Subject Material

No Witchcraft for Sale by Doris Lessing

Published: 21.05.2014, Updated: 05.03.2017
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Doris Lessing

"No Witchcraft for Sale" is a short story by Doris Lessing. It was first published in 1951 in a collection of stories, This Was the Old Chief's Country. Lessing lived in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) from 1925, when she was six years old, until 1949. 

South African LandscapeSouth African LandscapeWomen hoeing a field of maize in S. AfricaWomen hoeing a field of maize, South Africa, c1923.Tree SnakeTree SnakeMedicinal plantsHarvesting medicinal plant leaves  

Doris Lessing grew up on a farm in an isolated area where her father tried growing maize. She draws on her experiences from her own life in Africa in this story. It deals with racial differences, pride and traditions.

The Farquar family are farmers and have only one child, Teddy. Teddy and the family's native cook, Gideon, are good friends from the time Teddy is a baby. Gideon is also highly valued by Teddy's parents. As Teddy grows older, he learns to look down on the Africans, but still loves Gideon. However, Gideon accepts that the close relationship between an African servant and a white child will change and begins to treat Teddy more formally.

Then one day when a snake spits in Teddy's eyes, Gideon uses his knowledge of native healing to treat him and save his eyesight. This eventually leads to a conflict between Gideon and African traditions and the white people's desire to exploit Gideon's knowledge.

Read the story. No Witchcraft for Sale 

Vocabulary and tasks are listed below. 

Vocabulary

Words and expressions from the text.

kraal = an enclosure for cattle within an African settlement, often used to refer to the whole settlement (from Afrikaans)

piccanin = short for piccaninny - a black child - often used in a negative sense (from Afrikaans)

permanganate = a solution of potassium permanganate in water used as a disinfectant or on skin conditions like eczema (violet colour)

veld = wide open flat area covered in grass or low scrub.

sundowner party = social event around 5-8pm (sundown) where friends get together for cocktails

salting the tail = supposedly if one put salt on a bird's tail it was easy to catch it. Here the scientist is hoping to "catch" the secret of the native healing plant.

baas = master (from Afrikaans)

mealie field = a field of maize

kaffir = black person - now used offensively

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Tasks

Make a Summary of the Story

 

Setting

Where and approximately when is the story set, do you think? What do you learn about the area from the story?

Climax

Is there a climax in the story?

Characters, Cultural and Social Differences

  1. How are the cultural and social differences illustrated at the beginning of the story? Find examples.
  2. Who is the protagonist in the story?
  3. What similarities are there between the Farquars and Gideon?
  4. Describe the relationship between:
    • Teddy and Gideon
    • Mrs Farquar and Gideon
      In what way does this change throughout the story? Quote examples from the text.
  5. What is the scientist's attitude to:
    • the Farquars
    • Gideon
  6. How does Gideon react to the Farquars' and the scientist's questions about the healing plant? How does this compare with his usual behaviour? How many adjectives can you find in the story which are used to describe his reaction? Make a list.
  7. How do the Farquars react to his behaviour?

Discuss

  • There are several places in the story where Gideon sadly refers to Teddy growing up. What is Gideon thinking of here?
  • Why do you think Gideon refuses to reveal how he saved Teddy's eyes?
  • Why did he walk the Farquars and the scientist around for such a long time?
  • Could this story have taken place today? Why/why not? What differences would there be?

Find Out

  1. The author Doris Lessing lived in Africa for many years. Find out why she spent so many years on this continent and the social conditions at that time. Why do you think she kept writing about Africa?
  2. In the introduction we read about the Farquars:
    "The Farquar family are farmers and have only one child, Teddy. Teddy and the family's native cook, Gideon, are good friends from the time Teddy is a baby. Gideon is also highly valued by Teddy's parents. As Teddy grows older, he learns to look down on the Africans, but still loves Gideon."
    Relate Teddy's attitudes to the Africans to the Doll Test carried out by Kenneth Clark and his wife, Doll Test. From where does Teddy learn to look down on the Africans?

Writing

While Gideon was leading the Farquars and the scientist around, no one spoke very much except to ask if it was much further to walk. Write a short text using a stream of consciousness technique based on the thoughts of one of the following:

  • Gideon
  • Mrs Farquar
  • the scientist