‘The Guilt’ is a short story by the South African writer and filmmaker Rayda Jacobs. Published in 2001, this story is about Lilian Thurgood, a white woman who finds herself amidst a shocking adventure one day, involving a black man named William Sidlayi in post-apartheid South Africa.
‘The Guilt’ SUMMARY
Lilian Thurgood is an old white woman in post-apartheid Africa. She is a widow and she lives on her pension. One day, she is picking guavas at the side of the house when she hears the growling of the two Alsatians, Tembi and Tor. She guesses it is the postman. She begins to marvel at the freshness of the morning, the brightly colored new tips of trees. However, the dogs do not stop growling. Whoever has come has not gone away. Lilian goes to see who it is.
The two dogs stand like ‘sentinels at the gate’. They were trained by her late husband to follow specific commands. At the door stands a man who produces a letter. The letter says that the carrier, William Sidlayi, is collecting donations on behalf of some organization. Lilian is well-acquainted with this sight of people carrying letters in order to either ask for money or to try and do some job in exchange for money. Her house is well-protected, with the dogs, the locked gate, and a ten-foot-high wall around the property.
Lilian goes inside to look for change. She is disappointed that she still feels like helping people like William so often. Such people often come asking for help, requesting money, clothes, or food. People like Lilian are the privileged lot since as white people they did not have to go through the hardships the blacks had to, during apartheid. However, these people take ‘merciless advantage’ of the white people’s guilt. And criminal activities by black people who go from house to house have increased manifold frequently.
It irritates Lilian that she feels afraid in her own house, thanks to people who come to her house with requests at whatever time they please. But then again, as ‘benefactors of the old regime’, the white people are filled with guilt. Through a flashback, it is revealed how Lilian helped a desperate black woman a few days back by buying things for her she did not actually need or want. Another time, a black man asked her for a tin of fish.
Lilian finds five rands and twenty-three cents and decides to give the man five rands. Five rands is a lot to spend for a pensioner like Lilian. Again, she is disappointed that her conscience compels her to be helpful to people when she herself does not have much money.
William refuses to take the money without doing something in exchange, despite Lilian insisting that it is all right. William offers to clean the leaves in Lilian’s garden. She opens up the gate to him and Williams starts working. At this point of the story, the elderly Lilian is trying to establish trust between the black man and her. When the phone rings, she has to go inside the house but she assures herself that by showing trust to William, she will show him that not all white people are always afraid of black people, and that the racial tension between them can be eased through such gestures of kindness and trust. At the same time, Lilian mentally makes a note of the fact that she would have to find her late husband’s revolver if things go wrong.
The caller hangs up when Lilian reaches the phone. She is suddenly aware of the compromised position she is in at the moment. She finds William standing at the door of the house now. He now demands ten rands for the one hour of work that he has done. When Lilian tries to leave for a moment with the excuse of asking her husband for the money, William shocks her by reporting that he knows she is a widow and that she lives alone. She is aware that the only option to ensure her safety is the dogs.
Lilian offers to give William the ten rands he demands, provided he gives her the five rands he took previously. William does not like this arrangement and smiles condescendingly at Lilian. When Lilian asks him to leave the house, he insists on the money and starts coming forward. Lilian now lets the dogs loose on William with a command. The dogs leap up at William with fury, tearing at his clothes and dangerously working their way upward towards his face. They do not bite or severely harm William yet; for that, they need a final command from Lilian. Instead of giving them that final command, Lilian goes to her bedroom and fetches her late husband Jock’s revolver. She comes to the screaming William with the revolver, the weapon pointed against him now.
Lilian tells William that she is well within her rights to shoot the latter since he trespassed on her property. He begs her not to pull the trigger. Lilian states that killing William would teach culprits like him a lesson and widows would feel safe hearing about it in the news. William keeps begging for his life and Lilian commands the dogs to let go of him finally. She then commands him to return the five rands she gave him previously. William does so. She now tells him to get out of the house so as not to force her to shoot him. Lilian sees William disappear out of sight once he is out of her property. Her gun was pointed at him all the while.
This was a stunning experience for Lilian. She wonders how someone like her, alone and minding her own business without harming anyone, would come across such an adventure. She is incredulous for a moment but after a while, the laughter and shouting of the children outside make her feel slightly better about the future. That night, she places the gun under her late husband’s pillow and weeps.
‘The Guilt’ ANALYSIS
Rayda Jacobs has seen the apartheid regime in South Africa firsthand. The dehumanizing treatment meted out to the black people and the subsequent miseries are phenomena that find mention in her work. Another influential writer writing about these very issues is Nadine Gordimer.
Racial tension is the most obvious theme of the short story. The tension between white and black people is palpable in every interaction between them and there is always the possibility of something going wrong. The threat of violence perpetually lurks under the surface when the two parties meet. For instance, when the phone rings and Lilian has to excuse herself, she has to assure herself that nothing indeed is wrong (‘She wouldn’t lock the door behind her, she told herself’). This tension is a direct and inevitable consequence of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Another consequence of the apartheid regime is the guilt white people like Lilian feel. But it is important to know that not all white people would feel this guilt; only the already kind and sensitive ones like Lilian would go through this attack by their conscience. Lilian is well aware of her privileges and though she is adequately sheltered from the outside world, she never believes in the creation of barriers herself, unless it comes down to the issue of self-protection. Lilian has a sympathy for the miseries of the black people that is not condescending for she herself lives on the limited means of her pensions, and helping the needy black people that approach her is financially straining for her. And yet, she tries to help them as much as she can. She tries to reason to herself that she has no moral obligation to do so, even more so given her own financial status. However, Lilian’s sensitivity makes her help the others.
‘The Guilt’ is a tale that does hint at what the way forward could be if the tensions between the whites and the blacks are to be resolved: the way to solve this might be empathy and trust. The other way out would be a kind of introspection that sees one revising one’s prejudices against the other community. Lilian tries to use both these ways:
The telephone rang and Lilian excused herself. The dogs followed her into the house. She wouldn’t lock the door behind her, she told herself. She trusted him. She would show him that she did. She wouldn’t make him feel like a criminal. Black people knew that white people were afraid of them. She would show by her actions that she wasn’t one of them.
Lilian here tries to make amends, as it were, for the historic prejudices that have existed between the blacks and the whites. And this is not the sole instant when she is found contemplating the deeper significance of her decisions before taking them. For instance, she could easily shoot William if she chose to. But as always, she thinks calmly and rationally and refrains from doing that.
Rationality and calmness, coupled with self-analysis, are powerful weapons in the face of danger. Lilian conducts herself with a calm head even when she is visibly shaken and nervous. And very often in the story, she is found pondering over questions pertaining to the larger race-situation:
She was suddenly angry. Angry that she should be standing there examining her conscience, That she should feel guilt for his circumstances, and shame for the forged letter in his hand, for having to beg, for raising these emotions in her. She was a pensioner. What money did she have? If her husband had been alive, he would’ve ordered the man off the grounds.
This passage shows how Lilian is not indifferent to the hardships of the black community; she approaches the race situation with ample empathy and reason. She is a thinking individual who is ready to help if she can. In other words, she is the kind of white person who could help make the relationship between the two better.
However, the story does not end on that hopeful note. William indeed tries to take advantage of the seemingly helpless Lilian. The trust Lilian sought to establish between her and William does not achieve fruition, and this only goes on to show how deep the wounds inflicted by racism run: trust and sensitivity are not always enough to bridge the gap that has been created.
The character of Lilian is an effective caution against generalizations of any kind. She is white and privileged, yes, but she knows this herself and tries to use her privileges in whatever way she can to help others. She does not fit the description of the average white person, and she is not meant to do that either. Human beings come with different temperaments and beliefs and it is important to not generalize them into convenient categories for the sake of easy but narrow discourses.
All said, the tale is not really a pessimistic tale. The narrator suggests that the fight to solve the problem of racism and racial tension between people cannot be given up even if there are setbacks like the one seen in this story. The children laughing and playing, signifying that there is ‘life outside the ten-foot walls’, stand for hope for a better future.
CHARACTERS IN THE STORY
Lilian Thurgood: elderly white woman, widow, pensioner. She is essentially a kind, rational and calm person. Her guilty conscience makes her help the black people approaching her for help, often despite herself.
William Sidlayi: a black man with a forged letter. He approaches Lilian for donations at first and then tries to force some money out of her. He is attacked by Lilian’s dogs upon her command, and is forced to leave the house, returning the money he got from her initially.
The story is told by a third-person omniscient narrator. The narration often uses flashbacks. The pacing of the story merits special mention given how it reads almost like a thriller.