The main protagonist of Fiela's Child grapples with his identity, questioning his name, his origins, and his very existence. After being taken by the census men, Benjamin/Lukas struggles to adapt to his white family, longing for the comfort and care of his adoptive black parents. His inability to adapt and integrate into the van Rooyen household seems to be rooted in his self-definition of being a Komoetie and being black. This demonstrates that one's sense of identity is less tied to physical markers, like race, than to where one feels at home and loved. Despite being amongst other white people who are supposedly his blood relations, it takes a while for young Lukas to adjust to the role of a white child, such as the instinctive way in which he calls Elias “master” as the "colored" people of South Africa did in this time period.
As the story unfolds, Matthee underscores how one’s identity is ultimately independent of one’s race. After a bout of uncertainty and anxiety at the end of the novel, feeling completely unknown to himself, the young man decides to be Benjamin—because it is clear he is not a van Rooyen of the forest and it is clear that it is the Komoetie family where he has always felt most like himself. His realization that he can choose who to be first comes into his awareness while living and working at the seaside, where he is finally at a distance from both of his families. There, although he is still confused, something begins to shift within him. The landscape of the cove stirs up old childhood memories of playing with toy boats on the river at the Long Kloof, reminding him of the joy he experienced living at Wolwerkraal and thus planting the seed for his later decision to return there as Fiela and Selling's son.
After Benjamin discovers that Barta has lied and that he is not truly Lukas, he undergoes a sort of existential crisis, where he feels completely at loss as to who he is. This is reflected in one passage where the use of rhetorical questions, repetition, and ellipsis cements his anxiety and uncertainty. However, his tone changes as he realizes that his identity is self-determined:
Who was he? What was the good of asking? There was no answer ... Still, he was someone. He was somewhere. Not in his legs, not in his arms, not in his body – wait! He walked slower. He was in his body. It was like a revelation. He was in his body – and bigger than his body too: he stretched as far as the horizon, to the blue of the sky. He was trapped within a body but at the same time he was free. Lukas van Rooyen and the seaman were dead, but he was alive and he could be whoever he wanted to be. From deep inside him surged a feeling of power that frightened him.
The use of the words “whoever” coupled with the diction and imagery of freedom as escaping the constraints of the physical self reinforce the author's idea that the individual is free to forge his own identity. Through the expansion of Benjamin’s inner self, the reader is aware of his transformation into the liminal self, free to make his own decisions and choose his path in life.
Man's relationship to nature
In the background of the main narrative of identity and family, there is also a strong theme of nature and man’s relationship to it. Most prominently, there is Elias van Rooyen’s constant brainstorming to find a clever means to kill an elephant so that he can sell its ivory and thereby be freed from the menial work of making wood beams. For him, the creatures of the forest are merely a means to an end, which is money. Underneath his intentions to exploit, we can ascertain a genuine yearning to provide for his family and lift them out of the poverty that is par for the course for forest life. However, we are shown how Elias’ cruel and dishonest way of going about his hunting—such as lying to his children in order to make them build the elephant trap, or viewing the elephants as pests—eventually backfires on him, leading to his being severely injured by the mother elephant who is livid after her calf has been killed in the trap.
In contrast to Elias, Nina is shown to have a deep love for the forest, which is where she takes refuge from the oppressive and grueling responsibilities of her family. Unlike her father, she greatly respects and admires the mysterious power of the elephants, especially after witnessing their birthing ceremony while she is hiding in a tree. Even though Nina is forced to work on the pit in which an elephant calf dies, the elephants do not take vengeance on her as they do on Elias. This distinction seems to suggest the intelligence of animals to read the intentions of humans. This is driven home further after Elias tries to cover himself in elephant dung to avoid their wrath but is attacked anyway. The message here is that man can’t outsmart nature: if he intends to exploit and abuse it, there will be consequences.
Fiela sees nature as a means to provide for herself and her family, especially through selling the much-valued ostrich feathers from Kicker and Pollie. The Komoeties proudly live off the land and take from the surrounding plants and animals to nourish themselves. The difference between Fiela and Elias is that Fiela has a sense of respect for the natural world. She treats the ostriches with care, almost as if they were her children. Unlike others in the Long Kloof who breed ostriches with multiple partners, Fiela refuses to go against what she regards as God’s order and does not distort the natural behaviors of the animals solely for her own gain.
Race plays an important role in the interactions between characters in Fiela's Child. Matthee uses dialogue to illustrate how the relationship between the white and the "Colored" (as they are called in the racist world of the novel) is often strained and conflicted. The Colored are expected to address their white peers as “master” or even “your worshipful Lord,” as seen when Fiela instructs Benjamin about how to speak to the magistrate. By exposing that the characters view the correspondence between white and black as that of master and servant, Matthee denounces the dehumanization and discrimination inherent in a society where black people are expected to constantly denigrate themselves. That the word 'Colored' is routinely capitalized further serves to distinguish black from white.
The overt racial divides in South African society are also reflected in language. English is often spoken by higher-class and white individuals, whereas the poor forest people and the blacks of the Long Kloof speak Dutch. For instance, Fiela has difficultly locating the magistrate because she is unable to find someone who speaks Dutch. Thus, she is rendered powerless by her inability to communicate, leading to more stress and confusion while she is trying to piece together what has happened to Benjamin.
Because Fiela is black, the government also finds it acceptable to take Benjamin and provide her with little explanation. When Barta finally reveals that Benjamin is not truly Lukas, Elias acknowledges that they are lucky that Fiela is black, for wrongfully taking a white child from a white family would have far worse consequences. These small examples paint a bigger picture of the various forms of prejudice faced by black people in South Africa.
The van Rooyens, as residents of the forest, have more in common with the Komoeties in terms of class than they do with the English people in Knysna village. Yet the racial difference makes them feel superior to the Komoeties and thus particularly justified in "rescuing" Benjamin from a Colored household. Elias' fury at being called "master" by Lukas articulates how the white supremacy of the time endowed a sense of pride and power to poor whites like the forest dwellers.
Masculine and feminine roles
Gender roles are prominently on display in Fiela’s Child. Fiela is often portrayed as the head of the Komoetie household, making important decisions and barking orders to her husband and child with regard to tending the animals and the fields. In the van Rooyen family, it is Elias who is presented as the patriarch. Unlike Fiela, though, he chooses to assert his authority through anger and punishment of his children when they disobey. Matthee thus uses these two characters as foils of each other, with Fiela’s compassion juxtaposed against Elias’ brutality. While Fiela is brave and strong enough to walk from the Long Kloof to the forest, Elias is presented as cowardly, afraid of the judgment of others and the wrath of the elephants in the forest. In native African culture, the narrative suggests, there is room for strong feminine leadership that is not in competition with male authority but rather is complementary to it. With the van Rooyens, conversely, Barta is expected to obey and submit to her husband's every whim; his power can only function when his wife relinquishes her own.
Fate versus freedom
As Benjamin realizes at the very end of the novel, his entire life was drastically changed by the actions of one man—namely, the census-taker who visited Wolwekraal and insisted that Benjamin must be the missing Lukas van Rooyen. The absurdity that his early years were shaped and dictated by an individual with little connection to him initially angers Benjamin; ultimately, though, he realizes the blessing of now being able to choose his family and his identity consciously. In this way, the narrative suggests that the world operates through fateful events over which we have little control. Fiela also experiences a feeling of no control in her life when she does everything she can to get Benjamin back and is still faced with the law telling her he is not her son. At the same time, though, through the resolution of the story, we are shown that knowledge can at least partially liberate us from the limitations that fate places on us, giving us the freedom of choice. Once Lukas/Benjamin knows that he is not actually a van Rooyen, he can consciously make the decision of who he would like to be, bound neither by feelings of guilt nor feeling of obligation. We also see Nina, who is a van Rooyen, choose to live a more free life and depart from the expectations of her family because she has the inner knowledge that she is different from them. Elias feels as if he has no freedom and is fated to poverty and imprisonment precisely because he has no knowledge of how to be a better human being.
Benjamin is taken by government officials and is forced to become Lukas van Rooyen because these men truly think that they are representing the law and enacting justice. On the one hand, figures like the census-takers and the magistrate believe that they are doing the right thing, yet on the other hand, as the story evolves, we see the disturbing repercussions of their actions. Not only is the boy wrongly placed in the van Rooyen family, which takes a heavy psychological toll, but Fiela and the rest of the Komoeties are also devastated and traumatized by the loss. To white people of the time, it may have appeared only logical to bring Benjamin to a white home, yet these people had neither the wisdom nor the foresight to understand how they were ripping a family apart and how it is possible for a relationship of love to exist between seemingly different people, even white and black people. On a more metaphysical level, Fiela especially is distraught by the sense that there is no divine justice because God is allowing for something evil to take place. It is not until the end of the novel, when Benjamin returns, that she can reconcile with God and start to see which she takes to be the full trajectory of a divine plan.
Money and class
Money is something that is often on the minds of the characters in Fiela's Child. All that Elias van Rooyen can focus on is how he can best utilize his four children to make the most profit. When Lukas is recovered, he is mostly glad that he will have another worker on deck. As soon as Nina is old enough, Elias enlists her to be a servant in the village and demands that she give him all of her wages, even after she becomes a legal adult. Nina's alienation from her family is partly due to her resistance to this money obsession: she chooses to continually run away to nature rather than work for money she can't even use. In the culture of the forest, it is normal for families to band together in order to provide and sustain each other. Elias takes this to the extreme, however, fixating on money to the point that he loses his relationships with his own children. Everything the children earn, for example, is put towards the purchase of a gun with which he can defend himself against the elephants—something he only needs because of his own stupid actions. With this, Matthee shows how such selfish concern with money and material security can end up destroying families. The Komoeties are also concerned about making a living, but for them, love trumps profit every time.
Class is also alluded to through the presence of British people who live more wealthy places like Knsyna. In one instance, Fiela witnesses the British while in the village to find her son. She observes "two smartly dressed women in long velvet clothes c[oming] down the street accompanied by two equally smart gentlemen. A servant walked ahead of them, carrying a lantern." This description of their sophisticated dress contrasts with Fiela's own modest attire, as well as the rags the van Rooyens are said to wear throughout the book. The luxury connoted by velvet and their dependence on a servant for light reinforces the superior place that the British possess in this society. We are also shown that the British depend on poorer white girls, such as Nina, to take care of their own children. The role of both the disenfranchised forest people and the black people as servants to this upper class portrays the stark class segregation that affects the Komoetie and van Rooyen families alike.
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.