Study Guide

Age of Iron Rules and Order

By J.M. Coetzee

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Rules and Order

"Since when have the schools been closed?" I asked Florence.

"Since last week. All the schools in Gugulethu, Langa, Nyanga. The children have nothing to do. All they do is run around the streets and get into trouble. It is better that he is here where I can see him." (2.8-9)

Bheki's presence seems to throw Mrs. Curren's house into disorder. Florence justifies bringing him, though, by telling Mrs. Curren that the disorder in Gugulethu is even worse.

Last year, when the troubles in the schools began, I spoke my mind to Florence. "In my day we considered education a privilege," I said. "Parents would scrimp and save to keep their children in school. We would have thought it madness to burn a school down."

"It is different today," replied Florence.

"Do you approve of children burning down their schools?"

"I cannot tell these children what to do," said Florence. "It is all changed today. There are no more mothers and fathers." (2.21-24)

The standards and rules through which Mrs. Curren understands the world don't apply anymore. Any sort of traditional order that she believes is the right way to live seems to have been toppled over. As the children around her fight against an oppressive regime, they also seem to be fighting against all traditional standards – everything is in chaos.

Florence is openly proud of how Bheki got rid of the good-for-nothing, but predicts that he will be back as soon as it starts raining. As for me, I doubt we will see him as long as the boys are here. I said so to Florence. "You are showing Bheki and his friends that they can raise their hands against their elders with impunity. That is a mistake. Yes, whatever you may think of him, Vercueil is their elder!" (2.91)

As far as Mrs. Curren is concerned, the world operates with certain rules. One of the most important ones we see her defending is the necessity of respecting one's elders. She seems to see this as a pretty fixed one. No matter who the person in question is – herself, Florence, or even a drunk like Vercueil – the order of things determines that they deserve kids' respect.

"The more you give in, Florence, the more outrageously the children will behave. You told me you admire your son's generation because they are afraid of nothing. Be careful: they may start by being careless of their own lives and end by being careless of everyone else's. What you admire in them is not necessarily what is best." (2.92)

Here's another example of Mrs. Curren's views of how the world works. Kids these days aren't afraid of anything, and that isn't to be admired – they might stop caring about how they treat others, and in doing so will disrupt any sense of order there is in the world.

"But do you remember what you told me last year, Florence, when those unspeakable things were happening in the townships? You said to me, 'I saw a woman on fire, burning, and when she screamed for help, the children laughed and threw more petrol on her.' You said, 'I did not think I would live to see such a thing.'" (2.95).

Mrs. Curren points out that Florence hasn't always had such a permissive attitude towards children toppling over the established order of things; at one point, she, too, was amazed by all of it. We wonder what changed her mind?

"And when they grow up one day," I said softly, "do you think the cruelty will leave them? What kind of parents will they become who were taught that the time of parents is over? Can parents be recreated once the idea of parents has destroyed within us?" (2.98)

Mrs. Curren brings up an interesting hypothetical situation: if kids are taught to rebel against adults, how will they raise their children when they are the adults? A change in the way people see society now will translate into a permanent shift in social norms.

"I hear you and your friend have been sleeping in my car. Why didn't you ask my permission?"

Silence fell. Bheki did not look up. Florence went on cutting bread.

"Why didn't you ask my permission? Answer me!" (2.162-164)

Here we see Mrs. Curren running up against the sort of disrespect for adults that she's been talking about all along. She sees the world as an ordered place in which kids need permission from adults and there are certain rules that everyone needs to follow in general. Bheki doesn't seem to agree.

He smiled a smile not without charm, relishing this chance to lecture me, to tell me about real life. I, the old woman who lived in a shoe, who had no children and didn't know what to do. "It is true," he said. "Listen and you will hear." (2.233)

Bheki finds small ways to topple over the established order of things, too: he shows Mrs. Curren that he understands the way the world works in ways that she can't, and he has no problem telling her about it.

"Why did you lend him the pistol?"

"To defend himself."

"To defend himself against who, Mrs. Curren?"

"To defend himself against attack."

"And what kind of pistol was it, Mrs. Curren? Can you show me the license for it?"

"I know nothing about kinds of pistol. I have had it for a long time, from before all this fuss about licenses."

"Are you sure you gave it to him? You know this is a chargeable offense we are talking about." (3.721-727)

Even though she spends a long time trying to fight against the disorder she sees around her, Mrs. Curren starts fighting on the side of the people she'd been trying to reform. She recognizes that the political system in place is corrupt and thus has no problem making the officers' duties difficult for them.

"I don't want my things back in the end. I want them back now. They are mine. They are private."

He shook his head. "This is not private, Mrs. Curren. You know that. Nothing is private anymore." (3.734-735)

This moment reminds us of Mrs. Curren's traditional attitudes about the home. She firmly believes that what's hers is private. The officer has no problem telling her that things work differently now – tough cookie, the rules have changed!

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