The Toilet by Gcina Mhlophe
In The Toilet by Gcina Mhlophe we have the theme of identity, conflict, freedom, escape, change and independence. Narrated in the first person by a young girl called Mholo the reader realises after reading the story that Mhlophe may be exploring the theme of identity. The narrator is at a crossroad in her life and really doesn’t know how she should progress. Though her mother thinks that perhaps the narrator could become a teacher or nurse the narrator herself has other aspirations. She thinks that perhaps she might become an actress however she does a have a love for writing. Something which helps to not only give the narrator pleasure but also a sense of identity. It is while writing in the toilet that the narrator feels free. No longer is she restrained by the obstacles around her. She does not have to think about her living arrangements with her sister nor does she have to worry about her temporary job. The narrator’s living arrangements might be important as they are the driving factor behind the narrator’s desire to escape into writing. She is literally silenced while she is living with her sister due to her sister’s fear that the house owner will discover that the narrator is living there.
It is also possible that Mhlophe is using the silence that the narrator lives under to symbolically highlight the conditions of the time (apartheid). With black South Africans not being allowed to have their own voice. In reality there was no equality at the time. It is also possible that Mhlophe is suggesting that the narrator’s sister’s room could symbolise South Africa as a whole. It is after all controlled by the white house owner who does not afford the narrator the opportunity to wait for her sister when she is confronted by the dogs. It is as though the narrator is an unwelcome guest and as such she is not allowed to wait for her sister. What is also interesting about the story is the lack of support that the narrator receives from her sister. If anything the narrator’s sister is a realist and considers the narrator’s activities to be a waste of time. The narrator has been educated. Yet she does not know what she wants to do with her life. Which is understandable for someone as young as the narrator. She is also in a city in whereby she knows very few people and as such has very few opportunities.
In many ways there is a conflict between the narrator and her sister. Though the narrator’s sister may be considered to be doing her best for the narrator. By providing the narrator with lodgings and reading material. She still nonetheless is critical of the narrator. Which some critics might find acceptable considering that the narrator’s sister could lose her accommodation due to her actions. However the narrator appears to be sensitive to her sister’s remarks and criticisms. Which may be one of the reasons why the narrator decides to write. Rather than internalise how she is feeling the narrator is writing and expressing herself through her writing. It may also be a case that the narrator is independent of others. Perhaps not her sister who she is reliant on but her co-worker in the factory who suggests she get one of the boys who work in the factory to buy her lunch. Rather than do this the narrator prefers to keep to herself and continues with her routine of dining alone. If anything the narrator is showing her ability to think for herself. To not be dependent on other people. Though again the case is very much different when it comes to the narrator’s sister criticizing her.
The end of the story is also interesting as there is a sense that the narrator is finally free. Something that is noticeable by the fact that the narrator is forced to write in public when she discovers that the toilet is occupied. It is as though the narrator’s identity has been settled and she is not concerned about others seeing her writing. For the narrator the most important thing to do is to write. The location where she writes is no longer important to the narrator. Where once she craved the privacy of the toilet. This is no longer the case. If anything Mhlophe might be suggesting that the narrator has not only found her identity but she has also matured as a person. However it is noticeable that the narrator’s living arrangements with her sister remain the same. That there has been no change there. Which may leave some readers to suggest that Mhlophe is highlighting the continuance of of the status quo politically. However on a personal level everything has changed for the narrator. She may live under a regime that is unfair but she still nonetheless has the abilities to escape from her environment through her writing.