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The Power of One

Bryce Courtenay


Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

Themes, Symbols, and Motifs


The Slow Poison of Apartheid

Because The Power of One is set between the years of 1939 and 1951 in South Africa, the emergence of apartheid forms an important part of its context. Readers may question why apartheid does not appear to be the central issue of the novel. Indeed, Courtenay focuses more on Peekay's boxing career and his relationship with Doc than he focuses on the rise to power in 1948 of the Nationalist government, led by D.F. Malan, the engineer of apartheid. However, Courtenay is trying to recreate, through Peekay's perspective, the flimsy understanding that even South Africans had of apartheid during its inception. Apartheid was never announced—it slowly seeped into people's consciousness. It was first introduced by D.F. Malan under the guise of something strange, but innocuous: 'separate development' or the ability for each tribe of South Africa to develop its potential on its own. It took time for people to realize that this explanation was merely a front for one of the most sinister and brutal plans the world has known. Courtenay achieves the sense of apartheid slowly filtering into one's consciousness by slowly building Peekay's understanding of it: in Chapter Four Peekay notices a "BLACKS ONLY" sign above a workshop and does not understand why whites cannot enter; he hazily remembers hearing the actual word 'apartheid' during one of his boxing matches in Johannesburg; Captain Swanepoel, a South African policeman sent to deter Peekay and Morrie from continuing their night school for black boxers alludes in passing to the instigation of one of the apartheid laws, the Group Areas Act of 1950. Apartheid seeps into the South African landscape as a slow- working poison—it fits with the image of a "shadow world" used so frequently throughout the novel. Moreover, the perversion which apartheid causes afflicts everyone, in both direct and indirect ways. For example, Peekay--the novel's symbol of unity amongst all races--cannot accept Doc's peaceful death because he has become so accustomed to the gruesome, brutal murders that result from excessive racism-such as Granpa Chook and Geel Piet's deaths. Apartheid is most to be feared, Courtenay suggests, because of this sly, undercover manner of working. As Peekay notes in the novel's final chapter, "all routine, no matter how bizarre, soon becomes normal procedure." Apartheid is sinister because, as evidenced by Peekay's slow revelation of it, apartheid is gradually becoming a routine in South Africa. With the interesting combination of having a factual background-apartheid South Africa-with a fictional foreground-Peekay's story-Courtenay tests the very borders between fact and fiction. Ultimately he seems to imply that when History can no longer be trusted, fiction must take up the responsibility of spreading the truth.

The Importance of Camouflage for Survival

In Chapters One and Two, as a mere five-year-old, the precocious protagonist Peekay is already addressing the necessity of affecting camouflages in order to survive the system. His first person narrative voice, usually extremely conscious of his audience, suddenly turns on himself in Chapter Two with the imperative command: "adapt, blend, … develop a camouflage." Much of the novel's imagery relies on dualisms—head and heart, big and small, English and Afrikaner-and Peekay realizes that his reliance on camouflage points to the fact that there exists a schism between his interior and exterior self. He battles throughout the novel with the concept of camouflage, changing his view as to whether or not it is necessary in order to survive. As a vulnerable five- year-old at boarding school, his first lesson is that camouflage is essential not simply to his well being, but to his very survival. He decides that crying is a sign of weakness, and he assigns that to his inner being. The medicine man, Inkosi-Inkosikazi, offers Peekay the ability to move between his inner and outer selves-although Peekay cannot cry on the outside, he may cry inwardly in the magical "night country." Peekay remarks that he leads a double life. Peekay is even suspicious with Hoppie on first meeting him on the train to Barberton-his earliest experiences have taught him not to trust, and he says repeatedly that he has his limits in how much he will reveal to Hoppie. It takes the character of Doc to teach Peekay how to trust-the love that Doc and Peekay have for one another allows Peekay to drop his camouflage to some extent, and reveal his brilliance.

In his first boarding school, Peekay learned that to stand out was dangerous and disappearing into the masses was the best camouflage. However, at the Prince of Wales school in the second half of the novel, Peekay in fact discovers that his desperate need to always win, to always be the best, is also a camouflage. He knows that, ironically, by standing out he is allowing the vulnerable part of himself to hide-no one questions winners. The examples discussed above deal with Peekay's survival in a local sense. The issue of survival in the apartheid South African context becomes much more complex. At one point, Peekay hints that camouflage is essential in order for him to become a "spiritual terrorist." Yet he constantly has to use his judgment-at times the best camouflage is, like a chameleon, fading into the background while at other times the best camouflage is being the best. For example, Peekay manages to survive the Barberton prison system through developing so fixed a routine that no one suspects the black market scheme going on. Becoming a "spiritual terrorist," on the other hand, can only be achieved through "winning." At the Prince of Wales school Peekay learns to challenge the very concept of "survival" itself. He reflects in Chapter Sixteen that at school he learned "that survival is a matter of actively making the system work for you rather than attempting to survive it." This represents the true beginning of personal independence for Peekay. The power of one is represented by the latter definition of "survival"- going beyond normal human capabilities, in spite of the restrictions around one.

The Necessary Coexistence of Logic and Magic

The character of Doc best demonstrates the theme of the coexistence of logic and magic. Although Doc represents logic, order, and scientific precision (he teachers Peekay to observe, analyze, and make inventories of cacti, for example), at the same time he recognizes the need for magic and mystery to exist in the world. He points out to Peekay that it is mystery, not logic, that creates hope. The black people's invention of the legend of the Tadpole Angel-a symbol of hope-thus fits into this mysterious world. The black South Africans' preferred method of storytelling in the novel-unchanging legend-contrasts with Peekay's logical, chronological narrative. This contrasting perspective arises in a number of incidents throughout the novel-Peekay worries when he discovers that Gideon Mandoma is his nanny's son since, he says, black people do not believe in coincidence, but in pointedness. In the Northern Rhodesian mines, Peekay's theory of 'increasing odds' holds no weight with the black miners, who believe in 'juju'-mystery and charm. It is, of course, extremely problematic to equate black people with magic and white people with logic, and this is perhaps one of the novel's downfalls. The character of Geel Piet goes some way to redeeming this problem-with his practical, down-to-earth astuteness, he breaks the rigid boundary set up between black magic and white logic.

The Complicated Relationship Between Boxing and Fighting

Peekay's attitude towards boxing is extremely complicated, setting up the theme of where one can draw the line between boxing and fighting, if one can even draw a line at all. Towards the end of the novel Peekay begins to question the role that the people around him have played in his life-he feels constrained by their goals for him, and realizes that his only self-initiated ambition is to become welterweight champion of the world. It is thus this ambition which allows him to feel "the power of one" within him. The final episode the novel blurs this clarity, however. As Peekay fights his childhood nemesis, the Judge, he draws on all of his boxing lessons-Hoppie, Geel Piet, and Solly Goldman's advice-and implies that his boxing career has culminated in that moment. Certainly, Peekay's first interest in boxing stemmed not from a love of sport, but from a need to defend himself against bullies. There is something sadly pathetic when Peekay admits to himself, in Chapter Twenty-Three, that the source of his boxing desire is a dead chicken. Yet perhaps it is this hidden, vulnerable core of Peekay-revealed to the reader alone-which allows the reader to identify with him. Peekay, an almost perfect character and a hero almost wherever he sets foot, is a likable protagonist because he approaches himself with honesty.


The Full Moon

In Peekay's experience, the full moon symbolizes death: always a self- conscious narrator, he in fact points the reader in Chapter Nineteen to the fact that it was a full moon on the nights of both Granpa Chook and Geel Piet's deaths. When Doc discusses his death with Peekay for the first time, at the crystal cave of Africa, it is also a full moon. Interestingly, one of the final images of the novel is also a full moon-although no person has here died, perhaps this symbolizes the death of Peekay's hatred for the Judge. Usually a sign of rejuvenation, the reversal of the moon symbol in The Power of One to symbolize death perhaps suggests the confluence of birth and death-it is thus a symbol of optimism and hope in spite of the horrors it sometimes witnesses.

The Snake

Snakes in the novel first appear as literal rather than symbolic. In Peekay's earliest experiences, he refers euphemistically to his circumcised penis as his "hatless snake." This "hatless snake" is a source of shame to him, as his boarding school companions mock and torture him as a result. Granpa Chook appears to show his support for Peekay, and his faith in Peekay's ability to transcend the shame of his "hatless snake," by biting off the head o an actual snake. Peekay hangs the dead snake from a branch outside his hostel window. Later in the novel, however, the snake moves to symbolic status. In Chapter Eighteen and Chapter Chapter Twenty-Three, Peekay invokes the symbol of the snake by using the expression of "sloughing" his outer skin to reveal his real self. In such a way, Peekay mentally conquers his early embarrassment over his "hatless snake." Instead of feeling exposed and vulnerable, he learns to accept himself as he is. By the end of the novel, the vision of the black mamba snake becomes a symbol of imminent danger-the black mamba snake, a dream sign from Doc, forewarns Peekay of his disastrous accident in the mines, and of his fight with the Judge.

The Tadpole Angel, or Onoshobishobi Ingelosi

As with the symbol of the full moon, Peekay himself analyzes and deconstructs the symbol of the Tadpole Angel. In Chapter Twenty-One he finally comes to terms with the black people's legend about him, and tells Morrie that the Tadpole Angel is "a symbol, a symbol of hope." This analysis of the symbol's importance is confirmed by Peekay's experience in the Northern Rhodesian mines, where the black mine workers view him as a beacon of hope. Peekay's acceptance of the symbol is an important turning point in the novel- previous to that point, he experienced embarrassment at the idea of being the Tadpole Angel and tried to shun the symbol. Along with assuming the role of the Tadpole Angel, symbol of hope, Peekay has to confront hope's opposite: after the boxing match with Gideon Mandoma he gains foresight to the atrocities that lie ahead for South Africa.


African Osmosis

The motif of African "osmosis" runs throughout the novel, in reference to the spreading of the legend of the Tadpole Angel. Peekay, along with other characters such as Klipkop, marvels at the manner in which, as though by osmosis, the black people manage to transmit information throughout the nation. For example, before any news of Peekay's boxing victory against Killer Kroon has reached the prison, all the black prisoners already know the outcome. At the end of the novel, the motif applies not only to black Africans, but to Peekay's Russian friend Rasputin as well. In the final chapter, Peekay uses the motif to describe how Rasputin learns of Peekay's mining accident.

The Loneliness Birds

The loneliness birds are Peekay's most childlike motif-their very name describes what they are. They flank the story by making their first appearance in Peekay's life during his fifth year, when he is suffering from the abuse of the Judge and his storm troopers, and their departure at the very end of the book, after Peekay has avenged himself against the Judge. They surface at various moments throughout the novel-for instance, at the end of Chapter Eight, when Peekay says that he has grown up, the loneliness birds stop laying stone eggs inside of him.

Fairy Tales

The Power of One is peppered with references to fairy tales, and particularly the tales of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. For example, Peekay compares rose garden behind his Barberton house as something out of Alice in Wonderland. Moreover, the twin Shangaan kitchen maids are called Dum and Dee. In Chapter Eighteen Peekay remarks that the crystal cave of Africa looks like "an illustration from a fairy tale." The motif of fairy tales aids the larger theme of the necessary coexistence of logic and magic, with fairy tales of course fitting into the latter category.

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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


5 out of 12 people found this helpful

Movie vs Book

by wp061599, July 26, 2015

the movie is not even remotely close to the book

Setting of the Power of One

by ambrose_maria, September 08, 2016

It says it took place in Australia but that's wrong. It took place in Africa.


2 out of 3 people found this helpful