Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The novel’s descriptions of the beauty of Natal highlight the contrast between the various ways of life in South Africa. The hills and rivers of white farmland are always depicted as being fruitful and lovely, but the land of the black farmers is always shown as barren, dry, and hostile. This contrast between the natural beauty of South Africa and the ugliness brought on by its politics shows the necessity of change. It also, however, offers some hope. The land may be ravaged, but it is clearly not naturally infertile. With the right nurturing and protection, the potential for real beauty seems endless.
Throughout the novel, a number of characters lash out in anger. Msimangu speaks harshly when he learns that Absalom has abandoned his girlfriend, the young man from the reformatory speaks harshly when he is disappointed in Absalom, and Kumalo gets upset, at various times, with his wife, his son’s girlfriend, and his brother. Often, these episodes are truly ugly. When the young man whirls on Kumalo, for example, his anger is made even uglier by Kumalo’s fragile helplessness. Similarly, when Kumalo cruelly asks Absalom’s girlfriend if she will be his lover, the combination of lechery and bullying is unappealing.
Even acts as vile as these, however, can be atoned for by sincere repentance. Although the characters lash out in anger, their repentance is always met with forgiveness, and even the gravest insults are excused. This pattern demonstrates the power of caring to overcome bitterness. Social relationships are torn by anger, but they can be mended with kindness.
A number of phrases are repeated throughout the novel, and they show subtle changes in meaning every time they appear. One such phrase is “as was the custom” or “it was not the custom.” Kumalo expects to be treated as an inferior by white people in small, customary ways. When these customs are violated, the concessions seem to be minor, but the repetition of the phrase alerts us as to how often these small acts of defiance occur. The seriousness of these actions is summed up in the phrase “not a thing to be done lightly,” which also appears with some frequency. Instances of reconciliation are often so nuanced in the novel that we can easily miss their significance and think that Kumalo’s and Jarvis’s efforts have all been for nothing. With the recurrence of the phrase “not a thing to be done lightly,” however, it becomes clearer that taboos are being broken more and more and that blacks and whites are inching closer to change.