"The Old Chief Mshlanga" (Doris Lessing)

 
 
 
 
Life is a mysterious journey -- it is a constant movement, or series of displacements from safety and comfort to that which is new and sometimes painful. Doris Lessing's 1951 story "The Old Chief Mshlanga" is an account of the experience that causes a young English girl living in South Africa to feel for the first time that she was out of place in a land she had always been taught to assume belonged to her and to the other English people who ruled over it. The story is a form of coming-of-age fiction in which Lessing represents a crossing over from what is known to what is unknown. As the girl in the story crosses the boundary between the two she is changed and what seemed familiar to her is now so strongly and permanently modified that her younger self no longer seems a part of her. She has a new historical view of her people and of the Africans who lived there long before the English came. But she also has a more fundamental view of herself. At the age of fourteen she has moved beyond the security of her childhood and stepped, literally and symbolically, into an unknown world.

The great change in the story is indicated by the change in the speaker's position. At first, as she describes her younger childhood the speaker only describes the girl as "she". It is not until the moment the speaker begins recounting the all-important first meeting with Chief Mshlanga that she suddenly switches from a third- to a first-person narrative voice with the significant words, "

     
 
 
 
    

 

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