Characterisation of the girl

The most important characters in the short story “The Old Chief Mshlanga” by Doris Lessing are the young girl (the protagonist) and Chief Mshlanga. However, the girl’s parents and the other African natives are relevant to the social setting.

The girl is the protagonist of the short story and its narrator. Her outer characterisation includes only a few elements. We only know that she is of English origins but lives on a farm somewhere in Africa with her parents and that at the time of the main events she is fourteen years old.

Inner characterisation

The girl’s inner characterisation is that of a coming of age character. She develops as a result of the action and her traits as a child are presented in contrast with her traits as a teenager. This contrast is emphasised by the use of the third-person narrator at the beginning of the story versus the use of the first-person narrator afterwards. As a child, the girl’s traits are conveyed in the third-person, to convey the idea that the teenage protagonist views things differently from her younger self.

In her childhood, the girl felt more connected to England and could not relate to the African landscape she was living in: “...she knew the shape of the leaves of an ash or an oak, the names of the little creatures that lived in English streams, when the words 'the veld' meant strangeness, though she could remember nothing else.”

In those times, the girl felt a stranger not only with regards to the landscape and climate but also to the people of Africa who were “as remote as the trees and the rocks”. She never individualised them, but judged them altogether in a stereotypical way: “They were an amorphous black mass, mingling and thinning and massing like tadpoles, faceless, who existed merely to serve, to say 'Yes, Baas,' take their money and go.”

Furthermore, the girl considered the black people as inferior because she unthinkingly shared her parents’ racist beliefs about the natives: “The child was taught to take them for granted: the servants in the house would come running a hundred yards to pick up a book if she dropped it.”

The girl also does not know fear because as she grows older, she always walks her property with a gun and two dogs who “were an armour against fear”. But she also used the dogs and the gun to mistreat the natives she came across “without a sense of guilt”: “If a native came into sight along the kaffir paths half a mile away, the dogs would flush him up a tree as if he were a bird.”

On the rare occasions when white children met together they could amuse themselves by hailing a passing native in order to make a buffoon of him; they could set the dogs on him and watch him run; they could tease a small black child as if he were a puppy...

But, even during those times, the girl began to question her behaviour and attitude towards natives. Still, she preferred to ignore these difficult thoughts which “were silenced by an even greater arrogance of manner”. The girl’s arrogant and superior attitude was endorsed by her parents. As a result, she could not think of natives as equals or friends: “It was even impossible to think of the black people who worked about the house as friends, for if she talked to one of them, her mother would come running anxiously: 'Come away; you mustn't talk to natives.'”

But all her opinions and prejudices about the natives change when the girl becomes a teenager and comes across a local native chieftain who contradicts her expectations. Unlike the other nativ...

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