When black South Africans lived under harsh conditions of apartheid imposed by white people, the rest of the world had little knowledge of what was going on in South Africa. In his short story, “Mrs. Plum,” Es’kia Mphahlele confronts this ignorance by describing a typical life record of a black servant, Karabo, working for a white madam, Mrs. Plum, in a segregated environment of the white Greenside in the suburbs of Johannesburg. Mphahlele attempts to create a full immersion of his readers into the everyday routine of South African residents by showing the reality through the eyes of Karabo rather than commenting on it, thus enabling the audience to live through Karabo’s experience and arrive at their own conclusions about the specifics of South African segregation. Mphahlele’s “Mrs. Plum” exposes the duplicity of white liberalism in South Africa by creating a generalized character of a typical white liberal in the person of Mrs. Plum and using the first person point of view of the recipient of Mrs. Plum’s pseudo support, Karabo.
Even before the readers find out that Mrs. Plum advocates the rights of black South Africans and practices an unusual hospitality and support towards black people, Karabo communicates the ambiguity of Mrs. Plum’s character in the opening lines of the short story, “She loved dogs and Africans” (Mphahlele 125). While there is nothing wrong in loving animals and having a warm attitude to people of a different race, putting ‘dogs and Africans’ into a single sentence invalidates Mrs. Plum’s value as a fighter for some kind of equality for white and black people in South Africa. As the story progresses, and Karabo tells more about her life and work in Mrs. Plum’s house, as well as describe certain peculiarities of Mrs. Plum’s lifestyle and beliefs, it becomes obvious that ambiguity and double standards are two distinctive features of Mrs. Plum’s liberalism. For example, while Mrs. Plum seems to be doing a good thing by inviting Karabo to eat at the table with her, she actually pleases her self-image only. For Karabo, Mrs. Plum’s equality-and-acceptance game brings nothing but a discomfort because she does not know how to use a fork and knife, does not eat the meals she loves, and, most importantly, she is “Afraid of everybody, of Madam’s guests, if they found me doing this (Mphahlele 131). When something is done to the disadvantage of the recipient of such grand gesture, then it should not be done at all. In the same vein, Mrs. Plum’s game of a welcoming hostess, whose house is open to all kinds of visitors, irrespective of the color of their skin, is wrecked on the reality, when her daughter wants to marry a black doctor. When Mrs. Plum’s abstract vision of justice and equality collides with the real situation of her daughter planning to run away and marry a black man, she stops being a liberal, “It cannot be right, is it?... It is just madness” (Mphahlele 142). Such duality of views depending on whether it concerns other people or Mrs. Plum’s own family serves as a defining feature of white liberalism, Mphahlele intends to expose and criticize.
Narrating the events from Karabo’s perspective serves the same purpose. While it is impossible to call Karabo an impartial observer, she still manages to limit her influence on the story by describing events rather than expressing emotions and judgements. For example, when she tells the reason of quitting the previous job, she addresses an explicit form of harassment quite plainly, “He patted me on the buttocks… I asked the madam that very day to give me my money and let me go” (Mphahlele 125). It is important to understand that unlike Mphahlele’s audience that is unaware of the situation in South Africa, Karabo lives in this reality and takes some things for granted, the things that would infuriate or shock an outsider. These things often concern the limitations imposed on black South Africans regarding their professional development and personal freedom. For example, white people mostly do not care about their black servants’ names, “the only time I [Karabo] heard the name was when I was at home or when my friends spoke to me” (Mphahlele 127). Karabo usually tells about such small, yet integral elements of living in a highly segregated society in a mundane tone. She is certainly not happy about such state of affairs in her native country, but she is already used to it and they do not cause much concern with her. Conventionalism and moderation in narrating the details of a regular life in the Greenside, which clearly exists on two different levels reserved for white people and black people separately, distinguish Karabo’s point of view for the most part of the story. Clearly, she has feelings. She can get furious with injustice, “I was as angry as a red-hot iron when it meets water” (Mphahlele 125), when telling how she left the family, where the masters forgot to pay her. She can fall in love and suffer from a broken heart, “I felt my heart grow big inside me… I still think of him with a sore heart” (Mphahlele 141). However, Karabo’s emotions and worries concern things that would cause the same reactions for people living outside South Africa, where the color of the skin does not determine a person’s life in so much detail. As far as the terrible reality of a segregated society is concerned, Karabo sounds more like a reporter, telling, but not showing. This peculiarity of the first person narration produces a great effect. A sharp contrast between what is said and how it is said enhances the horror of apartheid and makes the white liberalism look even uglier than an explicit oppression of black people.
Mphahlele’s “Mrs. Plum” raises several important questions, all rooted in the need to eliminate racial discrimination and restore the human rights in South Africa. Why do Mrs. Plum’s liberal views still make her look like a typical white oppressor? Does Karabo’s exposure to white liberalism change her for the better or the worse? Is there such thing as “good madams and masters and bad ones” (Mphahlele 134) or the very idea or madams and masters brings any striving for equality in South Africa to naught? By trying to keep the general tone of the story neutral, using characterization and the point of view as the primary means of exploring the ambiguous nature of white liberalism, Mphahlele urges his audience to think, analyze, and reflect upon apartheid in general.
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Mphahlele, Es’kia. Mrs. Plum.