Life and Times of Michael K

Life and Times of Michael K Themes

Human rights in time of war

Human rights are supposed to be respected and protected, regardless of circumstances. Here we see that a war means the automatic cancellation of such rights. Fruitless attempts of Michael K to get traveling papers to Cape Town legally exemplify how much humans depend on the proper functioning of all state institutions, while the entire life of Michael K shows how much personal freedom and freedom of movement are important. The poorer—and, though not explicitly stated, blacker—denizens of South Africa see that their lives and their rights are not particularly respected: they are swooped up in raids, killed in riots, harassed, threatened, thrown into camps, denied food and supplies, and stripped of almost all their dignity and autonomy.

Man and Nature

K became a gardener in his working life, and he takes this connection to the earth with him on his journey. When he is able to settle at the Visagie farm, he feels immense joy seeding and cultivating his garden. The fruits and vegetables are like siblings or children to him, and when he is torn from the plot of land, he feels an immense, wrenching void. The garden is indicative of K's association with the natural and the maternal, rather than the cruel, structured, and repressive paternal world of the state.

Mother and Son

K and his mother had a fraught relationship, though he was ultimately a loving and dutiful son. Anna was uncomfortable with her son's putative shortcomings from the moment of his birth, and she largely abnegated any role in raising him. K remained loyal to her and carried out her care and her wishes as she grew sick and old, but he admitted to himself that he felt a sense of relief and release once she had passed on. Thoughts of her visit him throughout the course of the novel, and the Medical Officer tries to assert her overweening presence in his life. There's no easy way to characterize Anna and K's relationship, but K does associate him with the maternal and the nurturing, even after Anna is gone.


The novel is a very "quiet" book, meaning that dialogue is infrequent and spare. K retains silence not just because he is alone for a large portion of the novel, but also because silence is a subtle form of resistance. Whether or not K is aware of his "heroic" resistance does not matter: what does matter is that, especially in Kenilworth, he barely says anything because there is nothing to say. He does not want to tell his story. He does not want charity. He does not want to assert himself as important. He does not want to be known, understood, or misunderstood. When he is forced to speak, he is not believed, or he is assumed to be stupid; thus, he keeps his words to himself.


K has a curious relationship with memory. He is not nostalgic for the past, particularly Huis Norenius, but he does frequently engage in remembering. Sometimes the memories are of his mother, or of his time in places where he could be himself (the Visagie farm). Memory is a powerful tool, especially when one has little control over the physical conditions of life. K remembers in order to order his life, to assign meaning, and to conflate the past and present so that he does not have to exist fully in the latter.

Independence and Autonomy

Every time K is snapped up by the state—to be on a labor gang, to be sent to Jakkalsdrif, to be sent to Kenilworth—he chafes at his lack of freedom. He would rather live in the most intensely straitened circumstances than capitulate to the indignities of forced labor and camp life. In such places, he cannot garden and grow; he cannot keep to himself; he cannot define his own terms of existence. It does not matter to him if he has a bed, money, and work: he is not free, so those things are irrelevant.

Time and Space

K removes himself out of normative comprehensions of time and space when he is living as he wishes at the Visagie farm. Time slows down and is not orderly; it conflates, expands, and has no familiar boundaries. The space that K used to occupy—fenced in, controlled by curfew, subject to harassment and raids, needing permits to move freely—is also no longer tenable. For K, real freedom is stepping outside the bounds of time and space that civilization uses to control and, in many cases, subjugate its citizens.