancer. I have cancer from the accumulation of shame I have endured in my life. That is how cancer comes about: from self-loathing the body turns malignant and begins to eat away at itself. (3.473)

Where does this cancer-causing shame come from? Probably from being a white person who's privileged at the expense of others because she lives in a society that oppresses non-whites. (And, by the way, for all you future doctors out there, we know shame doesn't actually cause cancer – it's a metaphor.)

So, what do cancer and Apartheid have in common? Well, let's simplify Apartheid and just call it hate. OK, so now, what do cancer and hate have in common? Well, for one thing, when either cancer or hate gets out of control, the results can be deadly. When cancer grows out of control, it kills a person from inside. And when hate grows out of control, as we see all too clearly, people kill one another and numerous others suffer. (You could also look at the country of South Africa as being riddled with the disease of hate, which is killing it from the inside.) It seems, then, that when Coetzee chose to create a character that's dying of cancer, he didn't do so to increase the amount of suffering we see in the novel. Instead, we'd like to argue that he gave Mrs. Curren cancer in order to create a localized and highly personal storyline that would resonate well alongside a really huge and hard-to-tackle subject like Apartheid.


What is Mrs. Curren's fascination with crustaceans, you might ask? We haven't seen so many references to crabs since The Little Mermaid (and we're pretty sure Mr. Coetzee wouldn't appreciate the comparison – but we digress). Mrs. Curren repeatedly compares her cancer to a crab eating up her insides. She also seems to enjoy using crab-like words to describe herself from time to time: "This is my life, these words, these tracings of the movements of crabbed digits over the page" (3.356). She can also be quite crabby (OK, we'll stop now).

So what's up with all these crabs? Well, if you've ever checked your horoscope in a trashy magazine before, you might be familiar with the astrological signs of the zodiac. Basically, there are twelve signs that are based on the position of the sun and the stars in this sort of star calendar. You won't need to know this to understand the crab imagery, we promise. All you need to know is that there's an astrological sign called Cancer, and the symbol of Cancer is the crab. Mrs. Curren seems to equate cancer the disease with Cancer the astrological sign. This means she's come to view her cancer as a crab that's eating up her insides: "Were I to be opened up they would find me hollow as a doll, a doll with a crab sitting inside licking its lips, dazed by the flood of light" (3.221) Yup. Aren't you glad you asked?

Classical Music

Mrs. Curren sure is a big fan of classical music. There are so many references to different composers and works of music that you might find yourself heading to our "Allusions" section to double check what it is that Mrs. Curren's referring to all the time. Mrs. Curren's love of classical music says a lot about her intellectual inclinations and Westernized, affluent social standing (for more on that, check out "Character Clues").

Classical music doesn't just reflect on Mrs. Curren's personal preferences and habits, though – it also says something about the way that she tries to make order in the world. Have you ever walked into a bookstore and heard some classy violin streaming through the speakers? Don't you feel somehow soothed and simultaneously more civilized because the music is so darn highbrow? Now, have you also noticed how Mrs. Curren often listens to classical music when she's in too much pain to do anything else or when her mind is so blown by the things that she's seen that she just needs to zone out? Classical music represents reason, order, and civilized society, all of which can elude Mrs. Curren in the chaotic society in which she lives.

Hope and Beauty

Hope and Beauty are Florence's two daughters. More than once, Mrs. Curren points out how these names seem to stand for something larger than themselves: "Hope and Beauty. It was like living in an allegory" (3.49). When a narrator or any character in a novel spells something out like that in literary terms, it's usually a good idea to assume that you're being handed a clue worth investigating. So, who are Hope and Beauty, and what is their role in this novel?

Well, first of all, let's think about how they fit into the landscape around them. Would you say that the characters of Age of Iron consider the world they live in beautiful? Probably not. Would you say that anyone feels all that much hope? Nope, not really. Hope and beauty are ideals that don't seem to have a place in this world of suffering, indifference, and hatred. What's interesting about Hope and Beauty as characters is that they seem to just disappear from the story right before stuff starts getting really tough – Florence takes them into a family member's house right before they all go out to look for Bheki. Then they find Bheki's dead body, and it feels like all hope is lost and the world is an even uglier and sadder place.

Still, even though they're absent, Hope and Beauty aren't gone – they're just little girls waiting to grow up. The presence of these two girls in the story seems to suggest that in South Africa at the time the novel takes place, hope and beauty aren't fully developed ideals – they're only in their beginning stages. The promising thing about Hope and Beauty (both as little girls and as ideals) is that they'll continue to grow and develop until one day, hopefully not too far in the future, Hope and Beauty have a real and significant place in the world around them.

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