Study Guide

A Question of Power

by Bessie Amelia Emery

A Question of Power Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Bessie Head’s A Question of Power is a novel on two levels: On the literal level, it is the story of the woman Elizabeth, who has come to Botswana with her small son as an exile from South Africa. Elizabeth first teaches school and later becomes involved in a cooperative farming venture designed to boost the economy of the village of Motabeng and to instill some pride in the Batswana. On this level, the story has little action and few emotional hills and valleys. On another level, however, the novel is a record of Elizabeth’s mental breakdown and of her wavering in and out of the terrifying world of insanity. The daytime world of Elizabeth’s mundane chores and her routine work at the school and later in the gardens contrasts sharply with the nighttime world that eventually takes over and leads to her total mental collapse.

Reared in South Africa by a foster mother, whom she believes is her true mother, Elizabeth is shocked, on being sent to a mission school, to learn that her mother is white and that she is living in a nearby mental hospital. Elizabeth’s teachers are warned to be on guard against any signs that the child is afflicted with the mother’s illness. Only after Elizabeth leaves South Africa to answer an advertisement for teachers in Botswana, walking out on a cheating husband and taking with her a small son, does she indeed start to show signs of insanity. Within three months of her arrival in Botswana, the normal and the abnormal start to blur for Elizabeth. She starts to hallucinate, and in the fantasy world created by her disturbed mind, she is obsessed with questions about the soul and the nature of good and evil. Good...

(The entire section is 679 words.)

A Question of Power Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Head explores emotional instability in A Question of Power, which is divided into two halves, representing the two powerful male characters impacting the vulnerable protagonist, Elizabeth. Many scholars consider this powerful novel with strong autobiographical elements to be Head’s most significant and provocative work.

In the first section, entitled “Sello,” readers learn about Elizabeth’s history, beginning with her birth in a South African mental hospital and her mixed racial heritage. Her story closely parallels many aspects of Head’s life. Narcissistic men, including her unfaithful husband, have mistreated Elizabeth, who distrusts most males and loathes herself. As an adult living in Motabeng village with her son, whom she calls Shorty, Elizabeth experiences nocturnal visits from a villager named Sello, whom she sees sitting near her bed. Describing Sello as a monk, Elizabeth sleeplessly listens to his comments about poverty and Africa. Although good, Sello seeks to influence Elizabeth’s soul by revealing his susceptibility to evil.

Fragile because she feels like an outsider, Elizabeth obsesses about slights from her community because of her ethnic identity. Powerless, she questions if she belongs and doubts her worthiness. Sello comments about Elizabeth’s precarious role in Motabeng. During her nocturnal episodes, Elizabeth also encounters Medusa, whose fury intensifies Elizabeth’s despair. Elizabeth absorbs the messages she receives during the night, and her sanity weakens.

Head presents Elizabeth’s experiences as streams of bizarre thoughts with intervals of lucidity, as she struggles with her inner demons....

(The entire section is 686 words.)

A Question of Power Bibliography (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Brown, Lloyd Wellesley. Women Writers in Black Africa, 1981.

Cima, Richard. Review in Library Journal. XCIX (March 15, 1974), p. 775.

Kitchen, Paddy. Review in New Statesman. LXXXVI (November 2, 1973), p.657.

Ravenscroft, Arthur. “The Novels of Bessie Head,” in Aspects of South African Literature, 1976. Edited by Christopher Heywood.

Rubenstein, Roberta. Review in The New Republic. CLXX (April 27, 1974), p. 30.