Novels are read mainly for two reasons: either for hedonistic and/or didactic purposes, where hedonistic refers to reading literature for pleasure or entertainment and didactic refers to reading literature for learning purposes.
This commentary will discuss the didactic purpose, that is, the teaching that is embedded within the roles that literature plays in shaping and moulding the society, focusing on masculinity.
To begin with, masculinity simply refers to manliness, maleness or rather attributes associated with the male human species. However there are female humans endowed with masculine qualities. Thus, the idea of masculinity may be pointed to as being socially constructed, and with that, varies from one society to the other.
What may be considered as male ‘duties’, such as milking cows in another society may not be the same in, for instance, traditional Herero society. It is the duty of literature to expose and teach society that issues, such as masculinity, do not embrace a uniform definition.
Therefore, the novelists, the writers and their literature play a crucial role in shaping societal perspectives.
Today, Namibia is faced with a number of challenges and amongst the top list is that of domestic violence. Nearly on a weekly basis, the newspapers carry stories on domestic violence in all forms and shapes.
And in most cases, the males are reported to be responsible, or are said to be the perpetrators. What then can we say about our Namibian men when it comes to issue of violence? Are we saying Namibian men are as violent as they are presented in the newspapers? The answers to these questions rest in the qualified power of literature.
Literature mirrors society and a literary text, like Andreas’s ‘The Purple Violet of Oshaantu’ may be considered as a text of its kind that represents domestic violence from a literary perspective. The character, Tate Shange, represents all the violent men in our everyday life and is responsible for all the suffering that Kauna and the children endure.
Andreas’ takes a balanced approach in presenting masculinity. As a novelist and teacher, he dutifully informs society that men are different and should not be painted with one brush. The character, Michael, is a typical example of an ‘ideal’ man in society, one who is not violent, not selfish, neither abusive, but the kind and loving, caring and responsible.
Mike plays the role of countering Tate Shange, thus bringing a balanced representation of masculinity as it appears in real life situations.
From the example extracted from ‘The Purple Violet of Oshaantu’, the role of literature becomes significant. The reader gets the opportunity to compare and contrast the two magnified opposing masculinities at the same time. It shows that not all men are as violent as Tate Shange and that society also has a segment of the population comprising men like Michael. Thus, the balanced representation of masculinity in literary texts contributes in refocusing society’s views on domestic violence and the understanding of not lumping and giving all men a generic name.
The way masculinity is represented in ‘The Purple Violet of Oshaantu’ teaches the nation that our society is not just made up of violent, cruel and tyrannnical men, but within its imperfections are men of sober habits, like the character Michael.
Again the juxtaposition of two extremely detached entities, that is, the good versus the bad, Michael versus Shange, gives the reader an opportunity to appreciate, to denounce, to deplore, to approve, or whatever they may think when comparing the two.
From a didactic perspective, literature helps the reader to think beyond the text itself, therefore transforming the way society may perceive, in this case, masculinity. Literature gives society an opportunity to choose what kind of men may be deemed ‘ideal’, by comparing the two examples of masculine characters provided in ‘The Purple Violet of Oshaantu’.
To conclude, literature plays a crucial role in shaping and moulding societies. It highlights both the nasty and the pleasant stirring within society.
In ‘The Purple Violet of Oshaantu’, masculinity is given a binary definition and it rests in the society to select which definition of masculinity to identify with, given the contrasting roles of of Shange and Michael.
By giving readers the choice of who to empathise with, in a way literature does impact on people’s mindset. Thus, if the broader society sees Michael as an ‘ideal’ type of man, given what he represents, it might well lead to a reduction in cases of domestic violence.
* Coletta Kandemiri is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in English Studies in the Department of Languages and Literature Studies at the University of Namibia.