Study Guide

Age of Iron Hate

By J.M. Coetzee

Hate

"You told me," I said, "that I should turn this house into a boardinghouse for students. Well, there are better things I could do with it. I could turn it into a haven for beggars. I could run a soup kitchen and a dormitory. But I don't. Why not? Because the spirit of charity has perished in this country. Because those who accept charity despise it, while those who give with a despairing heart. What is the point of charity when it does not go from heart to heart?" (1.122)

The sort of hate we see described in this quotation is a quiet, resentful kind. We can see it more as an absence of love and compassion – people don't want to help each other because they can't see any reason to. When they do help, they seem to do so against their will.

"What love will they be capable of? Their hearts are turning to stone before our eyes, and what do you say?" (2.98)

Mrs. Curren worries that kids these days are being bred in a culture of hate in which they can't love one another or feel any emotion.

Children of iron, I thought. Florence herself, too, not unlike iron. The age of iron. After which comes the age of bronze. How long, how long before the softer ages return in their cycle, the age of clay, the age of earth? A Spartan matron, iron-hearted, bearing warrior sons for the nation. "We are proud of them." We. Come home either with your shield or on your shield. (2.100)

Mrs. Curren sees the world she lives in getting populated by people with hard hearts. She wonders if people will ever feel more love than hate.

I dreamed I was trapped in a crowd. Shapes pushed at me, hit at me, swore in words I could not make out, filthy, full of menace. I hit back, but my arms were a child's arms: foo, foo went my blows, like puffs of air.  (2.102)

Mrs. Curren is so surrounded by hate on a daily basis that she even experiences the effects of it in her dreams.

When the ambulance came I was so stiff that I had to be lifted to my feet. In detaching my sticky fingers from the gash I opened it again. "He has lost a lot of blood," I said. "It's not serious," said the ambulance man curtly. (2.201)

Excuse us, Mr. Ambulance Man, but we beg to differ – this kid has been seriously injured. The way he rebuffs Mrs. Curren could just be attributed to the fact that he probably sees a lot of accidents like this one in his profession, but we can't help but think that he brushes it off because he simply doesn't care whether a black kid like John gets hurt or not.  Indifference, it seems, can be a form of hatred too.

I remember a cat I once nursed, an old ginger tom whose jaw was locked shut by an abscess. I took him in when he was too weak to resist, fed him milk through a tube, dosed him with antibiotics. When he got back his strength I set him free, but continued to put out food for him. For a year, on and off, I saw him in the neighborhood; for a year the food was taken. Then he vanished for good. In all this time he treated me without compromise as one of the enemy. Even when he was at his weakest his body was hard, tense, resistant under my hand. Around this boy I now felt the same wall of resistance. (2.322)

Sometimes people (or cats) dislike others for no overt reason – it's just the way things are. Mrs. Curren doesn't love Bheki's friend – she doesn't even really like him – but she's still upset that he seems to have such a negative response to her presence.

And on an impulse – no, more than that, with a conscious effort not to block the stirring of the impulse – I touched the boy's free hand.

It was not a clasp, not a long touch; it was the merest brush, the merest lingering of my fingertips on the back of his hand. But I felt him stiffen, felt an angry electric recoil. (2.323-324)

Bheki's friend seems to have an ingrained hatred toward Mrs. Curren. Even the slightest touch of her hand – a tender, kind gesture – is enough to make him shrink away.

A girl, an enormously fat teenager, shouldered me out of her way. "Damn you!" I gasped as I fell. "Damn you!" she gasped back, glaring with naked animosity. "Get out! Get out!" And she toiled up the duneside, her huge backside quaking. (3.91)

The hate that permeates Mrs. Curren's whole world is rarely so apparent as it is here. The girl and Mrs. Curren are complete strangers to one another. The girl knocks her over and reacts to her own action with increased anger towards Mrs. Curren. It seems that Mrs. Curren stands for something the girl hates. They don't see each other as individuals.

I remember, when the boy was hurt, how abundantly he bled, how rudely. How thin, by comparison, my bleeding onto the paper here. The issue of a shrunken heart. (3.419)

Mrs. Curren has spent a lot of time railing against the hate she witnesses in her community, but it seems like even she isn't immune to some feelings of hard-heartedness as well.

I leaned across the table. "Bheki is in the ground," I said. "He is in a box in a hole with earth heaped on top of him. He is never going to leave that hole. Never, never, never. Understand: this is not a game like football, where after you fall down you get up and go on playing. The men you are playing against don't say to each other, 'That one is just a child, let us shoot a child's bullet at him, a play bullet.' They don't think of you as a child at all. They think of you as the enemy and they hate you quite as much as you hate them. They will have no qualms about shooting you; on the contrary, they will smile with pleasure when you fall and make another notch on their gunstocks." (3.468)

Mrs. Curren explains to John that the blacks don't just hate the white officers; the white officers hate the blacks, too, and won't think twice about seriously harming them.

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