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Life and Times of Michael K

Life and Times of Michael K

Life and Times of Michael K (1983) by J.M. Coetzee (1940-) revolves around the unique character of Michael K. Michael is living through a turbulent civil war set during the apartheid era in South Africa. Through themes of isolation and warfare, Coetzee explores what life is like for one on the fringes of society.

Apartheid is the Afrikaans word for the concept of 'apartness'. Introduced in South Africa in 1948, apartheid took the form of laws of racial segregation. These forced South Africans of colour into separate employment, education, and housing. They were severely discriminated against by the state, and this caused much civil unrest. Apartheid was finally brought to an end in 1994 after much campaigning.

Life and Times of Michael K

Michael K is a poor South African man living through the time of apartheid. While it is never confirmed, the novel hints that Michael is black, therefore, facing discrimination in this society. He was also born with a cleft lip. Coetzee's third-person narration describes Michael as 'simple', something his mother, Anna, has worried about since he was a child. Michael does not appear intellectually bright, but he is able to get by and simply take life as it comes.

A cleft lip is a medical condition present since birth in which there is a gap or split in a person's upper lip, causing it to rise upwards.

Michael and his mother live in the bustling city of Cape Town. Michael is a gardener, while Anna is a servant for a rich family. Around the time a brutal (and fictional) civil war breaks out, Anna falls deeply ill. The civil war pushes Cape Town into violence and chaos. Michael decides he will leave his job and take Anna to her rural hometown of Prince Albert, which she has always spoken of fondly. Due to the civil war, strict martial law has been imposed, making it difficult to leave Cape Town. Michael applies for permits to leave the city that never come and, therefore, he and Anna travel secretly by road, with Anna on a makeshift cart that Michael has made.

Martial law is when the military takes over the running of a country and all governmental duties. It is usually enforced when a conflict breaks out and is regularly abused by those in charge.

Not long into their journey, Anna's illness worsens. Michael brings her to a hospital, where she passes away. He is then left with her ashes that he intends to bring to Prince Albert. Michael continues to travel through the countryside until he is stopped by police, who discover he does not have the correct papers. He is then forced to work on the railways for a period.

When Michael is finally let go, he continues the search for Prince Albert. He eventually arrives and finds the farm that his mother grew up on. It seems abandoned, and Michael settles there, initially falling ill. After recovering, he begins farming, enjoying this peaceful and simple life. However, a relation of the current owners of the farm arrives and begins treating Michael as his servant. Deeply uncomfortable with this, Michael leaves again.

Life and Times of Michael K, an aerial shot of Prince Albert and its surrounding mountains, StudySmarterFig. 1 - An aerial shot of Prince Albert, Anna's home town, today.

Michael goes into the mountains surrounding Prince Albert. He hides there but soon finds himself starving. Eventually, Michael realises he is near death and wanders back to the town. He is found by police, who take him to hospital and then place him in a labour camp. Michael does not understand why he is there, being paid a low wage for strenuous work. He also befriends a man named Robert while there. A fire happens in town, carried out as part of the war. However, the inmates in the labour camp are blamed instead. Unable to bear the camp anymore, Michael escapes and returns to the farm.

However, Michael feels trapped in the house this time and so he builds himself a shelter on the farm's land to be closer to nature. He ensures his shelter and his crops are subtle and hidden to avoid detection. A group of rebels, those who refuse to participate in the war, take refuge on the farm. Michael hides from them, his health gradually worsening. He is again found by the police, who presume he too is a rebel, taking him to a rehabilitation camp as punishment.

A medical officer in the camp soon becomes fascinated by Michael and his unique manner. He struggles to believe that Michael was involved with the rebels. He tries to help him, but Michael is untrusting and resistant, even refusing food at times. He eventually escapes the camp, much to the medical officer's disappointment. Michael returns to Cape Town, still struggling with his health. For a period, he spends time with an unusual group of people who offer him food. He has his first-ever sexual experience with one of the women in the group, something he is deeply uncomfortable with afterwards.

Michael eventually builds up the courage to go to his mother's old apartment, which now seems to be filled with old furniture and has evidence of another person living there. He settles in, wondering who this person could be. Michael finally seems at peace.

Life and Times of Michael K: Characters

Life and Times of Michael K has a small set of characters, yet they are all well-developed. The central focus of the text, as exemplified in the title, is Michael K. He lives life as one who refuses to conform to society's expectations.

CharacterExplanationKey traits
Michael KMichael K is the central character of the novel. Although it is unconfirmed, it is likely that Michael is a black man. In apartheid South Africa, this would mean he suffered a great deal of discrimination. This is exacerbated by the brutal civil war that breaks out. Michael has also faced mockery and bullying since he was a child due to his cleft lip. He is described as 'simple', living life how he wishes and not conforming to societal norms. This often leaves Michael isolated and alone. He is deeply dedicated to his mother and is devastated by her death.Simple, unique, persecuted.
Anna KAnna, Michael's mother, has been working-class her whole life. As a servant, she is dependent on her employers for everything. She even puts off going to the hospital due to financial reasons, which results in her falling very ill. Anna struggles to accept Michael due to his physical and developmental difficulties, despite his dedication to her. This leads to Anna behaving coldly towards her son. She is also deeply nostalgic for her rural upbringing.Cold, struggling, nostalgic.
The medical officerThe medical officer works in the rehabilitation camp that Michael is sent to. He is one of the few people who makes a real effort to understand Michael. The medical officer respects Michael's unique personality, seeing it as valuable. When Michael escapes from the camp, the officer is jealous, wishing he could go with him. Michael's simple nature pushes the officer to question the validity of the civil war and its violence.Kind, understanding, open.
RobertRobert is an older man who Michael befriends in the first labour camp he is sent to. Once a labourer for a landowner, Robert was let go when his employer could no longer afford to keep him. He does not mind the labour camp as it gives him and his family food and a place to sleep. He has been beaten down by society and conforms as a result. Robert tries to convince Michael to do the same, but Michael does not.Tired, conformist, disheartened.

Life and Times of Michael K: Themes

Coetzee's novel explores life for one isolated from society. In a time of political turmoil, when Michael's race leaves him discriminated against, he is also judged for his physical appearance and developmental difficulties.

Life and Times of Michael K: isolation

Michael spends the majority of his life isolated, both physically and psychologically. His cleft lip and inability to conform to society push Anna to send him to a government-run institution for children judged as irregular. Even here, Michael is bullied for his cleft lip which isolates him from his peers. As an adult, Michael's simple nature leaves him unable to connect to society. He behaves in the way that he understands, seeming to crave peace and a life in nature more than anything else. There are very few people who understand Michael because he is so different from everyone around him.

Life and Times of Michael K, a lone man in an empty carpark, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Michael spends the novel alone and detached from others.

One of the only people Michael feels deeply and intimately connected to is his mother, Anna. However, Anna, as a single mother, doesn't know how to deal with her son, either as an adult or as a child. She acts cold and distant towards him. This leaves Michael detached from the only person he seems to have.

Life and Times of Michael K: war

The fictional civil war in Coetzee's novel is tearing South Africa apart. Based on the conditions of apartheid, white and black South Africans are fighting each other, and martial law has been imposed. As a black man in this society, Michael K is at a disadvantage wherever he goes. He is forced into labour camps multiple times, with no regards for his rights or humanity. These camps dehumanise their inhabitants.

Michael is also accused by the police of collaborating with rebels who refuse to fight in the war, which is seen as an offence. It is only the medical officer who recognises that this is unlikely, considering Michael's personality. Michael also pushes the officer to question the world he had always so readily accepted. He resists society and seems separate from the cruel and violent world around him. These aspects of his personality make the medical officer challenge the true value of war and what it is doing to South Africa.

Life and Times of Michael K: J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee was born John Maxwell Coetzee in Cape Town on 9th February 1940. His family are descended from the original Dutch settlers who landed in South Africa in the 1600s and controlled much of the country's politics from this point onwards. Coetzee attended the University of Cape Town and received two degrees there, a Bachelor of Arts in English and another in mathematics.

After living in Britain for a time, Coetzee returned to the University of Cape Town to complete his masters. In the mid-1960s, he travelled to America, completing his PhD on the work of Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) and remaining there to teach for a time. However, Coetzee eventually returned to the University of Cape Town to lecture there instead.

Coetzee published his first novel, Dusklands, in 1974 and has continued to publish prolifically since then. His 1980 novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, propelled him to literary fame. His next novel, Life and Times of Michael K (1983), won the prestigious Booker Prize, as did his 1999 work, Disgrace. This was the first time any author had won the award twice. Coetzee has published a new novel approximately every three years since beginning his career. He has also published a number of autobiographical texts.

The Booker Prize is an internationally recognised literary award given for the best long fiction published in the English language in either the United Kingdom or Ireland in a given year. The winner is typically awarded £50 000. Previous recipients of the Booker Prize include Margaret Atwood (1939-), Salman Rushdie (1947-), and Roddy Doyle (1958-).

Coetzee's work is known for its questioning of injustice and inequality, particularly in the case of apartheid South Africa. He tends to prioritise humanity over political ideologies in his novels. Coetzee is also a notoriously reclusive man; little is known about his true personality and views. He currently lives in Adelaide and is still writing.

Life and Times of Michael K: Quotes

Below is a table of key quotes from Life and Times of Michael K.

QuoteChapterExplanation
'Perhaps, [Michael] thought, it was better when one did not have to rely on other people.' Chp. 1.Michael's societal ostracisation has led him to believe that he is better off alone than connected to others. He has been pushed away from others due to his race, class, cleft lip, and simple nature, making it difficult for Michael to have any want to participate in society.
'You want to stop on the expressway, you pull fifty metres off the roadside...Anything nearer, you can get shot, no warning, no questions asked.'Chp. 1.This is said by a stranger to Michael when he and Anna are attempting to leave Cape Town. Coetzee shows the brutality and inhumanity during the apartheid era. Those in charge do not ask questions; instead, they inflict violence with impunity.
'As time passed, however, I slowly began to see the originality of the resistance you offered.'Chp. 2.The medical officer says this to Michael after spending some time with him. Michael does not realise he has made such an impact on someone else. His unique nature provides a stark contrast to the chaos of the war.

Life and Times of Michael K Overview - Key takeaways

  • Life and Times of Michael K is a 1983 novel by J.M. Coetzee.
  • Coetzee is a successful and reclusive South African author.
  • Life and Times of Michael K revolves around the unusual character of Michael, living in apartheid South Africa.
  • Two key themes in the novel are isolation and war.
  • Michael's simple personality provides a contrast to the cruelty of the civil war.

Frequently Asked Questions about Life and Times of Michael K

The novel is about Michael K, an isolated and poor black man, struggling through civil war in apartheid South Africa.

Isolation and war are two key themes in the novel.

Michael K is unusual because he doesn't conform to society. He has a simple and uncomplicated way of doing things that many do not understand. 

The novel was written in 1983.

The medical officer was envious of Michael because of his simple outlook on life. He also envied the fact that Michael was able to escape the rehabilitation camp.

Final Life and Times of Michael K Quiz

Question

When was Life and Times of Michael K published?

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1983.

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What medical condition does Michael have?

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Cleft lip.

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Where does Anna send Michael as a child?

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To a government run institution for irregular children.

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During what important period of South African history is Coetzee's novel set?

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Apartheid.

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What does the word apartheid mean?

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Apartness.

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What are two key themes in Life and Times of Michael K?

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Isolation and war.

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Why are the rebels in the novel persecuted?

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Because they refuse to participate in the war.

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What was Michael's profession before leaving Cape Town?

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Gardener.

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Why is Michael ostracised from society?

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Due to his cleft lip and 'simple' nature.

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Who is one of the only characters who tries to truly understand Michael?

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The medical officer.

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How does Michael unknowingly change the medical officer's views?

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His simple nature pushes the officer to question the validity of the war.

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What key aspect of Coetzee's text is fictional?

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The civil war.

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What three traits can be used to describe Anna K?

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Cold, struggling, nostalgic.

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Why does Robert conform to society?

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Because he has been beaten down by circumstances.

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Which literary award has J.M. Coetzee won twice?

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The Booker Prize.

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Where does Michael find himself at the end of the novel?

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His mother's old apartment.

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