Age of Iron


Age of Iron is a 1990 novel by South African Nobel Prize winner J. M. Coetzee. It is among his most popular works and was the 1990 Sunday Express Book of the Year. In it, he paints a picture of social and political tragedy unfolding in a country ravaged by racism and violence.

Plot summary

The novel depicts the inward journey of Mrs. Curren, an old classics professor. She lives in the Cape Town of the Apartheid era, where she is slowly dying of cancer. She has been philosophically opposed to the Apartheid regime her entire life, but has never taken an active stance against it. Now, at the end of her life, she finally comes face-to-face with the horrors of the system - she witnesses the burning of a black township and the killing of her servant's son, as well as the shooting by security forces of a young black activist whom she shelters in her house. Against a backdrop of violence by whites and blacks alike, Mrs. Curren remembers her past and her daughter, who left South Africa because of the situation in the country: the novel is framed as an extended letter from the mother to her daughter in America. As the story progresses, she constructs a relationship of a different kind with Vercueil, an old homeless man who happens to be sleeping in her driveway, as well as finally becoming truly aware of Florence, her black live-in servant.

Structure and Genre

Mrs Curren is the first person narrator in an epistolary style. Since Mrs Curren addresses her daughter in her letters as "you" the reader feels directly addressed. Coetzee's novel can be interpreted as a coming-of-age novel since it is about Mrs Curren's perspective on the world and coming to terms with that. Therefore, coming-of-age is in this case not growing older but rather about development.

The title is not about the Iron Age but iron represents the rough and brutal way of life Mrs Curren and the people in Cape Town live in. The first part where the term Age of Iron comes up is:

Children of iron, I thought. Florence herself, too, not unlike iron. The age of iron. After which comes the age of bronze. How long, how long before the softer ages return in their cycle, the age of clay, the age of earth? A Spartan matron iron-hearted, bearing warrior sons for the nation..

Mrs Curren does indeed think that the brutality is not something a handful of people partakes in but is a very big part in the nature of the people in Cape Town. However, she does underline that just like every other era planet earth has gone through, this time of brutality and racism will come to an end eventually.

Coetzee brings together important themes in this book: aging, the confessor as hero, narrative representation, the meaning of freedom, and the position of the white liberal in Apartheid South Africa

  • ISBN 0-14-027565-7

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