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“The Suit” by Can Themba

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Philemon is dominated by a need to be in direct command of his own environment; in popular terms, he is a “control freak”. He is unable to cope with any threat to his version of “the goodness of life.” Tilly’s affair occurs outside Philemon’s self-imposed boundaries and he is not equipped to react to the crisis.

Philemon removes chance from even the most commonplace activities. His shoes and socks are at hand to be picked up as he sneaks out of the bedroom in the early morning. That “he did not like to wake his wife lying by his side” could indicate consideration, but the addition of “- just yet -” to the sentence reveals that he wants time to organise himself to a state where he is most comfortable. A “serene” wife of “pure beauty” is a requirement for his ideal world. It is unclear whether Tilly is aware of these expectations, but it becomes apparent that she is either unwilling or unable to meet them. This inconsistency ultimately destroys Philemon.

Philemon appears genuinely happy within his idea of heaven as an “even, unperturbed … passage through days and months and years.” While his pursuit of consistency leaves little space for exception, it results in a state of contentment. He hums a tune while he makes the fire and checks his list of things he needs for the day. Philemon’s joy in appearing with the breakfast in his “supremest immaculacy” emphasises the stage-management of his existence. This desire for order is carried over to the bus-stop where Philemon is “sorry to see that jovial old Maphikela was in a queue for a bus ahead of him. The use of “daily bulletin” underlines the idea that routine is important.

Although Philemon appears content, his immediate acceptance of Maphikela’s piece of gossip reveals an underlying insecurity. Philemon’s priority is not an angry confrontation with his wife or her lover, but a swift return to his artificial status quo. The crisis of confidence that Philemon is experiencing is underlined by his first visit to the beerhall and not saying grace at the dinner table. His routine has been fractured, albeit momentarily.

It is important to note that there is no suggestion of Tilly being thrown out; she is an integral part of Philemon’s routine. Philemon needs to retain complete control of the situation and so cannot tell anyone in Sophiatown what has happened. He sees the suit as the lever he needs. A situation develops where Philemon is quite reasonable provided that his rebuilt schedule is observed. Tilly is permitted to attend the Cultural Club and Philemon even gives her extra money to organise a party. If threatened however, he reacts viciously. He forces Tilly to take the suit for a walk and to serve it a meal in front of her friends at the party. He continues to use the suit to secretly punish Tilly, while maintaining outward normality. His actions are more to reinforce Philemon’s “heaven” that a punishment for adultery.

Philemon’s cry on discovering Tilly’s body is not that of a man who has lost his wife, but that of a man who realises that his control has been taken away. In a very real sense, Philemon’s world has collapsed.

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