Pieter van Vlaanderen is handsome and admired for his leadership qualities as well as his rugby abilities; he epitomizes in every outward appearance the cultural ideals of his community. Alan Paton uses Pieter’s downfall and personal tragedy to show a larger cultural tragedy that eventually encompasses South Africa. Pieter’s aunt Sophie as narrator provides a retrospective account of these events. Drawing on Pieter’s secret journals, to which she gains access after his disgrace is made public, Tante Sophie sets out to piece together the story of her nephew’s self-destructive behavior. She is motivated both by her guilt for failing to prevent Pieter’s tragedy and by the wish to show mercy, in contrast to the racially divisive laws that separate Pieter and the country.
The novel is set in the time following World War II, and Pieter and the other South African soldiers who volunteered to go abroad and fight with the British have returned home and resumed their lives. Pieter’s father is chairman of the local National Party and reportedly wields considerable influence in the Parliament at Cape Town. An outspoken enemy of Smuts and all things English, he stands like a chained lion” when God Save the King is played in the cinema (101). Pieter’s decision to take the red oath” and fight with the British is a source of conflict between Pieter and his father. It also shows Pieter’s desire to break with his fathers accepted beliefs and power.