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Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) is a novel about empires and imperialism by South African Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee. Set in an unnamed place and relayed by an unnamed narrator, it explores the difference between justice and law, as well as human conscience.

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Waiting for the Barbarians: J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee was born John Maxwell Coetzee in Cape Town, South Africa in 1940. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father was an attorney who served in North Africa and Italy during WW2.

He attended the Catholic Marist Brothers high school, matriculating in 1956. Coetzee graduated from the University of Cape Town with an honours degree in English (1960) and an honours degree in Maths (1961). He then completed his MA before moving to London.

After a stint in England as a computer programmer for IBM, he married Philippa Jubber in 1963. Moving to America, Coetzee became a postgraduate student at the University of Texas. He completed his PhD thesis in English, Linguistics and Germanic languages with a focus on Samuel Becket in 1968.

Coetzee and Jubber had two children, Nicolas (1966–1989) and Gisela (1968). They divorced in 1980. Personal tragedy has been a feature of Coetzee's family life. The details of Nicolas’s accidental death were kept private until the 2012 release of Coetzee’s official biography by Afrikaans writer, John Kannemeyer. His daughter Gisela suffers from epilepsy and chronic depression, and his ex-wife, Jubber, died after a prolonged battle with cancer.

Coetzee was a Professor at the University of Cape Town from 1972 to 2000, as well as holding positions at Harvard, John Hopkins, Stanford, and the University of Chicago. He has won numerous national and international awards, including two Booker prizes for The Life and Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999). He was the first author to win two Booker Prizes. In 2003, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Coetzee currently lives in Australia with his partner, Dorothy Driver.

Waiting for the Barbarians: Summary

Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) is set in an unspecified time in an unnamed colonial outpost, administered by an unnamed Empire. The local nomadic tribes are called ‘barbarians’ by the Empire's men. The nameless narrator is a Magistrate who merely seeks to ‘live a quiet life in quiet times’. The relative tranquillity of his remote outpost is interrupted by the appearance of Colonel Joll, sent by the imperialist Empire to investigate a rumoured ‘barbarian’ uprising. Colonel Joll sets up torture facilities to assist his goal of gaining intelligence on the potential rebellion.

Seemingly randomly selected ‘barbarians’ are caught by Joll and tortured to extract information. The Magistrate, until then a loyal Empire man, begins to question the process being followed by Joll. After a series of tortures and deaths, Joll leaves to journey to the capital.

During this time, the Magistrate meets one of the nomads; a young girl left behind by her people after they have been released from prison. He takes her to his home and cares for her wounds. She has been disabled by the torture metered out by Joll. As he tries to understand himself and the girl, he finds himself confused by his feelings of sympathy, sexual attraction and also a kind of judgement. In addition, he further questions whether the threat of a rebellion ever existed and the methods employed by the Empire. The girl and the Magistrate face ongoing communication challenges, and he decides to help her return to her people.

After a long journey to find her tribe, during which they sleep together, the girl and the Magistrate separate as she chooses to remain with her people. Having failed to convince her to return with him, the Magistrate returns to his outpost and is immediately imprisoned without trial for his involvement with the ‘barbarians’. After the Magistrate is tortured, Joll’s warrant officer, Mandel, further humiliates him in a mock execution, hanging him from a tree, naked apart from a woman’s smock. The Magistrate becomes a beggar in the town. The townspeople begin to leave when the ‘barbarians’ flood the fields in retaliation for the tortures. Mandel’s soldiers loot the town.

The soldiers sent by the Empire's Third Bureau to help Joll quell the apparent rebellion are defeated when the nomads lure them deep into the desert and steal their horses at night, leaving them without sufficient supplies or transport. Joll makes it back to the town to find that his right-hand man, Mandel has fled.

The Magistrate resumes his position in the outpost town, encouraging those that are left to begin to grow their own food in preparation for winter.

It seems that legally, Joll is allowed to torture the 'barbarians' as they are considered to pose a threat to the Empire. Do you think that there is a difference between justice and the law?

Waiting for the Barbarians: Meaning

There are many possible readings of Waiting for the Barbarians. J.M. Coetzee has said that it was a novel:

about the impact of the torture chamber on the life of a man of conscience'. 1

Although Coetzee is a contemporary South African author, he depicted the colonial outpost as a timeless, nameless and placeless one. The Empire is also not named. This allows the novel to become an allegorical one about themes and topics rather than a historical one or even one that views a specific current situation through the lens of morality.

Can you think of historic or even recent examples that could be referred to by this allegory? Are the themes of torture or imperialism or even the difference between justice and the law as relevant today as when the novel was written?

Based on Coetzee's explanation of the novel, it can be said that Waiting for the Barbarians is about whether the end ever justifies the means. Specifically, it is about whether torture is ever justified.

Waiting for the Barbarians has been defined as a postcolonial novel, despite its setting in an unspecified time and location. Due to his approach to subjectivity and the elusive nature of truth, the novel has also been defined as postmodern.

Postcolonialism is the study or engagement of the past, current and potential future effects of colonialism at a local, societal and global level. Postcolonialist novels often relay the various lived experiences of authors from societies that were previously or even currently colonised.

Postmodernism is the movement that followed and reacted against Modernism's more logical approach. Difficult to define, postmodernist writing is often characterised by a promotion of subjectivity over objectivity or universal truths.

Waiting for the Barbarians: Themes

Waiting for the Barbarians is a novel with many layers of meaning, but there are some key themes worth looking at in more detail.

Imperialism and the creation of the Other

The fictional Empire views the nomadic tribes as the ‘others’. By referring to them as ‘barbarians’ they directly place the nomadic people outside of what they consider to be civilised.

The word ‘barbarian’ was originally used to describe people who were not part of the Roman or Greek civilisations. Today it still means 'uncivilized.'

Othering is a phenomenon that usually involves a majority or dominant group creating 'outsiders' who do not belong to their group due to a difference in race, religion, ethnicity, gender or disability. The result is often a dehumanising of the 'other', which allows for discrimination.

Do you think that the use of the word 'barbarian' adds to the generality of the novel that is created by the unspecified time, the nameless location and the nameless Empire? If so, why?

Joll, a loyal member of the Empire, is insistent that the 'barbarians' are planning an uprising, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. He tortures old people and children to gain information about the rebellion, which is both illogical and inhumane. It is unlikely that children or elders would be able to supply much truly useful intel, even if a rebellion was actually being planned by the 'barbarians'. Rather, it reflects the extremes of behaviour people considered 'civilized' are capable of when 'othering' is in effect.

The Magistrate tries to understand the 'barbarian' girl, but ultimately fails, possibly due to the extent of their many differences and the situation surrounding them. He tries to atone by washing her wounds and also to understand what was done to her by Joll. He has a variety of mixed emotions about her, often due to the power imbalance between them. These veer from the sympathetic to the sexual, and also involve a kind of judgement about the loss of her perceived 'wholeness' due to her trauma and torture.

Her disability and its related disadvantages are clearly visible to him, but her intelligence and wit remain less immediately obvious to him. It is only when she gets the chance to speak 'the pidgin of the frontier' that she shows herself to be 'a witty, attractive young woman.'

Why do you think that the Magistrate tries and fails to fully understand and connect with the girl?

Interrogation and truth

Coetzee explores the relationship between interrogation and truth in Waiting for the Barbarians. He highlights the subjectivity and the elusive nature of truth, especially when it is linked to torture.

Colonel Joll's type of interrogation by torture would induce most people to say anything to end the experience. Of course, it would be unlikely to be the truth. The cruel and brutal torture would induce one to say anything to just stop the pain.

The Magistrate in his way practices a seemingly softer kind of interrogation in his effort to get the girl to tell him about what happened to her. His intentions are not the same as Joll’s, he is searching for understanding versus intel. Despite this approach and an apparently genuine wish to understand, he still does not really come to comprehend the extent of the girl beyond her trauma and disability.

Torture is the purposeful infliction of physical and psychological pain on a person, supposedly most often used to extract information or a confession. It has a long history. The first documented use of torture to legally prove innocence or guilt is in the Sumerian Code of Ur-Nammu (2100 BC). During the Roman Empire, only slaves and foreigners could be legally tortured. The same laws applied in Ancient Greece.

In 1984, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was adopted by the UN General Assembly. In practice, torture is still used by many nations around the world today. More recent examples include the torture methods used by the Apartheid government in South Africa from at least the 1970s to the late 1980s and those used by the US in Guantanamo Bay during the 2000s.

Waiting for the Barbarians: Symbolism

There are many symbols and motifs used throughout Waiting for the Barbarians but a key one is Colonel Joll's black glasses. The novel opens with a description of them.

I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire.'

(Chapter 1)

The dark glasses are multi-faceted symbols that represent the mask worn by the Empire and its administrators. They hide Joll's expression and allow him to see without being seen. Joll's dark, reflective glasses symbolise the controlling nature and the hidden intentions of the Empire. For Joll, they are also a means of separation from the 'barbarians' and even the frontier people, who have never seen, do not own or wear dark glasses. It adds to his sense of superiority.

Waiting for the Barbarians: Characters

The characters of the novel are often nameless, represented instead by circumstances and traits. The exceptions to this namelessness are the characters sent by the Empire. Similar to how the timeless, nameless location adds to the novel's allegorical nature, the nameless characters become allegoric representations of many people and places throughout history.

The Magistrate

The Magistrate is the flawed, unnamed protagonist and the first-person narrator. As an employee of the Empire, he experiences a crisis of conscience and identity when he is faced with the torture of people based on inconclusive rumours that remain largely unsubstantiated throughout the novel. He represents the idea of conscience. Although he is not always successful in understanding the full extent of the power dynamics at play or his role in them, he actively makes an effort to do so. This is contrasted with the character of Colonel Joll, who never seeks to understand, redress or atone.

The 'barbarian' girl

Captured with her family and tortured by Joll, the girl witnesses her father’s murder. She is left disabled by her torture and then left behind by her people. The Magistrate takes her into his home, tends to her wounds and tries to understand her, but without much success. His lack of understanding affects his portrayal of her in much of his narrative. He eventually helps her to return to her people. Beyond her obvious disabilities seen by the Magistrate, she shows wisdom, intelligence and wit. She potentially represents the colonised.

Colonel Joll

Joll is the high-ranking Empire man who arrives in the quiet, remote outpost to quell a rumoured 'barbarian' uprising. He uses extreme methods of torture to gain information and only succeeds in creating more tension than existed before his arrival. He is ultimately defeated after being outmanoeuvred in the desert. He is thought to represent imperialism or colonising empires.

Waiting for the Barbarians Overview - Key takeaways

  • Waiting for the Barbarians is a post-colonial novel written by J. M. Coetzee.
  • Coetzee has said that the novel is about torture and conscience.
  • Set in an unspecified time in a nameless colonial outpost, it features a nameless Empire and the effects of its exertion of power.
  • Key themes include othering, imperialism, power, torture, and truth.
  • The main characters in Waiting for the Barbarians include Colonel Joll, the 'barbarian' girl and the Magistrate.

1. David Atwel. Composition and Craft: Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K. 2020.

Waiting for the Barbarians, Sensitive Content, Studysmarter

Frequently Asked Questions about Waiting for the Barbarians

J.M. Coetzee has said that the novel is 'about the impact of the torture chamber on the life of a man of conscience'.


Although J.M. Coetzee is a South African author, the novel is not officially about South Africa as it is set in an unspecified time and place.

It can be said to be about imperialism in general rather than one specific colony or empire.

The ends do not justify the means.

This depends on the publication but it is usually around 192 pages.

Waiting for the Barbarians is officially a work of allegorical fiction. It works as a novel about imperialism throughout history.

Final Waiting for the Barbarians Quiz


Who wrote Waiting for the Barbarians?

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J.M. Coetzee.

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Where and when is Waiting for the Barbarians set?

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It is set in an unnamed colonial outpost in an unspecified time.

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Which empire is featured in Waiting for the Barbarians?

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The Empire is generic and nameless.

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What is the name of the protagonist and narrator in Waiting for the Barbarians?

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He has no name other than his profession job title, the Magistrate.

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Which character most represents the Empire?

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Colonel Joll.

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Who is Colonel Joll's right hand man?

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His warrant officer, Mandel.

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What happens to the 'barbarian' girl in the town?

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She is tortured by Colonel Joll. Due to her torture, she becomes disabled and is left behind by her people.

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What aspects of the 'barbarian' girl does the Magistrate fail to draw out or see?

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Her wit and intelligence.

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How is the Magistrate treated by the Empire when he questions their methods and acts to assist the 'barbarian' girl?

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He is imprisoned without trial, tortured and publicly humiliated.

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What are some themes in Waiting for the Barbarians?

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Torture and truth, imperialism and othering are some key themes in the novel.

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