Study Guide

Age of Iron Principles

By J.M. Coetzee

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"He is not a rubbish person," I said, lowering my voice, speaking to Florence alone. "There are no rubbish people. We are all people together." (2.83)

Mrs. Curren may not think highly of Vercueil, but she makes it clear to Florence that she thinks that he's just as good as the next person. Still, do you think Mrs. Curren lets this principle stand for all people, or do you think she defends Vercueil because she and he have already established some kind of connection at this point?

"And where did he sleep?"

Florence drew herself up. "In the garage. Bheki and he slept in the garage."

"But how did they get into the garage?"

"They opened the window."

"Can't they ask me before they do something like that?" (2.108-112)

Mrs. Curren lives by some pretty established principles of how people should behave. One principle she seems to invoke here is that you can't just do whatever you want when you're someone's guest – you have to ask permission, at least. But does she apply this principle in all cases? As usual, she seems to make exceptions for Vercueil.

In my day, I thought, policemen spoke respectfully to ladies. In my day children did not set fire to schools. In my day: a phrase one came across in this day only in letters to the editor. Old men and women, trembling with just fury, taking up the pen, weapon of last resort. In my day, now over; in my life, now past. (2.121)

In the world Mrs. Curren once knew, there were certain principles that guided everyone's behavior, one of which was that a person needs to treat ladies with respect. She sees that principle undermined right before her very eyes now.

"No, lady, I don't know anything about boys from Gugulethu. Do you want us to look out for them?"

A glance passed between the two of them, a glance of merriment. I gripped the bar of the gate. The dressing gown gaped, I felt the cold wind on my throat, my chest. "In my day," I said, enunciating clearly each old, discredited, comical word, "a policeman did not speak to a lady like that." And I turned my back on them. (2.126-127)

Mrs. Curren seems to have no trouble articulating her principles to other people, but here she seems to know that she can't win.

Why was I behaving in this ridiculous fashion? Because I was irritated. Because I was tired of being used. Because it was my car they were sleeping in. My car, my house: mine; I was not yet gone. (2.166)

Mrs. Curren seems to think, on principle, that people should be respectful of others' space and property. She sees all of these people – from Vercueil and his gal pal to Florence and Bheki – swooping in on her territory like vultures, and she can't help but think that they're doing her an injustice.

"Because that is something one should never ask of a child," I went on: "to enfold one, comfort one, save one. The comfort, the love should flow forward, not backward. That is a rule, another of the iron rules. When an old person begins to plead for love everything turns squalid. Like a parent trying to creep into bed with a child: unnatural." (2.269)

Mrs. Curren also lets a firm set of principles guide her relationship with her daughter. She refuses to go ask her for help and comfort because she truly believes that it's an unjust burden to place on her daughter's shoulders.

"My daughter will not come back till things have changed here. She has made a vow. She will not come back to South Africa as you and she and I know it. She will certainly not apply to – what can I call them? – those people for permission to come. She will come back when they are hanging by their heels from the lampposts, she says. She will come back then to throw stones at their bodies and dance in the streets." (2.281)

Mrs. Curren isn't the only one who lives by a particular set of principles; her daughter does, too. The younger Curren leaves South Africa because she can't stand being a part of the horrors going on around her. She says she won't come back until things have changed, and she sticks to her guns.

For your mother, who is not here, I said within myself. Aloud I said: "Be slow to judge."

Be slow to judge: what did I mean? If I did not know, who else could be expected to? Certainly not he. (2.325-326)

Mrs. Curren gives John a principle to live by, even if she's not entirely sure what she means by it.

"I have no answer," I said. "It is terrible."

 "It is not just terrible," he said, "it is a crime. When you see a crime being committed in front of your eyes, what do you say? Do you say, 'I have seen enough, I didn't come to see sights, I want to go home'?" (3.112-113)

Mrs. Curren seems to be the character with the most rigid principles throughout much of the novel, so it's interesting here when Mr. Thabane beats her at her own game.

"I want to speak to you seriously," I said. "You are too young for this kind of thing. I told Bheki so and I tell you again. You must listen to me. I am an old person, I know what I am talking about. You are still children. You are throwing away your lives before you know what life can be. What are you – fifteen years old? Fifteen is too young to die. Eighteen is too young. Twenty-one is too young." (3.463)

Based on her own experiences, Mrs. Curren has a view of what's right on principle, and we've got to agree with her on this one.  She knows how fragile life is, and she doesn't want to see John throw his away.

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