The elephants are a motif that reminds the reader of the simultaneous danger and beauty of the forest, and, by extension, of nature itself. The elephants are described as violent and vengeful by the main antagonist, Elias van Rooyen, whereas Nina views them as gentle and loving. These two contrasting views not only reinforce the generation gap between father and daughter but also show the different attitudes that man can adopt towards nature. One can seek to control or manipulate nature through the use of traps (technology) or tricks (Elias' scheme), yet nature will remain out of reach. Matthee uses the elephants to symbolize the futility of trying to conquer plant and animal life and our need to instead learn to respect and understand it—as we see in Nina’s intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna of the forest.
Another important characteristic of the elephants is the structure of their societies. Elephants are ruled in the form of a matriarchal society where the main female cow is the leader of the herd. Not only does this parallel the workings of the Komoetie family where Fiela is the leader, it also hints at the strength present within female leaders. The mother of the trapped calf haunts Elias until finally exacting her revenge years later. Even before being trampled, Elias questions the elephants, wondering how on earth “the bloody cow had known he would be coming along there that day.” Matthee’s focus on the female elephants shows her view of feminine power as equally important to male authority and how an overly patriarchal society, as represented by the van Rooyens, is destined for destruction.
The ostriches serve as a symbol of hope and prosperity for the Komoetie family. Using their feathers, the family has a chance to escape poverty and own land, thereby raising their status. However, such money is not easy to obtain as the characters suffer physical and mental strain trying to control the often-dangerous animals. In contrast to her use of the elephants, Matthee uses the ostriches to demonstrate an alternative image of nature, one that proves a symbiotic relationship between man and his environment is possible. The ostriches and their feathers do eventually help the Komoetie family achieve prosperity and independence, but only after long years of being kicked by them and training them to be obedient. As the years go by, the popularity of ostrich feathers rises, and yet we see how Fiela never tries to exploit her birds for greater profit, thus showing how animals can be used without being abused.
The ships are a motif integral to the understanding of Matthee’s message in Fiela's Child. Many different types of boats are introduced, yet the most significant types are the suicide ships and the more modern “coal eaters.” Suicide ships are ships that intentionally throw themselves to the cliffs, knowing that they are unable to “win against the coal-eaters” and thus purposely crash themselves. The suicide ships themselves are a source of anxiety to the oarsmen, especially Kaliel. To Benjamin, they are a symbol of a time past. When he and Nina observe one suicide ship, Nina likens it to “an old elephant that knows his time has come and goes to the deepest gorge to wait for the end.” The gentleness present in Nina’s words conveys the sense of inevitability, as the suicide ships are victims of an increasingly technologically advancing time. Matthee presents the suicide ships as victims of modernization and draws a parallel with the van Rooyens and the other forest dwellers whose traditional lifestyle carries a high burden compared to the existence of the upper-class villagers.
Boats also play an important role in awakening Benjamin's remembrance of his true identity and feeling of affiliation with the Komoetie family. After disobeying Elias van Rooyen by going to the seaside instead of Knysna, Benjamin is struck by the sight of an abandoned ship in the harbor. By coming to the sea, he is reminded of his joyful childhood hobby of playing with toy boats in the river at the Long Kloof, before he was taken away. Benjamin spends considerable time living and working by the sea, where he finally has the space to reflect on who he really is and where he considers to be home.
Symbol: The Mouth Organ
Nina’s mouth organ is another symbol in the novel. This is an instrument that is precious to Nina, as it is able to mimic the melodies sung by her beloved birds in the forest. The girl's obsession with the bird calls and her desire to join in their singing exemplifies the possibility for humans to have a harmonious connection with their environment, in contrast to the disastrous relationship Elias has with the elephants. Nina also relates to the mouth organ as a toy, thus symbolizing Nina’s childhood innocence. When Nina justifies her decision to remain in the village and abandon the forest, she claims to Benjamin: “The mouth-organ is rusty and out of tune...I buried [it] – I don’t think I’ll be going back either.” Rust and dirt are inevitable and signify the passage of time. Thus the mouth organ’s decay parallels Nina’s fading childhood, as she is unable to live in a time of carefree joy as before because she now worries about work and financial stability as an adult. Nina’s burial of the mouth organ is also significant in showing how nature, represented through the soil, has reclaimed the human tool, hinting at the futility of man to overcome the natural forces of death and decay.
Motif: The Five Shillings
The five-shilling piece that Fiela gives Benjamin before he leaves for the forest is with him throughout the story. Benjamin ascribes high value to this coin not only because five shillings in that time and place is a sizable amount but also because of the connection it has with his former family. While many of the other possessions Benjamin has from the Komoeties are taken from him, such as the blanket and his clothes, the five-shilling is one thing he is able to keep. His anger at Nina when he believes she has stolen it to buy a mouth organ is because of what the coin represents to him. When it turns out that Nina has actually not used the coin, we see how Benjamin starts to develop a level of trust and respect for her that is absent in his relations with the other van Rooyens. Nina, unlike the others, doesn’t view Benjamin merely as a source of profit to exploit, but rather as another human being.
In instances, Benjamin considers spending the money on something he thinks will bring him greater freedom, such as the rowing lessons that would give him the opportunity for a vocation outside of the forest. But the moment never comes where he needs to spend it; instead, he gives Fiela back the five-shilling when he finally returns to Wolwekraal, symbolizing his loyalty to the Komoeties as his true family and place of belonging.
Fiela’s Child Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Fiela’s Child is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.