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The Power of One

Bryce Courtenay

Study Questions

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Quiz

What role does music play, literally and metaphorically, in the novel? Is the concept of "music" a coherent or fractured concept within the novel?

The character of Doc, the German music professor, introduces the literal music component into the novel by means of offering piano lessons to Peekay in return for help coding his cacti. Doc makes constant references to the European musical geniuses, such as Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin, and his main source of acceptance in Barberton is his ability to provide the town with the "culture" of classical music. Yet Peekay is quick to point out that most of the parochial Barberton townspeople do not truly understand the music Doc plays at concerts-such as Beethoven's Symphony Number Five. It is the idea rather than the essence of the music appeals to them.

Metaphorically, music is a foil for boxing. Both Doc and Peekay use musical metaphors to describe boxing and to elevate it to the status of art rather than sport. In such a way, music works as the metaphorical support to the literal world of boxing-it is an accompaniment, not the melody. Peekay's lack of musical genius confirms this secondary status of music. It is almost as though Bryce Courtenay has included Peekay's forays into music as a way of contrasting the notions of excellence and genius-although Peekay is an accomplished musician, he is an almost perfect boxer.

Music is distinctly separated along racial lines and thus is a fractured rather than coherent concept in the novel. The black people are described as natural musicians, and Peekay testifies that he has never heard such beautiful singing before the night of the "Concerto of the Great Southland." Peekay often refers to the ability of black South Africans to harmonize spontaneously. When Peekay plays a piece of jazz music, Doc tells him that you cannot "play black" without feeling the music in your soul. In such a way, music works as a supplement to the larger dualistic theme of black magic contrasting with white logic. The magic transported through black people's music is evidenced by the fact that Doc, who has never heard the chant of the Tadpole Angel, is able to transcribe it. Although the "Concerto of the Great Southland" essentially belongs to black South Africans, through Doc and Peekay's participation in its creation it becomes a national, and even international, symbol of hope and racial unity. On the other hand, when the English citizens of Barberton sing "White Cliffs of Clover," it works as an exclusionary force-the Afrikaners in the audience leave the room.

What theory of education is put forward by the novel, and what role does education play in the novel as a whole?

Since The Power of One is a "bildungsroman"-a novel that follows the development of a single protagonist from early childhood to maturity-education is of vital importance. Peekay favors the non-formal education he receives to the formal education-indeed, his development in all arenas is fueled not in classes, but through one-on-one mentorships. The question Peekay seems to ask from each of the characters in his story is: "What can you teach me?" Peekay does not make a large distinction between those people who remain in his life for a long period of time, and those people who pass quickly through. Peekay's theory of education as a gradual accumulation of "life lessons" from different people encompasses both long and short relationships. For example, Peekay describes Hoppie, the mentor who inspires his boxing dreams, as "a passing meteor who would set the next seventeen years of my life on an irrevocable course." On the other hand there is the long education Peekay receives from Doc, who-he summarizes-gives him a love of music, of Africa, and of learning itself. Interestingly, Peekay's mentors seem to choose him more than he chooses them-it is Doc who initiates the piano lessons and cacti observation, it is Mrs. Boxall who undertakes to familiarize Peekay with literature, and it is Miss Bornstein who introduces Peekay to the idea of school scholarships. Perhaps, then, "the power of one"-the idea onto which Peekay clings throughout the novel and which he desperately tries to define-is a theory of accepting and appreciating the input of others, but ultimately taking responsibility for one's own education. However, as Peekay learns from the Barberton Blues team, it is "all for one, and one for all." The fact that he constantly replays in his mind the words and advice of Hoppie, Geel Piet, and Doc is testament to his belief that one cannot simply be "independent"-one has to rely on others. Due to his early experiences with the Judge-an education in and of themselves-dependence terrifies Peekay. Many of his most intimate educational experiences occurred in rough institutions, such as the boarding school or the prison (where he discovers Geel Piet's murdered body). His best friend at the Prince of Wales school, Morrie Levy, teaches Peekay the practical skills of how to be financially independent, but nothing can teach Morrie the lessons that Peekay has learnt from his gritty, working class experiences. Peekay finally has to accept a somewhat compromised version of "the power of one"-after all, it is due to his arrogance in his own ability that Rasputin loses his life. All in all, the novel manages to dispel assumptions that a proper education can only be achieved in formal settings-even though Peekay excels at the prestigious Prince of Wales school, and is accepted into Oxford, he learns just as much from roaming the Barberton hills with Doc and analyzing his boxing opponents in the rink. Perhaps the greatest satisfaction in reading The Power of One ultimately derives from the satisfaction of witnessing the growth of Peekay's mind as Peekay-the-character hurries to catch up with Peekay-the- narrator.

Does this novel fit more into the genre of tragedy or comedy? Justify your answer.

The novel ultimately falls more into the genre of tragedy due to its horrifyingly gruesome finale-and while the final images of the departing loneliness birds and the full moon appear to create a tone of optimism, the images of Peekay's fight with the Judge dominate the mind. A similar tone of pessimism and tragedy accompanies the finale of Book One of the novel- after describing the magnanimous efforts of the Barberton people to supply Peekay's clothes for the Prince of Wales school, Peekay suddenly and shockingly reports that Borman has died of a rectal hemorrhage. Bodily functions and fluids, however, are used as tools of both tragedy and comedy in the novel. For instance, toilet humor surrounds the moment when Granpa Chook defecates into the Judge's open mouth. Similarly, 'burlesque' and toilet humor are used in the scenes describing Big Hettie. However, in both of the previous examples, the comedy is soon eclipsed by tragedy-Granpa Chook is killed, and Big Hettie dies. It is as though comedy is invoked in order to help people survive their situation, but tragedy seems always to succeed in the final analysis.

Suggested Essay Topics

What importance does the division of the novel into three books carry?

How do different methods of storytelling--legend, fairy tale, History, sports commentary--operate in the novel? Does the author subscribe to one of these methods in particular, or do they play off each other? What effect does this create?

Is Peekay, as a white boy, a problematic hero for this novel since it is so firmly entrenched in apartheid South Africa? How would the novel's impact differ if the hero were a black boy? Justify your answer.

How does the boxing plot compare or contrast with the war/fighting theme in the novel?

Does Peekay or Morrie undergo more of a catharsis in the course of the novel? Explain your answer.

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Peekays Analyzing

by FranklinDC, August 25, 2013

After some reflection Peekay realizes that he possesses the "physical and intellectual equipment" needed to survive the school system

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