Life and Times of Michael K

Life and Times of Michael K Literary Elements



Setting and Context

The events take place in 1970-1980s South Africa. The events described in the novel refer to an imaginary civil war in South Africa and describe Michael K's trip from Cape Town to Prince Albert.

Narrator and Point of View

The type of narration changes through the course of the story. The biggest part of the novel is told in the third person omniscient perspective, but the second part is told from the first-person point of view (the Medical Officer).

Tone and Mood

Tone: resigned, solemn, impartial

Mood: exhausted, threatening, restless, barren

Protagonist and Antagonist

Michael K is the protagonist of the story, while Oosthuizen and other military/police/authority figures are the antagonists

Major Conflict

Will K be able to live his life as he wants to, without being harassed and controlled by outsiders?


K is captured by the police and taken away from the farm, which is subsequently blown up.


1. Anna's death is foreshadowed often: K notices her ill health and weakness, her addled mind, and has dreams in which she is saying "Prince Albert is coming to fetch me" (28)
2. K's placement in a rehabilitation camp is foreshadowed when the orderly who brings him his food in the hospital tells him "the great hunger is still to come" (72)
3. K dreams of an old man warning him to get off the land and that he will get into trouble (118-119), which foreshadows his seizure by officials and his placement in Kenilworth


K tells people in the camp that "the Welfare stopped" (79), referring to assistance in Cape Town; this is an understatement because there are no welfare programs whatsoever as the civil war convulses the region.


1. Apartheid: a state-sanctioned system of racial separation in South Africa (1948-1990s)
2. Prince Albert: a town in S. Africa's Western cape
3. Dachau: a concentration camp during the Holocaust
4. Manna: according to the Bible, food that God gave to the Israelites to survive


The imagery in the novel suggests a society under siege. There are beggars, transients, military convoys, riots in the streets, etc. Coetzee creates a dangerous, unstable world that is doing its best to strip autonomy and dignity away from its people. See the separate "Imagery" section of this ClassicNote for more details.


1. "To me she was a woman but to herself she was still a child calling to her mother to hold her hand and help her. And her own mother, in the secret life we do not see, was a child too. I come from a line of children without end" (K, 117).
2. "For what reason were we waging the war, after all, but to augment the sum of happiness in the universe?" (Medical Officer, 157.)



Metonymy and Synecdoche

Robert says he has "too many mouths to feed;" 'mouths' are metonymic ways to refer to people.


1. "Fear gripping his heart..." (27)
2. "...would it not be better to bury myself in the bowels of the earth..." (106)
3. "all that was moving was time, bearing him onward in its flow" (115)