The Problem of Consent in Waiting For the Barbarians

As we started the new book, Waiting for the Barbarians, for Humanities Core, I was so relieved that we moved on from paintings and Rousseau to an easy read. The book started out fine, but it quickly got disturbing when the narrator took in a “barbarian” girl that was tortured. This barbarian girl is blind, she is only able to see out of her periphery vision, and since she is an outsider, she was reduced to begging on the streets. The narrator, feeling sorry for her and somewhat responsible for her torture, brings her into his home and cleans her up. He starts out with unwrapping the bandages around her feet. The Colonel broke both of her ankles, so she cannot walk right, and the magistrate starts washing her feet. Now, the washing of the feet is an obvious allusion to Christ, and to the reader, it makes the magistrate seem kind and compassionate. Then things start to get a little bit creepy, the magistrate washes her completely, I don’t know why, it is not like the barbarian girl cannot wash herself, but he does so anyway. Now even though this was creepy, and red flags were going off in my head, I thought well maybe he was still doing this out of kindness, maybe she was so exhausted that she couldn’t wash herself. I thought that this would only be a one time thing. But I was very wrong – the magistrate bathes her and rubs her every night! There is absolutely no indication at all that the girl wants this in any way! One of the many quotes that stand out to me is, “She lies naked, her oiled skin glowing a vegetal gold in the firelight. There are moments – I feel the onset of one now – when the desire I feel for her, usually so obscure, flickers into a shape I can recognize. My hand stirs, strokes her, fits itself to the contour of her breast,” the magistrate literally touches this poor woman every night, and since we experience the book through the narrator, we never hear her agree to be touched (40). Another thing that greatly bothers me about this quote is that the magistrate is so delusional, he obviously desires this woman, he wouldn’t touch her every night if he didn’t, but refuses to admit it to himself because she is a “barbarian” and to him barbarians are animals. He even compares her to an animal when he says, “I keep two wild animals in my rooms, a fox and a girl” (34).

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I think the reason why I dislike this book so far is because we see these events play out through the magistrates eyes, and his unwanted sexual behaviors toward this woman, make me feel extremely uncomfortable, especially since I am a woman myself. I think getting a chapter through the girl’s point of view and even Colonel Joll’s point of view would have elevated the novel. That way the reader could get all three perspectives, one through the capital’s eyes, one through the “barbarian’s” eyes, and one situated in the middle  (the magistrate).

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One thought on “The Problem of Consent in Waiting For the Barbarians

  1. I’m glad I read this post from you because I thought I was the only one uncomfortable with the events that were taking place in the novel. I took a liking to the book in the beginning but my mind was quickly changed with the arrival of the girl. We were placed in the mind of an older man who physically desired and made physical contact with someone younger than him. What appalled me the most is that we never hear what she has to say about him. She is barely given any dialogue and we are never told that she consents to his actions. This makes it seem that the actions he is doing were okay to those that do not understand the concept of consent. I highly agree that the novel should have her perspective included. Existing only in the magistrate’s head does not show us the complexity of the different types of people the novel addresses.

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