Unformed Agency and Narrative Resistance in J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians


  • Mike Lehman Emory University


postcolonial studies, agency and resistance, empire, psychoanalysis, J.M. Coetzee


This essay draws on theories of the unconscious and trauma to examine the representation of the barbarian girl in J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. While scholars have claimed that the Magistrate as the narrator of the novel deploys a form of resistance to the Empire in his narrative production and interpretative method, I offer that the barbarian girl creates models of resistance in which she becomes the producer of meaning. In my reading of the novel, I foreground the ways in which the barbarian girl escapes and eludes the Magistrate’s attempt to foreclose her narrative within the history of the Empire. In doing so, the text presents the future life of the barbarian girl as the basis for an emergent, ethical future, a temporal disruption of Empire in which her own narrative creates the conditions for an unformed agency of social change.

Author Biography

Mike Lehman, Emory University

Mike Lehman is a PhD Candidate at Emory University. His research explores alternative conceptions of citizenship and human rights by exploring literature that focuses on the border. He argues that reading the border involves not only the thematics but also the formal and aesthetic troping of movement as integral to an implicit argument about rendering an imagining of the border as generative and creative.