The Story of an African Farm, written between 1874 and 1875 and published in two volumes in 1883, is a complex novel both thematically and in terms of narrative structure. It intertwines a number of perplexing ethical, philosophical and political issues regarding the protagonists' conflict with a cruel and restrictive world, discrepancy between science and religion, education, loss of faith, freethinking, loneliness, gender relations, the Woman Question, as well as colonial concerns. Originally, Schreiner wanted to call her novel Mirage with a motto: “Life is a series of abortions”, but changed her mind because she believed that the title and the motto provided an easy to understand clue to the novel. In the Introduction to the 1998 Oxford edition, Joseph Bristow praises Schreiner's erudition and her ability to tackle complex and controversial themes.

Deeply informed by the political economy of John Stuart Mill, the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer, and the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Schreiner's strongly intellectual novel courageously faced up to the increasing agnosticism of her age, its growing doubts about the sanctity of marriage, and the violence incurred by imperialist expansion. [viii]

In her novel, Schreiner subverts the traditional gender relations by portraying gender role reversal, female sexuality and female intellectual power. It might be argued that Schreiner resumes the feminist discourse begun by Mary Wollstonecraft in her novel Mary, A Fiction (1788), which explores “the mind of a woman who has thinking powers.” (Wollstonecraft ii)

Set in the barren landscape of the Great Karoo, a vast sandy plain in South Africa in the 1860s, the novel begins as a plaasroman (the farm novel), but soon it turns into a coming-of-age novel (bildungsroman). The novel does not have a traditional plot, but consists of loosely narrated episodes that focus on the fates of the three children, who symbolise the differing attitudes to gender roles and various spiritual sides of life. Em represents traditional womanhood. Lyndall (named after Schreiner's mother) foreshadows the New Woman, who is opposed to the cult of domesticity and male domination, and desires to control her life autonomously. Waldo is an idealistic boy tormented by religious doubt. It should be noted that Em and Waldo are named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose writings exerted a profound influence on the young Schreiner. The children dream of escaping from the dreary and inhospitable farm, although each of them has a different vision of life in the outside world. Em, who is domesticated and submissive by nature, wants to get married above all. Lyndall plans to go to school because she believes that education will bring her closer to more sophisticated culture and will give her ability and power to shape her life. Waldo, who has some artistic skill, tries to explore the outside world, but eventually, he is unable to fulfill his aspirations. He is an introvert, who experiences a crisis of faith when he cannot discover God's presence in the human world.

Part One describes the childhood of Lyndall, Em and Waldo against the backdrop of everyday life on the secluded farm owned by Tant' (Aunt) Sannie, a narrow-minded Boer woman, and managed by a kind German overseer, Otto Farber (Waldo's father). The farm becomes a temporary refuge for two eccentric individuals, the roguish Irishman Bonaparte Blenkins, and the androgynous Englishman Gregory Rose. Part Two is mostly focused on the spiritual and intellectual development of Lyndall, a sensitive English orphan girl, who finds it hard to accept the stern restrictions of Calvinist upbringing and desperately tries, against all odds, to achieve personal freedom and sexual liberation in the repressive colonial society.

The opening paragraphs of The Story of an African Farm present the depressive bleakness and monotony of the local landscape, which serves as background and allegory for the turbulent fates of Lyndall and Waldo. Interestingly, the narrative contains a number of proto-Africaans words, which add local colour, but by no means make this novel regional. The South African plain has the same metaphysical qualities as the vast and gloomy Egdon Heath in Thomas Hardy's fiction.

The full African moon poured down its light from the blue sky into the wide, lonely plain. The dry, sandy earth, with its coating of stunted 'karroo' bushes a few inches high, the low hills that skirted the plain, the milk-bushes with their long finger-like leaves, all were touched by a weird and an almost oppressive beauty as they lay in the white light.

In one spot only was the solemn monotony of the plain broken. Near the centre a small solitary 'kopje' rose. Alone it lay there, a heap of round iron-stones piled one upon another, as over some giant's grave. Here and there a few tufts of grass or small succulent plants had sprung up among its stones, and on the very summit a clump of prickly-pears lifted their thorny arms, and reflected, as from mirrors, the moonlight on their broad fleshy leaves. At the foot of the ‘kopje' lay the homestead. First, the stone-walled ‘sheep kraals' and Kaffir huts; beyond them the dwelling-house — a square, redbrick building with thatched roof. Even on its bare red walls, and the wooden ladder that led up to the loft, the moonlight cast a kind of dreamy beauty, and quite etherealized the low brick wall that ran before the house, and which enclosed a bare patch of sand and two straggling sunflowers. On the zinc roof of the great open wagon-house, on the roofs of the outbuildings that jutted from its side, the moonlight glinted with a quite peculiar brightness, till it seemed that every rib in the metal was of burnished silver. [1]

[Explanatory notes: karroo — the wide sandy plains in some parts of South Africa; kopje — a small hillock, or 'little head'; kraal — the space surrounded by a stone wall or hedged with thorn branches into which sheep or cattle are driven at night; Kaffir — a disparaging term used by Europeans for Black Africans]

As mentioned above, Schreiner did not intend to write a regional novel, but a novel of ideas which would have a universal appeal. Apart from scattered realistic descriptions of colonial life among the Boer community, the narrative mainly explores the psychological and emotional states of mind of the two protagonists who are trying to transgress the constraints imposed by patriarchal religion and gender relations.

Waldo, a young introspective boy, has been brought up with a morbid consciousness of sin and predestination. At the outset he is described listening anxiously to the ticking of a watch, which symbolises the passing of time and foreshadows void eternity with no hope of renewal of life.

At the head of his father's bed hung a great silver hunting watch. It ticked loudly. The boy listened to it, and began mechanically to count. Tick — tick — one, two, three, four! He lost count presently, and only listened. Tick — tick — tick — tick!

It never waited; it went on inexorably; and every time it ticked a man died! He raised himself a little on his elbow and listened. He wished it would leave off. How many times had it ticked since he came to lie down? A thousand times, a million times, perhaps.

He tried to count again, and sat up to listen better.

'Dying, dying, dying!' said the watch; 'dying, dying, dying!'

He heard it distinctly. Where were they going to, all those people? He lay down quickly, and pulled the cover up over his head: but presently the silky curls reappeared.

'Dying, dying, dying!' said the watch; 'dying, dying, dying!' He thought of the words his father had read that evening — 'For wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction and many there be which go in thereat.'

'Many, many, many!' said the watch.

'Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, that leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.'

'Few, few, few!' said the watch.

The boy lay with his eyes wide open. He saw before him a long stream of people, a great dark multitude, that moved in one direction; then they came to the dark edge of the world and went over. He saw them passing on before him, and there was nothing that could stop them. He thought of how that stream had rolled on through all the long ages of the past — how the old Greeks and Romans had gone over; the countless millions of China and India, they were going over now.

Since he had come to bed, how many had gone!

And the watch said, 'Eternity, eternity, eternity!'

'Stop them! stop them!' cried the child.

And all the while the watch kept ticking on; just like God's will, that never changes or alters, you may do what you please.

Great beads of perspiration stood on the boy's forehead. He climbed out of bed and lay with his face turned to the mud floor.

'Oh, God, God! save them!' he cried in agony. 'Only some, only a few! Only for each moment I am praying here one!' He folded his little hands upon his head. 'God! God! save them!'

He grovelled on the floor.

Oh, the long, long ages of the past, in which they had gone over! Oh, the long, long future, in which they would pass away! Oh, God! the long, long, long eternity, which has no end!

The child wept, and crept closer to the ground. [3-4]

Waldo, who seems to be one of the author's alter egos (the other one is Lyndall), has a philosophical disposition, although, as a boy of fourteen he spends most of his time looking after pigs and sheep. His vivid imagination tells him that every tick of the watch marks a new soul being condemned to eternity in Hell. One day he makes a small sacrifice of his lamb chop which he was to eat for dinner and asks God to respond by sending the fire of heaven.

'Oh, God, my Father, I have made Thee a sacrifice. I have only twopence, so I cannot buy a lamb. If the lambs were mine I would give Thee one; but now I have only this meat; it is my dinner-meat. Please, my Father, send fire down from heaven to burn it. Thou hast said, Whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou cast into the sea, nothing doubting, it shall be done. I ask for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.' [6]

Waldo apprehends with terror that God does not respond to his prayer because the boy is not among the elect ones. Two years later, Waldo makes an astounding confession: “I love Jesus Christ, but I hate God.” (9) He will gradually distrust his father's austere religion and will switch from reading the Bible to reading science books, including John Mill's Principles of Political Economy, which opens new vistas before him. His intellectual development and search for truth alienates him from his father's beliefs in Christian patriarchal heritage and brings him closer to Emersonian transcendentalism based on the concept of the loving and suffering deity which is manifested in Nature. Only Lyndall appreciates Waldo's inquisitiveness and interest in metaphysical questions.

The second protagonist, Lyndall, is one of the most puzzling heroines in Victorian fiction. Strongly contrasted with Tant' Sannie and Em, who easily conform to male authority and choose domesticity, Lyndall represents a New Woman in the colonial setting. Elaine Showalter calls her “the first wholly feminist heroine” (199). Her feminist awakening forms the most important theme of the novel which centers on the struggle of a woman for gender equality, personal freedom and sexual liberation. As Carolyn Burdett has demonstrated,

Lyndall is a remarkable fictional creation. She articulates, with a ferocious and diamond-like brilliance, most of the significant feminist arguments Schreiner was to elaborate and develop over the next ten or more years — about economic dependency, marriage-as-prostitution, the value of labor, the hypocrisy of chivalry, the importance of maternity, and the relation between intellectual and sexual passion. [31]

Lyndall transgresses the Victorian stereotypes of womanhood. She tries to rebel against ignorance by self-education because she is totally disappointed with the school for girls she attended.

I have discovered that of all cursed places under the sun, where the hungriest soul can hardly pick up a few grains of knowledge, a girls' boarding-school is the worst. They are called finishing schools, and the name tells accurately what they are. They finish everything but imbecility and weakness, and that they cultivate. [151-52]

Victorian finishing schools instilled traditional stereotypes of gender roles in the minds of young girls. However, when Lyndall comes back home from school, she is full of radical feminist rhetoric. She compares a loveless marriage of convenience to a form of prostitution and criticises the way young women are shaped by men to suit their needs without regard to their aspirations.

With good looks and youth marriage is easy to attain. There are men enough; but a woman who has sold herself, even for a ring and a new name, need hold her skirt aside for no creature in the street. They both earn their bread in one way. Marriage for love is the beautifullest external symbol of the union of souls; marriage without it is the uncleanliest traffic that defiles the world.' […] 'And they tell us we have men's chivalrous attention!' she cried. 'When we ask to be doctors, lawyers, law-makers, anything but ill-paid drudges, they say, — No; but you have men's chivalrous attention; now think of that and be satisfied! What would you do without it?' [156-57]

In the lengthy Chapter 4 (Part Two), which can be read as an early New Woman manifesto, Lyndall discusses with Waldo the position of women in society. Describing the feminine predicament, she compares the woman's condition to the Chinese woman's bound feet.

Look at this little chin of mine, Waldo, with the dimple in it. It is but a small part of my person; but though I had a knowledge of all things under the sun, and the wisdom to use it, and the deep loving heart of an angel, it would not stead me through life like this little chin. I can win money with it, I can win love; I can win power with it, I can win fame. What would knowledge help me? The less a woman has in her head the lighter she is for climbing. I once heard an old man say, that he never saw intellect help a woman so much as a pretty ankle; and it was the truth. They begin to shape us to our cursed end,' she said, with her lips drawn in to look as though they smiled, 'when we are tiny things in shoes and socks. We sit with our little feet drawn up under us in the window, and look out at the boys in their happy play. We want to go. Then a loving hand is laid on us: 'Little one, you cannot go,' they say; 'your little face will burn, and your nice white dress be spoiled.' We feel it must be for our good, it is so lovingly said; but we cannot understand; and we kneel still with one little cheek wistfully pressed against the pane. Afterwards we go and thread blue beads, and make a string for our neck; and we go and stand before the glass. We see the complexion we were not to spoil, and the white frock, and we look into our own great eyes. Then the curse begins to act on us. It finishes its work when we are grown women, who no more look out wistfully at a more healthy life; we are contented. We fit our sphere as a Chinese woman's foot fits her shoe, exactly, as though God had made both – and yet He knows nothing of either. In some of us the shaping to our end has been quite completed. The parts we are not to use have been quite atrophied, and have even dropped off; but in others, and we are not less to be pitied, they have been weakened and left. We wear the bandages, but our limbs have not grown to them; we know that we are compressed, and chafe against them. [155]

As a New Woman, Lyndall points to the phenomenon of sexism in Victorian gender relations. In a patriarchal society young women were generally described in terms of their looks and behaviour towards men. They were assessed not as “intelligent” or “thoughtful”, but rather as “pretty”, “fragile” and “amiable”, i.e. possessing sweetness of disposition. Women were expected to please men, bear children and suppress their own desires. Lyndall tries to overcome the bonds of traditional gender roles and seeks spiritual companionship with Waldo, who may be described as a late Victorian New Man, i.e. one who does not exhibit hegemonic masculine values of sexism, but manifests sensitive qualities that were usually ascribed to women. In fact, Waldo behaves like a proto-feminist because he is quite sympathetic to Lyndall's feminist concerns. The relationship between Lyndall and Waldo subverts the stereotypical Victorian gender roles because Lyndall wishes to transcend gender by developing a relationship with Waldo that is not tainted by sexuality.

'Waldo,' she said gently, with a sudden and complete change of manner, 'I like you so much, I love you.' She rested her cheek softly against his shoulder. 'When I am with you I never know that I am a woman and you are a man; I only know that we are both things that think. Other men when I am with them, whether I love them or not, they are mere bodies to me; but you are a spirit; I like you.' [177]

It seems that Lyndall is looking for a relationship which is not based on man's dominance and woman's subservience. She would like to enrich sexual intimacy by intellectual or spiritual companionship, but Waldo fails to impersonate Lyndall's ideal. He is an effeminate male whereas Lyndall appears to be a masculine woman. Schreiner demonstrates that gender roles are socially determined and can be blurred or reversed. Both Lyndall and Waldo do not feel comfortable about the gender roles imposed on them. Patricia Murphy points out that "while the maternal and unambitious Waldo manifests qualities linked with female subjectivity, the forceful and ambitious Lyndall reveals a predilection to the traits associated with male subjectivity" (217). The motif of androgyny is prevalent in The Story of an African Farm. The androgynous relationship between Lyndall and Waldo can be compared to that of Catherine and Heathcliff in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights. Following the ideas of Emerson's transcendentalism and Spencer's theory of Social Darwinism, Schreiner believed in “a unity underlying all nature” (Burdett, 25), and therefore, she seems to have been in favour of the androgynous relations because they allow both men and women to live outside the conventional gender roles. Gregory Rose's transformation from a vain aesthete into a caring female nurse at the end of the novel is an important part of Schreiner's vision of androgyny. Gregory, whom Lyndall perceives as “a true woman — one born for the sphere that some women have to fill without being born for it,” (164) represents a new male sensibility which has no affinity with the Victorian idea of masculinity. In Chapter XII entitled “Gregory's Womanhood”, he disguises himself as a female nurse and attends sick Lyndall until her death. Gregory's androgyny subverts the Victorian notions of the binary distinction between the male and female. As Ruth Knechtel asserts, “Lyndall both represents and professes the androgynous view of the sexes so feared by many Victorians.” (264) Lyndall also defies traditional marriage as a form of male domination undermining women's aspirations for expanded gender roles outside the home.

The closing pages of The Story of an African Farm do not provide an optimistic resolution for the New Woman experiment in the South African setting. Lyndall, as the New Woman, fails to achieve any of her goals: proper education, personal freedom and sexual liberation. Ultimately, she dies in childbirth, refusing to marry her anonymous lover because she does not want to conform to the prospect of a traditional marriage with strictly determined gender roles. Her death can be interpreted almost as an act of deliberate self-annihilation in order not to be overcome by the oppressive patriarchal white community. Lyndall's experiment with new womanhood has failed because her ideas of marriage and gender relations were too advanced for the time and place she lived in. Likewise, Waldo, shattered by his soul-mate's premature death, also dies young before he can accomplish any of his artistic aspirations.

Schreiner's novel is also interesting for its experimental narrative structure which foreshadows modernist fiction. As Patricia O'Neill asserts:

For readers accustomed to the linear narratives of most nineteenth-century novels, this novel anticipates some of the freedoms of form and style that have become hallmarks of modernist fiction. [9]

Unlike typical Victorian novels, The Story of an African Farm has a multivocal nonlinear narrative structure. Its twenty-six chapters contain a variety of narratorial voices including Schreiner's authorial narrative, mystical allegories resembling biblical parables, sermons, dream sequences, as well as polemical pleas for independent womanhood and a critique of both culturally defined gender roles and the interdependence between biology and behaviour. Besides, as Gerald Monsman has pointed out, The Story of an African Farm contains elements of hermeneutic autobiography.

[A]n African Farm has much the same fictionalized autobiographical relation to its author's life as does, for example, Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, part of a tradition of hermeneutical autobiography that is more directly focused on self-interpretation than on self-presentation, more concerned with understanding events than with narrating them. To be less esoteric, one may say that Schreiner's narrative is an autobiographically colored novel of ideas – a novel of radical ideas, difficult concepts, perplexing actions, and controversial characters. [585-86]

Through the frequent use of allegory and extended metaphor, The Story of an African Farm goes far beyond the limits of realistic narratives. Schreiner constantly disrupts realistic plot in her novel in order to give an allegorical expression to an existential quest for selfhood of the two protagonists. Ultimately, Schreiner redefines Victorian narrative strategies and blurs the borders between realism and allegory, which brings her novel closer to modernism.


Olive Schreiner, who became rediscovered by feminist scholars in the 1970s and '80s, contributed significantly to the development of Anglophone South African literature by presenting female experience in a colonial society and disrupting traditional gender paradigms. A late twentieth-century reassessment of Olive Schreiner shows her as an original New Woman writer, who dealt frankly not only with women's issues and marriage, but also with politics, race and labour relations:

Schreiner's pioneering feminism was the outcome of her passionate quest for identity and moral-political integrity against the backdrop of intellectual, emotional and physical isolation. [Heilmann, 122]

Her novel,The Story of an African Farm, often compared thematically to Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, contributed to the proliferation of the New Woman novels in the 1880s and 1890s, featuring heroines opposed to traditional gender relations, oppressive marriage bonds and advocating 'free unions'. Schreiner's New Woman rhetoric stirred the imagination of late Victorian readers and exerted an influence on the subsequent New Woman writers as well as on the twentieth century feminist fictions of Virginia Woolf, Karen Blixen, Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing.

References and Further Reading

Beeton, Douglas Ridley. Olive Schreiner: A Short Guide to Her Writings. Cape Town: H. Timmins. 1974.

Berman, Joyce Avrech. The Healing Imagination of Olive Schreiner: Beyond South African Colonialism. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts, 1989.

Burdett, Carolyn. Olive Schreiner and the Progress of Feminism: Evolution, Gender, Empire. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

Clayton, Cherry. Olive Schreiner. Twayne: University of Michigan, 1997.

Draznin, Yaffa Claire. My Other Self: The Letters of Olive Schreiner and Havelock Ellis, 1884-1920. New York: Peter Lang, 1992.

First, Ruth, and Ann Scott. Olive Schreiner. London: Andre Deutsch, 1980.

Heilmann, Ann. New Woman Strategies: Sarah Grand, Olive Schreiner, Mona Caird. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004.

Knechtel, Ruth. "Olive Schreiner's Pagan Animism: An Underlying Unity." English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920. 53.3 (2010).

Monsman, Gerald Cornelius. Olive Schreiner's Fiction: Landscape and Power. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

___. "Olive Schreiner: Literature and Politics of Power," Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 30.4 (Winter 1988).

Murphy, Patricia. Time is of the Essence. Temporality, Gender, and the New Woman. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Parkin-Gounelas, Ruth. Fictions of the Female Self: Charlotte Brontë, OliveSchreiner, Katherine Mansfield. St. Martin's Press. 1991.

Schreiner, Olive. The Story of an African Farm. Edited by Joseph Bristow. Oxford: Oxford University, 1998.

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Writers From Brontë to Lessing. London: Virago Press, 1978.

Wallraven, Miriam. A Writing Halfway Between Theory and Fiction: Mediating Feminism from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century. Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. Mary, A Fiction. Project Gutenberg.

Last modified 14 March 2012