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The Diamond Mine
The theme of coming of age is often apparent in creative outlets, whether it’s literature, movies, music or the art of painting. All throughout history this transition has been associated with great importance seeing that this is the final step into adulthood. In many civilizations and cultures this rite of passage has been marked with some sort of joyous party or ceremony. These traditions exist even today but hold little to no actual value to the transition itself. It is merely a formal event that has left an imprint of sentimental importance on modern Western cultures – this even includes, but is not limited to, some religious rituals such as the Bat Mitzvah in Judaism or more significantly the confirmation in Catholicism and mainline Protestantism, which many Danish teenagers go along with simply because it is what has always been done. No questions asked. However, the actual rite of passage is to be found elsewhere. It is found with its lips pressed tenderly up against another’s, embracing in what will forever be remembered as the first kiss. It can be found within the expeditious heartbeats of the young lovers and especially alongside their first sexual experience. In modern societies the coming of age theme is evidently associated with the first love and as an extent of that, the first sexual act.
This theme is what drives the short story The Diamond Mine forward. Written by the South African Nadine Gordiner in 1999, the short story takes place in her country of birth in an unnamed provincial town. The subjects of the story are the 16-year-old Tilla and the 8 year older soldier who falls helplessly in love when he is stationed in a military training camp near the town in which the young girl and her parents live. However, the narrator establishes at the very beginning that this is not simply a story of Tilla and her love interest. It can be applied to any first love that helped the participants grow into adulthood: “I’ll call her Tilla, you may call her by another name.”. The narrator keeps this obvious appearance throughout the story, especially when setting the scene for the story, the scene being the Second World War: “It was during the war, your war, the Forties, […]”. Including the reader indicates that the narrator does not identify her/himself with the Western world, which implies that it might actually be Nadine Gordiner telling this story. The narrator does not take part in the story’s actions but he/she explains how Tilla grows up by falling in love with the unnamed soldier. He stays at their house during the weekends and he starts taking Tilla out on “dates” to the cinema. The reason “dates” is in inverted commas is because it does not seem like the parents would classify this activity as a date: “The parents are reluctant cinema-goers, so it is thoughtful of this visiting friend of the family that he invites the daughter of the house to choose a film she’d to see on a Saturday night.”. Either they are oblivious to the fact that the soldier and their Tilla are clearly developing feelings for each other, or perhaps they simply do not care seeing that a soldier usually is a respected and even heroic figure especially during a time like this. Under normal circumstances the parents would most likely have been more reluctant about letting their young daughter go out with an older gentleman but as the story progresses it becomes clear that they actually care about the soldier as well because they spend their coupons on a meal in a restaurant for all of them.
The dates to the cinema get increasingly more sexual and slowly lead Tilla closer to womanhood. The first date ends with Tilla offering the soldier cocoa, which is described as a “schoolgirlish” action, but as a contrast to this she also has a sexual awakening when she realizes the very essence of the man sitting in front of her: “[…] it is amazing how strong that presence of a man can be, that stiff-clean clothing warmed – not a scent, not a breath, but […] coming that centre of being […]”. It is now clear that Tilla is in love with the soldier, and therefore she is particularly aware of how much she has already changed on their next date, when it is described how she “[…] used to race her bicycle up and down under the same trees […]”. This short flashback makes Tilla understand that she is no longer that same girl on the bicycle. Instead of holding onto the handlebars she is now holding hands with a young, beautiful man who is taking care of her. Each weekend the couple takes it a little further but never anything sexual. Yet. This does not happen before the weekend when the family receives the fateful phone call informing them that the beloved soldier will be sent to war in North Africa. This is when the parents decide to invite him to the previously mentioned restaurant lunch as a thoughtful gesture to say goodbye.
At this dinner the soldier cannot take his eye of Tilla and they almost seem to drown in their young love but there is an elephant in the room: This will most likely be the last time they see each other and they all know it. The narrator describes this as the summer drawing to its close, and seeing that their love affair has taken place during this season, it must also reach its end: “This weekend which ends weekends seems also to be the first of winter […]”.
Their relationship is consummated on the car ride home from the restaurant. Tilla and the soldier are sitting in the backseat with a rug over their knees so as not to get cold. This rug becomes important because it allows the two to indulge in sexual inclinations without the parents knowing about it. As the father passionately tells the story of a diamond mind, it becomes clear that this is a parallel to what is going on with the two lovers on the backseat. The soldier slowly puts his hand on Tilla’s thigh and under her skirt until it reaches her most sacred parts – the diamond mine. The description of his finger entering Tilla is that of an explorer on an adventure in undiscovered territory: “His finger explores deep down in the dark, the hidden entrance to some sort of cave with its slippery walls and smooth stalagmite; she’s found, he’s found her.”. The title of the story and the father’s long monologue about the diamond mine becomes a symbol for the final step into adulthood for Tilla. Her cave has been discovered, and she is now a sexually active woman. There is still an acknowledgeable difference in experience between the two lovers because she is unable to say anything during the sexual act whereas the soldier is answering the mother’s questions and pretending like nothing is happening: “[…] he is eight years older, able to speak: Just listening.”. This does not change the fact that the young girl now is free. She has finally cut the umbilical cord completely by letting a man into her very own diamond mine. The fact that she is now a woman is more evident than ever when they are saying goodbye to the soldier and the father states that “she’s not a child, good heavens, a mother shouldn’t have to remind of manners.”.
However, love stories seldom have a happy ending and, as expected, this parting is the last time they see or hear from the soldier. Neither Tilla nor her parents know whether or not the soldier survived the war, although they hope that if he had been killed they would have heard.
It is not just Tilla who is left behind with a broken heart in a newly born woman’s body. This story can be applied to any young person who has ever experienced this rite of passage. The soldier in this short story is described very vaguely and remains nameless throughout which means that the actual person does not matter. This is not simply Tilla’s story of how she met the first love of her life. It is everybody’s story. Everybody has gone through a similar transition and felt the same feelings that Tilla did when she embraced her new grown-up self. This is what literature and other art forms can do. A universal theme such as coming-of-age can be researched and analyzed by science that typically would look at certain hormones that trigger puberty and teenage emotions, but only through a story like The Diamond Mine is it possible to identify, comprehend and learn from others and ourselves.
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