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Motherhood and the Measure of Truth in J.M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron

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Ambiguous mother-figures dominate the fictional world of J.M Coetzee’s novel Age of Iron. Sterility emerges as a central motif in the novel, corresponding to South Africa’s apartheid history of racial hatred, discrimination, and violence. The struggling motherfigures are a product of the flawed times and emerge as symptomatic of social and cultural crisis. Elizabeth Curren, the novel’s tortured first-person narrator, highlights the racially divided nation as socially, culturally, and morally impeded. Through her “stubborn will to give, to nourish,” she engages in a struggle against the “scavengers of Cape Town”: the “pitiless” heirs of a legacy of hate. Curren comes from a colonial history but seeks to decolonize her mind and voice as she writes a letter to her expatriate daughter, who, absent from the narrative, represents the need for change in values and historical perspective. Her strategic absence, significantly, communicates her incompatibility with the existing public and political discourse, thereby also suggesting an engagement with the future of ethics and aesthetics. While Elizabeth Curren’s inscribed poetic plea for her daughter to return home self-reflexively acknowledges the constraints of a banal medium and provokes its lapses, there is also a need to realize what may as yet be un-semanticized. Elizabeth Curren aspires to redeem herself through the nurturing symbolism embodied in motherhood. Accordingly, and deploying Julia Kristeva’s terminology, the essay argues for a return to a “maternal territory” where the semiotic process (an established communicative code of signs that determines our understanding of reality) is still in its intuitive and instinctual stage and allows Curren to transcend the constraints of her spoken medium. In Curren’s case, the letter serves as a redrawn semantic map, possibly exceeding its established boundaries of signification and meaning.


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