Misunderstood Intentions: Analysing misunderstandings caused by a secret in Nadine Gordimer’s “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off”
It is typical for people to be prejudiced, yet prejudice can cause major misunderstandings and problems. Significant prejudice occurs in Nadine Gordimer’s story, “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off,” based on Marais Van der Vyver, a white South African farmer in the time of Apartheid who has a secret – a black son that nobody knows about. As the story progresses, we realise how many misunderstandings are caused by his secret and the negative effects the misunderstandings lead to. When Van der Vyver unintentionally kills his son in an accident, Nadine Gordimer expresses how three main groups of people misunderstand this event: the outside world and press, the local community, and Van der Vyver’s family, who have suffered from so many misunderstandings because of the secret. As these misunderstandings are revealed over the course of the story, we realize that Gordimer is thematically suggesting that because prejudice is founded on ignorance, it often leads to misunderstandings, rumours, and a destructive inability to know the truth. The outside world and press misconstrue Van der Vyver’s accident because of their own preconceived stereotypes of South Africa and its people.
The outside world and press believe that Marais Van der Vyver, who is a white farmer, killed his black farm worker on purpose, even though they have no idea that Lucas was Van der Vyver’s son. The outside world and press live in a completely different context than the South Africans do, so when Van der Vyver says that Lucas was his friend, they cannot imagine it because they have come up with “their version of South Africa” (Gordimer 63), where no white person could ever consider a black person a friend. The outside world and press are displaying prejudice as they are judging Van der Vyver without knowing the details of the accident and not even bothering to find out if the stories and rumours are true or not. In some ways, the outside world and press “don’t want to know it [the truth]” (Gordimer 63); they do not want to know the truth because they do not want to be proven wrong about their views on South Africa. The press leaves out most of the vital facts in their stories to support their own beliefs and the views, but this causes a major misunderstanding of facts and makes Van der Vyver seem like an antagonist in what was really an innocent accident. Although the community knows Van der Vyver better than the outside world and press, they are still misguided about Van der Vyver and his reaction to the accident.
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There is a misunderstanding of his true identity because no one really knows who he is. The white people in the community say that “[the accident] could have been worse” (Gordimer 63), but they are showing their prejudices as they do not understand that the situation could not have gotten any worse than this – after all, Lucas was Van der Vyver’s own son, and on top of accepting the fact that he killed him, he also has to deal with people accusing him of committing the homicide intentionally. People in the community believe that they know exactly how Van der Vyver feels, but the truth is, they never really knew him at all. When Van der Vyver brings Lucas to the police station after he shot him, Gordimer describes how he starts crying and how “the captain was ashamed for him, and walked out to give him a chance to recover himself” (Gordimer 64) because as a white person, he cannot understand why Lucas’ death is affecting Van der Vyver so strongly. He is embarrassed for him because it is not ‘right’ to feel an emotional attachment towards a black man during Apartheid. Van der Vyver shows respect towards the black people by providing money for Lucas’ funeral, but they too misunderstand him, thinking that he is being kind when in fact he is fulfilling his paternal responsibility. As we can see, members of the various groups in Van der Vyver’s community mistake his true identity for someone he is not because they do not know about the secrets and how they have really affected him. Van der Vyver’s family should know him the best, however, his secret prevents them from knowing his true identity. Van der Vyver’s wife will always be there for him because “she is always supportive, although he doesn’t seem to notice it” (Gordimer 65).
Van der Vyver is so preoccupied with his sorrow that has forgotten about his family and neglected them. Because of the misunderstandings of the facts by the outside world and press, van der Vyver’s children will have to grow up with the constant mention of the accusation that their father killed a black farm worker intentionally. Van der Vyver’s family has been duped by believing that the accident has caused so much pain for Van der Vyver because Lucas was his favourite farm worker, but the actual truth of his pain is still being shielded from them by the secret. Marais’ wife believes that Van der Vyver has “this coldness and reserve” (Gordimer 65) because he did not get along well with other people as a child, but this is just an excuse to explain the way Van der Vuver is acting because she does not know about the secret and so she cannot understand his true emotions.
During Lucas’ funeral, Van der Vyver “does not let her [his wife’s] clothing, or that of anyone else gathered closely, make contact with him.” This metaphorical act shows how unapproachable he is and how he is not letting anyone help him, how he prefers to be alone and figure things out by himself even if his family wants to be there for him. Van der Vyver is struggling with an internal conflict because he cannot tell the truth about the accident as that would destroy everything he has, like his family. Both the accident and the secret have affected the way he acts towards his family members and have created a distance between the family which has caused a misunderstanding about who Marais is and why he is acting the way he is. Nadine Gordimer expresses three main misunderstandings based on prejudice in her story, “The Moment Before the Gun Went Off.” The misunderstandings are the outside world and press being close-minded and not recognising the true facts, the community and the kind of person they see Van der Vyver as being, and Van der Vyver’s family’s utter confusion about his true intentions and identity.
The theme conveyed in this story is that being prejudiced has many negative effects, such as misunderstandings and major conflicts, and one should not judge someone else before they have gotten to know them properly. The community and the outside world and press judge Van der Vyver based on the way he acts and form their own interpretations of who he is, which causes misunderstandings as they do not really know what he feels and what he has been through. Van der Vyver’s family is misunderstanding his true emotions and the reasons behind them. The many prejudices in this story lead to many problems that could have been avoided. But most importantly, they lead to an inability of anyone being able to see the truth of the situation. Which is a shame, because in truth, the story centers on the loving relationship between a father and a son.