Some commentators have classified Burger's Daughter as a political and historical novel. In their book Socialist Cultures East and West: A Post-Cold War Reassessment, M. Keith Booker and Dubravka Juraga call Gordimer's work one of the "representative examples of African historical novels", saying that it is an "intense engagement with the history of apartheid in South Africa". Academic Robert Boyers calls it "one of the best political novels of our period", and an historical novel because of its "retrospective homage to generations past". Gordimer herself described Burger's Daughter as "an historical critique", and a political novel, which she defines as a work that "explicates the effects of politics on human lives and, unlike a political tract, does not propagate an ideology".
Visel calls the novel "fictionalised history" that shadows the history of anti-apartheid activism in South Africa, from 1946 and the African Mine Workers' Strike (Lionel and Cathy's marriage), to 1977 and the clampdown on dissidents (Rosa's detention). Other notable events include the coming to power of the National Party in 1948 (Rosa's year of birth), the Treason Trial of Nelson Mandela and others in 1956, the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, and the Soweto uprising in 1976 (Rosa's return to South Africa). Dominic Head writes in his book Nadine Gordimer that in Burger's Daughter "the life of ... Rosa ... runs in parallel with the history of modern South Africa".
Several critics have called Burger's Daughter a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, although not the traditional ones which, according to Susan Gardner in her essay "Still Waiting for the Great Feminist Novel", are dominated by male protagonists. While Gordimer was not a feminist author and Burger's Daughter is not a feminist novel, Gardner suggests that the book has "a discernible woman-concerned subtext", making it "impossible for feminists to dismiss or ignore". She says it has "a potential feminist awareness" that is "obscured by more conventional patriarchal writing codes". Yelin writes that after the death of Rosa's mother, the statement "Already she had taken on her mother's role in the household, giving loving support to her father" illustrates "the continuing hegemony of bourgeois-patriarchal ideology" in the novel. Yelin suggests that this inconsistency is responsible for Rosa's struggle, the "contradiction between feminism (Rosa's liberation as a woman) and the struggle for justice in South Africa".