Bessie Head World Literature Analysis
Viewing herself as a humanitarian, Bessie Head wrote to examine her life and community, expressing her awareness of political, religious, and social issues and seeking to depict African cultures authentically. Her characters experience internal turmoil, much like Head did as she dealt with misperceptions and untruths regarding her identity. Head wrote her fiction primarily from a third-person viewpoint, with omniscient observers removed from the situations they described, much like her characters were removed from their native homes and relocated as exiles and refugees to unfamiliar places. These characters, like Head, strive to become part of their new communities and secure acceptance.
As Head’s characters endeavor to belong, they often remain outsiders, both to their new communities and to themselves. Head created characters on the periphery, confused not only by their often mixed ancestry but also by peoples’ reaction to them. As a result of misunderstandings and assumptions, Head’s characters are frequently victimized by generalizations that define them inaccurately and associate negative stereotypes with them. Although some of this categorization is benign, many people maliciously assign identities to exclude or vilify characters.
As Head depicts in A Question of Power, deception causes fragile individuals to question their worth and to believe lies. Support or ostracism from their community determines whether characters will thrive or succumb to identifiers beyond their control, such as parentage. Racism within ethnicities, as Head depicts in Maru, exposes inequities that seem unnecessary.
Head consistently creates borders as a literary device in her writing; her characters are trapped physically and emotionally by both real and imagined boundaries. Political and legal borders designate rules for characters to abide or resist. Other boundaries, including livestock fences and corrals, indicate how the freedom of human beings and animals is restricted on land, with only the sky offering movement without borders. Freedom, however, presents responsibilities and demands accountability.
Gender roles are another important component of Head’s writing. Both men and women represent innocence and evil. Rejecting rigid archetypes, Head does not cast all female characters as victims, nor depict males solely as villains. Characters in such works as the The Cardinals are complex and display both naïveté and malice. Head creates strong women who are resilient to the challenges presented in patriarchal societies. Some women are depicted as fragile, yet exhibit the strength and resourcefulness to overcome their weaknesses. Many of Head’s fictional men are misogynists or predators who torment women, taking advantage of their vulnerabilities by manipulating them or cruelly attacking their insecurities. Some of Head’s male characters, however, are compassionate and offer possibilities for salvation; acts of kindness and affection redeem characters.
Power and wealth are also important concerns in Head’s work. Most of her characters are impoverished financially. Rejecting greed and materialism, many of her characters consider the freedom to make unhindered decisions priceless. Their perception of wealth is to possess and share innate qualities of empathy and community. However, some entitled characters scheme, planning how to acquire more monetary wealth and power over people they consider inferior.
Head effectively develops emotions as strong literary elements. Many of her characters experience or indulge in hostile behavior, and both oppressors and victims express their rage. Anger and hate offer her characters the means to intimidate targeted individuals and groups or to resist oppression, often culminating in aggression and violence. Passive characters internalize their fury, punishing themselves instead of their tormentors by allowing their emotions to become irrational and paralyzing. Head emphasizes how peace and hope can enable characters to adapt to their circumstances and to embrace faith in themselves and their community, thus attaining the power to live sanely.
Head uses images of nature to intensify her characterizations and settings. She personifies nature as a fickle character, which both oppresses and rejuvenates human beings. Head’s settings are often bleak, particularly the dying bush in When Rain Clouds Gather, where even tree roots wither. She uses colors, such as red dust, black vultures, and white ants, to accentuate her imagery and suggest conflicts between individuals, within individuals, and between individuals and nature. Drought represents the depletion of hope and trust that nature will protect, emphasizing the need for Head’s characters to summon their inner resources to survive such barrenness.
Interested in portraying Africans realistically, Head gives voice to ordinary people in her novels and nonfiction work, Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind. She offers an African perspective of natives’ roles in that continent’s history in A Bewitched Crossroad: An African Saga.
When Rain Clouds Gather
First published: 1968
Type of work: Novel
A Zulu man freed from jail escapes from South Africa into Botswana, where he lives as a refugee, seeking freedom, community, and self-knowledge.
Survival and rebirth resonate in When Rain Clouds Gather. The...
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