The Novels of Bessie Head: Patriarchy, Women and Struggle for Identity

Article Posted in: Research Articles


By – Rohini Jha, published in Vol.II, Issue.XXI, October 2016

Introduction to the Author:

Ms. Rohini Jha is a Research Scholar at V.K.S. University, Bihar, India. Qualified for K-SET, she has topped in PhD entrance test at V.K.S University, Bihar. Having been accepted and published paper in many national and international journal, she is a member of Association for English Studies of India, Centre for Race and Gender Studies, and Pierean Spring. Her current research interests include Race, Gender and Feminism and she is also interested in exploring Africa and its culture. Her PhD research is based on African Writer Bessie Head.

She has been to different parts of the world to present her papers, including Thailand, Nigeria, and others. Recently she is going to present her paper in IIT Patna, in Higher Education and Research Society, Pune and Linton University College, Malaysia.



From ages women’s places have been widely discussed by many but the outcome is never concrete. Reason may be that women’s space never existed in our history. It had existed only as accompanying subject to males and nothing more than that. My paper shall shed light on how the female writers became the mouthpiece of marginalized subject called females. The research methodology would be content analysis of selected texts of Bessie Head. Although feminist movements are of great support for women but still they are claiming for the differences. From very beginning Female writers had to struggle to raise their voices in male chauvinist society. My paper shall answer some questions related to feminism. How females writing have subverted males writing?  Is there any need to uplift females further?  Have they achieved their voice in the third world which was silenced long back? Where can one expect women’s writing can go in future and how they could claim for their space?  The answers are important for those who think that women need not claim for space and voice in post modernist era. In fact, the free post modernist era has guaranteed them everything. This topic is relevant as it would help find out how any female writer could bring a change in ordinary woman in any society by the dint of their writings.


Keywords:  Bessie Head, claiming space, gender chauvinism, postmodernism, identity.


I would open my paper with the definition of feminism and then move on to the birth of feminism and how women are refuting patriarchy and claiming for the difference through Bessie Head’s text and finally closing my paper with discussing the status of women in contemporary postcolonial period. The female, feminism and now the female phase all these are terms interrelated with each other. And to write about them seems to be like seven labours of Hercules because enough ink has been spilled in writing and discussing about these topics. This time when the glass-ceilings are breaking so very fast it would be really very hectic but interesting to know about women’s journey from the time they were captured in cages of patriarchy and now when they are totally independent, strong and above all an individual with their own identities.

In this post modern era research is still going on to find out the rigorous journey of feminism to female phase but the outcome is never clear and accurate. Sometimes it seems as if everything has been achieved by females of postmodern era, but in reality something may be troubling them in their goal. It has becomes a riddle to disclose the exact achievements and flaws of feminism in general and females in particular.


It is a thinkable topic for many why feminism originated and from where. The root cause for  its birth are so many but it would be wise to cover it under one umbrella term and that is Male Chauvinism and its dominating tendencies. In a very short and rough way I would say patriarchy had damaged the wings of females from ancient till modern time. And it is also true that postmodernism has brought a sea change in males’ attitude towards females. And consequently females are successfully regaining their lost jewel that is identity.  If feminism had not originated, the women of our society would not have been able to reach at such heights. From very beginning women had no say in any subject be it political, social or economical because males were there to handle it single handily. Frankly, women lived without voice and without involvement in any intellectual decisions. And when the matter of its place of origin is concerned there is no fixed place of its origin rather it was not a sudden outburst but a result of very gradual and continuous breakthrough from suppression and coercion. A saying ‘Excess of anything is bad’ is very correct and for the feminist this excess was to tolerate and survive in male dominated society. Literally, when the embryos of male dominated societies were full of suppressions and coercions of all types none can stop the birth of feminism and feminist movements. Although their birth takes place in different parts of the world and at different time but the sole purpose was all the same to procure the rights of females.

Feminism has its origin with many purposes. But most importantly, Feminism has its origin in the struggle for women’s right. Although there were many political agendas and forum for the females in almost many countries of the world but I will be looking from literary perspectives. And how the feminist writes were ably dealing with this issues in their writings. Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication for the rights of women’ (1792) should be given credit for conveying such a groundbreaking message for the upliftment of women who were kept on the lowest rung of the society.

And later British’s most bright and female gem writer of modern age Virginia Woolf came up with her master work ‘A room of one’s own’ in 1929.  Due to its content it immediately became classic read for feminist movements.  In Virginia Woolf’s work we can get the answer of some questions as to why it becomes very difficult for any woman to write something. According to Virginia Woolf a woman must break the rusty iron gate of womanhood and explore the world with a fresh and new vision. Again in 1949, a serious attempt for the sake of females was advocated in ‘The Second sex’ by Simone de Beauvoir. It advocates that men and women be given equal social and political rights. All these writers have a done remarkable job to raise voice against dominant males and that too living in patriarchal society.

Women from early times to till date are claiming for sex discrimination, space, identity which should be given to them without claiming. Much hullaballoo in the female world is due to the differences in terms of rights denied to females and the same rights enjoyed by males. It becomes real hard to live without rights which they must enjoy. To live without enjoying one’s right is like a person without soul.  If we peep into the History we will find numerous examples of women who managed to live without some rights. The sexual difference had led women to suffer at the surface level and also at the deeper level. The sexual difference is a trouble which females start facing right from their birth.

The question of Culture, literature, identity, space are very subtle subject but are directly related to procuring the right place for women in our society. The balance between the male and female is only possible if they are provided with equal opportunity.

 Females constitutes half of the humanity says Simon de Beauvoir [1]. I think Beauvoir has rightly justified this subject of female and feminist. In my opinion if females constitute a major part of human race one should not encourage sexism.  Sexism is such a base which could eat up our whole society without indigestion. I wonder how sexism has entered in the mind set of people like a monster. Its outcome is definitely going to instigate war within the human race. It is never clear the fairer sex of all is women but on what basis. The term fair indicates clarity in their thoughts, high intellectual level of women or just a fair colour of their skin. Again if we are judging the qualities of being women on the basis of skin colour it is a horrible mistake and it is like to take the bull by its horn. The power lies within women is not very clear on the surface level in pre colonial era but post modernism had given them wings of non melting metals to fly high and explore.

In the third world women’s voices were not heard and due to this the crisis in their identity and existence persists. The fourth world people who constitute a major part of the subaltern, poor, backward people, tribes  etc who were unable to enjoy in the third world and remained unheard are again raising their voices. Here, I mean to say that in this world where nothing is constant and permanent no one knows that the voices raised by them could bring a drastic change in the world aura and denying them with some rights will be like hampering the growth of not only a particular community but half of the human race.


Identity is one major subject that has been discussed by many female writers from many countries. And this writing proved to be so much influential that gradually it laid the foundation stone of many movements working for the awareness of females. These movements are called as female phase and previously also known as feminist movements. And post colonial feminism known as third world feminism has reached its heights due to protest and a tendency to claim for the shortcomings and gradual shift of females from periphery and their voices are not unheard. In the postcolonial period women could easily understand that now the tables has turned and subalterns ( a term frequently used by Indian feminist critic Gayatri Spivak) are ready to claim for their rights and fight for the  discrimination caused by men towards them.

If we peep into the past and turn pages of women’s writing, we find they had minimal position in the literary world. Women are not writing, women are not writing even about woman. There talent was crushed or the male chauvinist society had built a fall wall so high that their voices were unheard. And the predicament is that females had started with a protest in their writing. It would not be wrong to say that women were marginalized to the deepest level. Women were robbed of their identity, voice, denied of space, inequality in gender and what not. Thanks to the literary world that their writings got recognition and they got golden opportunity to deliver their voices to every marginalized and the subaltern. Subaltern is a term which is frequently used by renowned literary critic and feminist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak for the unheard and marginalized.

In ‘Feminism and Critical Theory’, Spivak argues that:

‘‘ My own definition of a woman is very simple: it rests on the word ‘man’ as used in texts that provide the foundation for the corner of the literary criticism establishment that I inhabit. You might say that this is a reactionary position. Should I not carve out an independent definition  for myself as a woman?’’

Like Irigary, Spivak suggests that ‘independent’ definitions of woman always risk falling prey to the very binary oppositions that perpetuate women’s subordination in culture and society. The female writes of today have established an identity through their writing.



Now I come to the point where I get major findings in terms of claiming for space and culture by women. My focus is on a female writer from Africa who wrote very fantastically. Bessie Head left her homeland South Africa and settled in Botswana due to the cruel policies of Apartheid. Apartheid which is a hair rising word for Africans because it was synonymous to cruelty and horrible torture of the Blacks in the hands of White. Apartheid was major cause which brought the sex difference, colour difference, racial bias and cultural difference in African society. People were living a life without culture and surviving without ethnic ground. And Head was very sick of the cruel racial policies. Bessie Head’s works deal with issues of discrimination, isolation, abandonment and emotionally abused black women.  Bessie Head’s writing has not lost its power even today. Bessie Head is truly a writer with potential to pen down the dark side of colonialism, apartheid very frankly.  Bessie head had depicted in her work that every woman would love to read and every man can’t ignore hearing it. And her writing is not inspired by any fancy, fantasy or imagination rather it is closely related to her own experiences which in literary term we call autobiographical work.

As Arthur  Ravenshcroft comments on her novel ‘A question of Power’

In A question of power we are taken nightmarishly into central character’s process of mental breakdown, through lurid cascades of hallucination, and a pathological blurring of the frontiers between insanity and any kind of normalcy. Bessie Head tried to claim Identity crisis in midst of alienation. Actually Bessie Head herself was victim of alienation. And it seems that it is very easy for any sufferer to pen down their experiences but it is not like that. In Bessie Head’s writing we see true picture of reality as well as she successfully mirrors the people her own trouble. Head had a genuine sympathy for women especially the Black and oppressed women who were marginalized to the deepest level. Almost many of her works are full of protest of some kind.

Bessie head’s text ‘A question of power’ which was published in 1973 widely discussed about females power and social position. It widely captures the essence of protagonist’s character. In this text   Head questions the way women becomes mad. And also elaborates the reason for madness. The protagonist was brought up by a foster mother. And she is sent to missionary school. After that she gets a job as a teacher in Botswana. She goes to Botswana leaving her cheater husband. In Botswana Elizabeth lives as a refugee and questions her identity. And this crisis of identity results her to hallucinate and finally she starts to show signs of insanity. At the end of the novel she is recovered but Head has captured the claim for identity by protagonist very cleverly. Here Head has used Elizabeth as mouthpiece of common females who suffers from identity crisis ideas for their recovery and establishment of peace. I would like to highlight a quote from Head’s novel ‘A Question of power’ where the protagonist Elizabeth is only 13 and her school principal tells her

              ‘‘Your mother was insane. If you are not careful

You’ll get insane just like your mother.

Your mother was a white woman. They had to lock her up,

As she was having a child by the stable boy who was a native’’. ( Head,1974,p.16)

Elizabeth is shocked after this revelation. Elizabeth’s missionary school principal cruelly reveals this matter and it is very tough as well as puzzling fact for any child as what may be the meaning of White and what is the punishment and crime for having child with Black. Elizabeth was not allowed to play with other children in the school because she was born of a white mother and Black father. She was abandoned and isolated because she didn’t belong to any race. Infact, she was not an ordinary human being. It was not just simply a matter of Black and White but it wounded Elizabeth’s thought and stirred her soul. And finally aroused an anxiety disorder .She suffers physical and mental breakdown. I think Head had used madness to deliver the extent of suffering of any woman. This very way of using madness to express angst of identity crisis, race, gender and many maladies like these is the silent weapon of Bessie Head to show protest through her writing. And it can’t be denied that Bessie Head was born with such traumas in her early life. It seems very amazing eyebrow raising fact to know that while Head was actually suffering from traumas in her life meanwhile she was also capturing these feelings in words. And the result is before us in the form of her writings. Majority of her works are inspired by incidents from real life.

Bessie head’s another work ‘‘The collector of treasure’’, is also a dramatic indictment of the male’s thought and actions in her culture towards women. This is a short story about a woman who commits manslaughter and is sent to jail. Dikeledi Mokopi is protagonist and an oppressed wife in this short story. The protagonist of this short story Dikeledi Mokopi who says she used a knife to cut off all his special parts while he was asleep. This shows the deep angst of woman and the position of women in a society that, she feels, has never valued women. Here Head had used murder of his husband to show woman’s crisis and way of overcoming it. This in my view is not focused on a crime called murder rather a deep urge of any women to claim and establish that women also posses’ power and strength and she can go to any extent to prove it, she can even murder her own husband if he troubles her. Frankly, Bessie Head’s use of language and technique was superb. Her works created a deep influence in the heart of African literature and a strong footing in the world literature. What I found with Bessie Head’s writing was not any simple story rather through her works women got attention due to the solutions offered in her work. This is evident in her major works that at the end of the day the protagonist is recovered from psychological trauma and is successful in establishing his/her identity.



Women empowerment came with such a big force that no one had ever imagined. And in the literary world women’s writing has miraculously and meticulously occupied its position. It would really surprise the literary lovers to know that the feminist spark which started long ago in France with the writings of Christine de Pizan (Feminist and writer) who first raised her voice against male dominated writings and in England with Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf and many such figures has now taken a shape of giant fireball. Their writings in true sense have calibre to inspire common women of the then society and they were benefited by it.  No, need to say women have finally come out with their own space, culture, identity which they were claiming for centuries. No one can deny them with what was their own. The time has come when the glass ceilings are breaking very fast. It is due to women’s continuous effort and protest that helped them to achieve what they were denied off from centuries and ages. And in this contemporary postmodern era a giant leap has to be taken by women. According to my opinion in this postmodern era we should only revel and not mourn for the loss in the past then only the gaps in the difference would be filled.  Lastly, in my conclusion, I would like to sum up with why males need not claim for anything in our society. This is not just a question but an answer to the cause for females claiming differences.




  1. Beauvoir de Simon, ‘Introduction’, The Second Sex (1949), translated and ed. H.M. Parshley, 1953, reprinted Pan Books,1988, pp.13-19,23-24.
  2. Tidd, Ursula. Simon de Beauvoir. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
  3. Spivak, G.C. (1987) In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics, with preface by Colin MacCabe, New York: Metheun.
  4. Morton, Stephen. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. New York: Routledge, 2003.Print
  5. Ravenshcroft, Arthur.The Novels of Bessie Head.In aspects of South African Literature,Ed. Christopher Heywood,London Heinemann,1976,p-175
  6. Head,Bessie.A Question of Power.Portsmouth. Heinemann.1974.
  7. Head, Bessie.A Question of Power. Oxford: Davis Poynter Ltd.,1974.
  8. Head, Bessie. ‘‘The Collector of Treasures’’, Other Voices,Other Vistas.Ed. Barbara Soloman. New York: Penguin GroupnInc.2002.
  9. Head, Bessie. A question of Power London Heinemann.1974.print
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