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Poverty as a catalyst for psychological disorder: A case study of J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K.

Poverty as a catalyst for psychological disorder A case study of J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K.
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This article examines the complementary relationship between poverty and human psychology using as template J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Life and Times of Michael K. It asserts that oppressive governance and societal hostility are harbingers of poverty, and poverty, in turn, causes/speeds up psychological disorder in the human being. Like clockwork, psychological disorder perpetuates the reign of oppressive governance as psychologically deranged people are “blind” and “deaf” and incapable of resisting oppression.<!–more–>

This was the situation of the black South Africans under the infamous Apartheid policy.

If this belief from heaven be sent,

If such be Nature as holy plan

Have I not reason to lament

What man has made of man?

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

British poet

Lyrical Ballad, “Lines Written in Early Spring”


Poverty is not a creation of nature, as most people have been made to believe, rather, it is a construction of some few people who take the advantage of their little edge to widen the economic and political gap between themselves and the less privileged majority. These privileged minority, through the machinery of government (which they dominate), obscure the reality by justifying the arbitrary principle that brings them into power thus making the ordinary people see them as their saviour (rather than seeing them as antagonists, which they actually are) and thereby ensuring their continuity in power.

Poverty, according to Encyclopedia Encarta Dictionary, is defined as “the state of being poor: the state of not having enough money to take care of basic needs such as food, clothing, and housing.” Thus, in the mind of an average man, the word “poverty” conjures the image of economic deprivation. However, in a deeper sense, poverty goes beyond this, it extends its mighty tentacle to political, legal and social sectors of the society—to mention but few. It is at this level of a deeper conception of poverty that Karl Marx opined that there can never be equality before the law when there is no economic equality. Our perception can thus be modified, particularly within the context of this discussion, that rather than poverty being economic deprivation alone, it also accommodates other sections of the society, the economic deprivation being the mother factor.

According to Eric Fromm (1900-1980), a German U.S. psychologist and philosopher in his book Man for Himself, “Man’s main task in life is to give birth to himself.” This statement, by immeasurable degree, is true. Nevertheless, one cannot also deny the fact that there is more to the making of a man than the man himself. The “self-birth” of a man, simply put, is also subject to some factors that are external to the man himself—for every man is mutually interdependent. Crucial among these (external) factors are society and government. When government becomes oppressive, and the society turns hostile, an average man (no matter his level of self-development) becomes a victim of poverty—in all conceivable forms. The combination of these two factors—oppressive government and societal hostility—breed poverty for it is in this condition that the less privileged are denied economic, political rights.

When all these denials (elements of poverty) are summed up in the life of a man, an average man becomes prone to all sorts of negative and undesirable mental/physical conditions. Sequentially, a psychologically imbalanced man is predisposed to all forms of antisocial acts.

Oscar Romero (1917-1980), quoted in Löwy (106) asserted that “Liberation will only arrive when the poor are the controllers of, and protagonists in, their own struggle.” Practically, the struggle (against poverty) begins at the level of the mind—the mind has to be aware of its true condition. Sadly, when the mind is distorted and ignorant, the struggle for liberation becomes a seemingly hopeless adventure. Life and Times of Michael K by J.M Coetzee is a literary recreation of this reality.

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Poverty as a catalyst for psychological disorder: A Review of Life and Times of Michael K.

Life and Times of Michael K is a 1983 South African novel by J.M Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (2003). Although being of South African origin, the novel can be seen as a literary reaction to the infamous policy of Apartheid (a system of racial segregation enforced through legislation between 1948 and 1994), its strength lies in its universal adaptability—it has relevance in any society witnessing oppressive governance and societal hostility.

The article, at this juncture, shall attempt to contextualize its assertions using major characters featured in the novel. First, Michael K, the protagonist, is the number one victim of government/society induced poverty in the novel. Poverty plays a key role in the development, or lack of development, of his life. Poverty at all levels shapes his physical development, emotional stance, and psychological perception of the world. The way he is treated at birth is a reflection of the hostile and oppressive nature of the society and the government respectively. Because of his ontological deformation which, according to the doctor, can be corrected (if not for his mother’s financial weakness and lack of free medical care on the part of the government), Michael K is rejected by almost everybody in the society. He is looked down upon because of the deformity of a hare lip which he bears by even his mother, the police and so on. They all treat him with respect of a lesser human. He is kept away from other children. With this, he does not have a normal childhood as his interaction with other children is made impossible. The effect of this is a feeling of social inferiority which affects his perception of the society and makes him develop and unreasonable fondness for solitude.

Still, on the pretext that he looks ugly and acts slow Michael K is denied the right to education. He lacks social connection and is consequently disconnected from the society he ought to be part of. As he grows old, he manages to make a living by working as a gardener. Sadly, his life becomes more complicated when his mother falls sick and he is faced with the responsibility of carrying her to Prince Albert, her hometown. He is denied the freedom of movement as he fails to get a travel permit. With his mother’s health declining, he builds a cart out of scrap and begins the journey on foot, putting his frail mother in the cart. After being turned back once at a checkpoint, he succeeds in getting out of town but his mother dies soon afterward.

Michael K, in this context, carries the burden of every poor man in the society of the novel—voiceless, hopeless, and helpless. The voice of the poor is not heard and their opinions, even in their own matters, do not count. Such is the case when Anna K’s body is burnt to ashes without consulting her poor son.

This state of abject poverty visibly tells on Michael K’s physical/psychological condition, for instance, his harelip would have been corrected through a surgical operation and also he wouldn’t have had the cause to travel by “cart”. Rather than getting out of these complications, K’s life becomes more unbearable after his mother’s death. His resolve to continue the journey to Prince Albert (despite his mother’s death on the way) turns out a big mistake. On his way, he is more than once drafted into forced labour and placed in camps that resemble concentration camps. Before long, he begins to suffer some kind of mental imbalance. He loses track of time and suffers feeding disorder as he doesn’t get to eat (good foods) at the right time. When he asks for food in the camp, he gets a cold response: “…this is a camp; you work for your food like everyone else in the camp”. One wonders how a person can work when he is locked.

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The peak of the tragedy for Michael K is that even the so-called “farm” where he was carrying his mother is no more livable. Though he manages to spend some times there, he is forced to leave when his freedom is encroached on by the arrival of Visagie’s grandson. In his wanderings, he is drafted into forced labour, working for a police captain’s brother-in-law without pay. Whenever Michael K and his forced labour colleagues break down, they are taken to a hospital that cannot boast of any other medicine than “Brandi and Aspirin”. Roberts, Michael K’s colleague, laments:

But do you think they do it because they love us? Not a hope. They prefer it that we live because we look terrible when we get sick and die…” (121)

All these horrible experiences—deformity, denial of the rights to education and free movement, the avoidable death of Anna K, the brutal treatment at the “concentration” camp, etc. adversely impact on the mental condition of Michael K. He becomes an abnormal person. Psychologically, K suffers from agoraphobia (abnormal fear of being helpless in an embarrassing or unescapable situation that is characterized especially by the avoidance of open or public places) and inferiority complex (an acute sense of personal inferiority often resulting either in timidity or through overcompensation in exaggerated aggressiveness). His agoraphobic tendencies can be traced to his life at Prince Albert where he begins to idolize solitude. There, he learns “to shun food and recoils back to his inner self”. He is overpowered by the life of slavery, forced labour, hunger, solitude, etc. All efforts by the doctor to turn him back to human prove abortive. While his later open sexual intercourse with a lady he meets at the later part of the novel indicates that his state of mental imbalance has crushed his sense of modesty, his returning to his mother’s apartment in Cape Town is symbolic of the hopelessness and helplessness of an average poor man in the society.

Moving on to Anna K (Michael K’s mother), right from her birth, Anna K does not meet the “merciful eyes” of her society. According to the narrator, Anna K has little education and is unfortunate to have a father who “was nit steady” and had “a problem with drinking.” As her little education could not earn her a good living, she resolves to be a domestic servant. She lives a life of fear: fear of losing her job, getting sick, or being put out on the street. She serves her boss with dignity.

She worked all her life long…she scrubbed other people’s floors, she cooked for them, she washed their dishes. She washed their dirty clothes. She scrubbed the bath after them. She went on her knees and cleaned the toilet. But when she was old and sick they forgot her”. (186)

She is treated not more than a mere animal. For instance, her room under the stairs of the Cote d’Azur had been intended for air conditioning equipment which had never been installed. There was no electric light or ventilation; the air was always musty. All these are indicative of the kind of life Anna lives. She was given a room out of no love but mainly to facilitate her service to them—nothing more than lubricating an engine. The moment she breaks down, her employer leaves her—just like an abandoned machine. Perhaps, it is this inhumane condition she is subjected to that informs the horrible formation of Michael K, her son. Even her eventual death is occasioned by the poor medical care provided by the government.

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Another relevant character to discuss is Roberts whom Michael K meets in his wanderings. Roberts’ situation in the novel is equally pathetic. He loses his job and his personal freedom only to be thrown in Jakkalsdriff where he and others serve as cheap labour. He laments:

“I’ve got no work now, what can I afford? Anyway, we packed everything and left; and on the road, I’m not lying, on the road the police picked us up, he had phoned them, they picked us up and that same night we were in Jakkasldrif behind the wire. No fixed abode…” (109)

The question to ask is why pick up a man like a thing and throw him in a camp to be exploited in the name of creating employment?

Michael K, Anna K, Robert, and other characters in the novel are victims of poverty. Consequently, their mental well-being becomes endangered. The doctor particularly refers to Michael K thus:

….an unbearing, unborn creature. I cannot think of him as a man, though he is older than me by most reckonings. (135)

In fact, Michael K thinks of himself as a lower being or subhuman, he opines that were he to have children he would have been the worst father. He concludes:

How fortunate that I have no children….how fortunate that I have no desire to father. I would not know what to do with a child out here in the heart of the country, who would need milk and clothes and friends and schooling. I would be the worst of fathers… (143)


J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K exposes poverty as a catalyst for psychological disorder. For Michael K in particular, it is poverty (which is a product of poor/oppressive governance and societal hostility) that drives him to develop agoraphobia and inferiority complex.

Besides, the novel subtly charges the oppressed and attempts to cure the destroyed minds, to wake up and fight for change in their conditions. In one of the talks between Robert and Michael K, Robert charges Michael thus:

“You’re a baby…You’ve been asleep all your life. It’s time to wake up…” (121, emphasis mine)

Similarly, the doctor encourages Michael K to react:

Give yourself some substance, man, otherwise you are going to slide through life absolutely unnoticed. You will be a digit in the units column at the end of the war when they do the big subtraction sum to calculate the difference, nothing more….” (192)


Coetzee, J.M. Life and Times of Michael K. United Kingdom: Ravan Press, 1983

Fromm, Eric. Man for Himself: Man for Himself: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Ethics. United Kingdom: Routledge, 2003 New Ed.

Löwy, Michael. The war of gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America. United Kingdom: Verso, 1996

Marx, Karl. Capital. B. Fowkes and D. Fernbach. New York: Vintage, 1977-1981

“Poverty” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia, 2009

Wordsworth, William and Samuel T. Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads: With a Few Other Poems. , 1798

Nurudeen Lawal

Nurudeen Lawal

I work as a Content Editor with a leading publishing company in Nigeria, Literamed Publications Nigeria Limited.View Author posts

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