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Analysis of Terminal by Nadine Gordimer

Close up of IV drip in female hand

Close up of IV drip in female hand

The Promise

The short story Terminal by Nadine Gordimer is about a terminally ill woman and her loyal husband. The couple live together in a fairytale, believing that the woman will eventually recover from her illness. As the story progresses, the woman realizes that the hope of her health improving is unrealistic and, so, she decides to take her life.

One night while laying in bed, she asks her husband to make a promise to her. That he promises to help her out of her illness if the condition gets any worse. Her husband agrees and they carry a tacit covenant between them.

End of Life?

Later on, the woman’s husband compliments her after her visit to the hairdresser. The compliment causes the wife to feel a renewed sense of trust in her husband, and, as a result, she believes he will hold up on his promise.

That night while in her separate bedroom, she leaves a note for her husband stating, “Keep your promise. Don’t have me revived” (James and Merickel 542). She commits suicide by overdosing on her medication.

The woman thinks that death is just a deep sleep; however, when she awakes from sleep she finds her husband holding her hand as she lies on a hospital bed. The description of the woman lying in the hospital with her husband by her side paints the image of sadness, love, and betrayal.

The Husband's Betrayal

The story Terminal causes a reader to feel mixed emotions about the husband and wife. The terminally ill wife is revived but is unhappy that she is still alive and most likely feels betrayed by her husband.

The woman made her husband promise that he would not revive her; the promise was made on the foundation of their love for one another. However, from the husband’s point of view, losing his wife is something he could not think of and that is why he had her revived.

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His love for his wife is the same motive that caused him to want his wife to live just as the wife’s love and trust in her husband is the reason why she wanted to die. The two are torn between their opposing views but still remain together at the end of the story.

Hospital Room

Hospital Room

Sadness, Joy, and Love

Upon finishing Gordimer’s story, the reader’s first experience is one of sadness. The woman had no fear of death, but the man was afraid of losing his wife. The pact between the two of them was tacit; therefore, the husband wanted to please his wife but deep down he did not want to help her die.

This sense of sadness is easy to relate to from the emotions experienced by the woman and the man. The wife wanted to end her pain and suffering from her sickness. She expected to slip off into an eternal sleep only to realize that death had not fully taken hold of her.

When she woke up in the hospital, she was seized by an overwhelming sense of terror from awaking from her sleep. When the reader arrives at the last sentence of the Gordimer’s story, a new emotion is experienced.

A sense of joy and love for the husband that his wife is still with him. However, this sense of joy and love is short lived in that the reader begins to ponder the events of the story once more.

Ultimately a Broken Promise

When thinking over the wife’s words to her husband, the reader then realizes that the terminally ill woman has been betrayed by her husband. The man may be happy his wife is alive but the woman most certainly is not.

Now, this sense of betrayal begins to somewhat upset the reader and the once understanding and compassionate emotion expressed from the husband’s point of view is tarnished.

The story’s ending sentence “there was a hand in hers; his” (James and Merickel 542) takes on a new meaning. Thus, the mood of the story Terminal is one of compassion for the husband and heartbreak for the wife.


  • Reading Literature and Writing Argument by James and Merickel (3rd edition).

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