A garden is an allegory of a human’s life, for all human beings work to improve their lives like a gardener or a farmer works the land. One should be very careful and protective in order not to let others waste all his or her efforts. In the novel, the destruction of the garden by the soldiers illustrates the horrible influence of war on a person. Such figures say that the time of gardening is “when the war is over,” but Coetzee does not see this as true. Any war consumes lives and often destroys all the light in people’s souls, whereas gardening, taking care of your own soul and life, leads to the establishment of harmony. K becomes attached to his plot of earth because it represents his time, energy, care, and growth; it is difficult for him to leave it both times because he feels stupid, useless, and torn from any sense of self.
Living in a democratic society, a person believes that he or she is guaranteed freedom of movement. However, K finds out that a human’s life is worth almost nothing if he or she doesn’t have any documents. Any comments from authority figures regarding papers vex and haunt K, who initially feels their absence acutely. The papers become a symbol of injustice, dependence, and even enslavement. On the other hand, the complete absence of them might also mean freedom, for one becomes lost in society.
Symbol: Skull and Crossed Bones
On the door of Anna's room is a skull and crossed bone, symbolizing danger. This could be interpreted in a few ways. First, it might symbolize the danger of life for one such as Anna—poor, old, unskilled, and sick. Society considers her useless and expendable, and she will never quite be safe in it. Or, the "danger" symbolized could refer to the danger for K when it comes to his mother. She sucks him in like a vortex, consuming him with her needs and complaints. While living on his own in the hostel and gardening, he had a decent degree of autonomy and a sense of self-worth, but the second he enters his mother's orbit, he is caught up in her danger.
At the end of the novel, K is back in Sea Point, and as he sits at the beach, he watches as a "small boy clambered up the blackened bars of a play apparatus, his soles and palms sooty" (172). The blackness of the bars and the resulting blackness and dirtiness of the boy's hands and feet symbolize the dirty, degrading nature of life in apartheid, civil war-era South Africa. An innocent child is stained by its corruption and decay, which extends to all people in the region.
Symbols: Authority Figures
All of the police officers, soldiers, and guards in this novel are not fully-fleshed characters (with perhaps the one exception of the guard with whom K discusses football) because they are instead symbols of the military state, civil war, and apartheid. Their authority is banal but powerful, arbitrarily given, and capriciously exercised. K knows to avoid them all because he wants to avoid being part of a society that oppresses him.
Life and Times of Michael K Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Life and Times of Michael K is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.