Burger's Daughter


My version and theirs. And if this were being written down, both would seem equally concocted when read over. And if I were really telling, instead of talking to you in my mind the way I find I do... One is never talking to oneself, always one is addressed to someone. Suddenly, without knowing the reason, at different stages in one's life, one is addressing this person or that all the time...

— Rosa's internal monologue, Burger's Daughter, page 16[34]

The narrative mode of Burger's Daughter alternates between Rosa Burger's internal monologues and the anonymous narrator, whom Gordimer calls "Rosa's conscious analysis, her reasoning approach to her life and to this country, and ... my exploration as a writer of what she doesn't know even when she thinks she's finding out".[35] Abdul R. JanMohamed, professor of English and American Literature at Emory University,[36] calls this change of perspective a "stylistic bifurcation",[37] which allows the reader to see Rosa from different points of view, rendering her a complex character who is full of contradictions.[38] The two narratives, the subjective and the objective viewpoints, complement each other. JanMohamed explains that while the objective, third-person narrative is factual and neutral, the subjective first-person narrative, Rosa's voice, is intense and personal. Rosa's monologues are directed towards Conrad, her lover, in the first part of the story, her father's former wife, Katya, while Rosa is in France, and her father after she returns to South Africa. Because her imagined audience is always sympathetic and never questions her, Rosa's confessions are honest and open.[39]

According to academic Robin Ellen Visel, Rosa is a complicated person, with roles thrust on her by her parents, which suppresses her own goals and desires. Gordimer explains how she constructed the book's narrative structure to convey this struggle and explain Rosa: "[T]he idea came to me of Rosa questioning herself as others see her and whether what they see is what she really is. And that developed into another stylistic question—if you're going to tell the book in the first person, to whom are you talking?"[40] This led to Gordimer creating Conrad and Katya for Rosa to use as sounding boards to question and explain herself.[41]

Irene Kacandes, professor of German Studies and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College, calls Rosa's internal monologues apostrophes, or "intrapsychic witnessing",[42] in which "a character witnesses to the self about the character's own experience".[43] Kacandes points out that Rosa believes she would not be able to internalise anything if she knew someone was listening. In an apostrophe addressed to Conrad, Rosa remarks, "If you knew I was talking to you I wouldn't be able to talk".[34] But because Rosa is not vocalising her monologues, no one can hear her, and she is able to proceed with her self-analysis unhindered. Kacandes says "Rosa imagines an interlocutor and then occupies that place herself."[44]

Gordimer uses quotation dashes to punctuate her dialogue in Burger's Daughter instead of traditional quotation marks. She told an interviewer in 1980 that readers have complained that this sometimes makes it difficult to identify the speaker, but she added "I don't care. I simply cannot stand he-said/she-said anymore. And if I can't make readers know who’s speaking from the tone of voice, the turns of phrase, well, then I've failed."[22]

Sometimes he was not asleep when he appeared to be. —What was your song?— —Song?— Squatting on the floor cleaning up crumbs of bark and broken leaf. —You were singing.— —What? Was I?— She had filled a dented Benares brass pot with loquat branches. —For the joy of living.— She looked to see if he were making fun of her. —I didn't know.— —But you never doubted it for a moment. Your family.— She did not turn to him that profile of privacy with which he was used to meeting. —Suppose not.— —Conversation between Rosa and Conrad after her father had died, Burger's Daughter, page 41[45]

Visel says that the use of dashes for dialogue "conveys the sense of conversation set within the flow of memory" and "is congruent with the sense of Rosa speaking essentially to herself, speakers and listeners in her conversations being dead or unreachable."[46]

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