The value of human life
Michael K is often seen as a parasite, or unskilled worker throughout this book. He doesn’t have a very high social status and he is aware of that. At times he purposely acts dumb, like not speaking, because he knows he can get away with it. However, Michael knows that he still has a purpose in this world but it takes him the whole book to discover what that purpose is. He spends his time living off the land one day at a time. He doesn't realize until later that he was born to be a gardener. The goal of his journey is not to find his purpose but to assist his mother and fulfill her wishes, what he believed to be his original purpose in life. Michael happens to stumble upon his gardening skills by doing what he had to for survival. He loves his life as a gardener and realizes that most other people wouldn’t be able to survive as he did. There are times where he questions his love for gardening when others tell him that he should be a fencer, just as everyone questions if they’re making the right choice. He believes that,"A man must live so that he leaves no trace of his living." Becoming a gardener is Michael’s best bet for living out his philosophy.
Michael is closely emotionally bound to his mother, such that he is unable to express an emotional response to the world outside of this relationship. He is held within the matrix of this relationship, and having never learned to engage with the world outside, expresses great distress whenever challenged to do so. The medical officer sums up this relationship, writing to Michael, "[...] you should have got away at an early age from that mother of yours, who sounds like a real killer. [...] [Whilst] performing all the other feats of filial piety you no doubt performed, I also think of her sitting on your shoulders, eating out your brains, glaring about triumphantly, the very embodiment of great Mother Death." Michael exhibits some growth at the end of the story, through contact with kind peers.
In the conclusion, Michael ponders whether the moral of his story is “that there is enough time for everything.” The concept of time is present throughout the whole novel. The books ends with a metaphor: “[H]e would lower [the spoon] down the shaft deep into the earth, and when he brought it up there would be water in the bowl of the spoon; and in that way, he would say, one can live.”
War and military authority
The novel takes place in South Africa during a civil war in the 1970-80s, and K often crosses paths with soldiers throughout the story. These tend, based on flimsy or non-existent evidence, to accuse K and other people of various crimes such as theft or sabotage, while themselves performing corresponding acts of aggression with impunity. K is also more than once drafted into forced labour and placed in camps that vaguely resemble concentration camps. The inmates are given food, but eventually K rejects it. This appears to be a passive resistance to internment and arbitrary authority, though K may be only vaguely aware of his motives. He grows weaker and weaker until he finally escapes. Later on he is taken to a hospital instead, because he is too weak to work. He is better treated here, but nevertheless again refuses to eat and escapes. He does not evince much interest in the war, except as the soldiers pose a threat to him, from which he must hide or risk repeated internment or violence.
The story, which takes place during the apartheid regime and related racial conflicts, makes a reference to race, specifically, that there is a war "so that minorities can have a say in their own destinies". The only other instance race is specified in is Part 1 of the novel, "Michael Visagie--CM--40--NFA--Unemployed". "CM" stands for "colored male" therefore telling the reader that Michael "Visagie" (which isn't Michael's surname) is an unemployed, 40 year old, colored male with No Fixed Address. However, we are not told what race other characters belong to, nor are there any references to race politics or confrontations or any racial slurs in the dialogue.