What does Coetzee’s use of the passive voice, what he refers to as the agentless sentence, contribute to our understanding of Waiting for the Barbarians?Explain
In the opening paragraph of Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee hints at a relation between the Magistrate and
Colonel through the symbolic reflection that the Magistrate sees of himself in Colonel Joll’s sunglasses. Later,
when the Magistrate is with the “barbarian girl,” he again sees his reflection in her eyes. What do you think is
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the significance of this triangle of intimacy, as it may be described, that links the Magistrate, Colonel Joll, and
the “barbarian girl”? Where does the Magistrate fit between these two other characters? What, in other words,
is the “zone” in which the Magistrate lives between them?
At one point in the narrative, the Magistrate refers to the “infection of knowledge.” How has the Magistrate
been infected? What kind of knowledge has he been infected with? How does this infection work its way
through his body and mind? You may also want to consider the knowledge that the Magistrate is infected
with through his confinement, dehumanization, and torture, and whether it is the same as the knowledge with
which he was infected as a (reluctant) witness of torture.
What relation is there, if any, between Colonel Joll’s interrogations and the Magistrate’s interrogations of the
What does Coetzee’s use of the passive voice, what he refers to as the “agentless sentence,” contribute to our
understanding of Waiting for the Barbarians?
Not until he himself is dehumanized and tortured does the Magistrate experience what it is to be outside the
law of the Empire. How does this experience transform the Magistrate (if at all)? What does he learn about
himself and about the Empire (about civilization, about humanity) through this experience?
Explain what the Magistrate means when he says that “I was the lie that Empire tells itself when times are
easy, [Colonel Joll] the truth that Empire tells when harsh winds blow.”
When discussing the concept of shame, we looked at the idea that one must be a just person in order to feel
shame in the first place. By the end of Waiting for the Barbarians, would you describe the Magistrate as a “just
man”? Why or why not?
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