Reflections in a Cell by Mafika Gwala
In Reflections in a Cell by Mafika Gwala we have the theme of frustration, brutality, honesty, trust, delinquency and independence. Narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises from the beginning of the story that Gwala may be exploring the theme of frustration. There is a sense that the narrator feels frustrated with both life outside of prison and his time in prison. His efforts or time is spent in reality doing very little but engaging with other criminals. Some of who he respects and some he stays away from because he does not trust them nor like them. It doesn’t help that the narrator comes from a broken family and that there is very little stability in his life. From a young age he has been left to his own devices and on occasions he has ended up in a reformatory school or prison. For many critics this may be proof that the narrator will only continue to end up in prison should he continue to take the path he takes? The narrator does after all have no other interests outside of having a good time and profiting from crime.
There is also a sense that youth is wasted in prison. That like the narrator the other men or boys that the narrator meets are to continue with a life of crime. Which may highlight how dysfunctional society was at the time. No provisions are made for the young people (except for Mr Shezi). Also with living a life of crime the narrator is open to being beaten up or tortured by the police and prison guards. In reality the narrator is going around in one endless circle that is non-productive. Though productive to the narrator is having some money (very little) in his pocket and a girl on his arm. He appears to show no interest in improving his life. However it is also possible that he has no chance of improving his life due to his skin colour and background. He is treated as a second class citizen before he can venture out and try to succeed in life. If anything the narrator is a beaten man who believes in loyalty to his fellow criminals but the reader is left unsure as to whether his fellow criminals believe in the same type of loyalty. The narrator lives in a world in whereby his trust may be displaced.
There may be some symbolism in the story which might be important. The setting (a prison cell) is a space for confinement yet the narrator does not feel confined. He is able to tell his story to another unnamed prisoner which in many ways alleviates how the narrator may be feeling. The role of women is also interesting as they are treated as no more than objects by the narrator and his friends. They are there to serve one purpose. To have sex with the narrator. There is no sense of equality between the sexes with both genders having an accepted role to play. Mr Shezi’s character also appears to be one that is spiritual in nature. It might not be much to some prisoners like the narrator but it may help others to live their life on the straight and a narrow. The narrator’s grandmother and father are also significant characters as neither seems to be able to control the narrator. The father shows a lack of interest while the grandmother may be too old to be able to help. Though she does try.
The end of the story is also interesting as the reader realises that the narrator has very few options open to him. He is sure to be found guilty of having possession of the guns. Yet he may never know who told the police about the guns. That is the risk that all criminals take when they commit crime with another person. Some people simply can’t be trusted or may be easily bribed. If anything the future looks bleak for the narrator and he will continue the cycle of going in and out of prison. Which may leave some readers to suggest that the narrator is wasting his life. He sees no other alternatives than to spend his life in prison. Something which is surprising considering that the narrator must eventually become aware of the fact that he is wasting his life. The problem for the moment is that the narrator is still young. He likes the excitement that comes with crime. He likes to live his life independently of others. Even if that means he must live his life as a criminal. For now the narrator is content but in time he may very well change his outlook on life.