The language of “The Old Chief Mshlanga” by Doris Lessing is rather complex as the author uses a lot of elaborate descriptions and figures of speech, particularly in relation to the semantic field of nature. The choice of words is highly connected to nature, a motif which the author uses to portray the changes in the main character. Additionally, there are some words which are in African dialect— “kraal”, “mealie”, “msasa”, “Nkosikaas”—which give the setting local colour and the characters authenticity.
The author combines third-person narration with first-person narration in descriptive and dialogue passages which make the story more dynamic and interesting to follow.
Another language feature is the use of free indirect speech, noticeable in rhetorical questions the narrator poses for herself which are not marked by inverted commas: “What had I expected? I could not join them socially: the thing was unheard of.”
Imagery also plays an important role in the short story, as the author craftily uses descriptive passages to convey mental images related to setting and characters. For instance, the author uses extensive imagery in the opening paragraphs which convey overlapping images of the African landscape and the English one. Here is a short fragment from the beginning:
In between, nothing but trees, the long sparse grass, thorn and cactus and gully, grass and outcrop and thorn. And a jutting piece of rock which had been thrust up from the warm soil of Africa unimaginable eras of time ago, washed into hollows and whorls by sun and wind...
Several language devices and figures of speech are also employed by Doris Lessing and help make the story more compelling. The most relevant ones are similes, metaphors, repetition, and symbols.
A few elements used in the story have symbolical meanings, which are worth paying attention to.
The gun and the dogs are elements which generally symbolise protection, but at the beginning of the story, they are used by the girl as symbols of superiority, using them to scare off natives who just happen to pass by. As the girl changes, so does the purpose of the dogs and the gun, which become a means of getting food.
The overlapping natural landscapes (from England and Africa) are symbolical of the girl’s identity conflict.