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Submitted Literature

A Question of Power

By Bessie Head



Bessie Head’s A Question of Power has been read as “Mariner’s Guide to Paranoia” (Evasdaughter 1989), Lacanian psychosis (Hogan 1994) and an example of ancestral communication (Bhana 2004). Regardless of the interpretative framework we employ to understand the madness it depicts, it offers a raw and powerful account of a painful subjection to powers beyond the protagonist’s and the reader’s control. Despite its emphasis on growth and gardening as counterforces to madness, A Question of Power lingers in the reader’s mind as a narrative of pain.  




Bessie Head (1937-1986) was born in a mental hospital in South Africa to a white mother. Her father was, presumably, a black stable hand. A Question of Power narrates a story of Elizabeth, with similar background. After a series of foster homes and receiving a colonial education in a missionary school, Elizabeth like Head in her time, takes an exit visa to Botswana to escape a bad relationship and the Apartheid-ridden South Africa. In A Question of Power the single mother migrant’s efforts to settle in a new country and community are interwoven with in experience of intense poverty and a mental breakdown.


Elizabeth experiences two breakdowns that have different functions in the story: while the first one makes her lose her position as a teacher, it initiates her integration in a development project that eventually leads to her becoming a village gardener and a valuable member of the community. The second, longer madness, leads to her hospitalization and marks a rupture in her integration: she is removed from the context of her everyday life, her son and meaningful activities. The two phases of Elizabeth’s madness are marked by her becoming a victim of two hallucinatory male perpetrators, Sello and Dan who torture her in her own home. The two parts of the book are named after them. Sello subjects her atrocities of human history; Dan subjects her to sexual violence and harassment.


In A Question of Power mental turmoil is seen as a journey to knowledge. What holds Elizabeth together throughout her madness is her conviction that her victim position grants her knowledge of the functions and mechanisms of power. Paradoxically, this conviction also paralyses her agency at the face of her perpetrators. Throughout her madness Elizabeth is somewhat capable of mothering her son whose presence is depicted as an important counterforce to madness. What hold her together are kindness, work and friendship, acting as a mistress of her own home and caring for others - also at the times when “demons rampage within.”





Bhana, Hershini (2004) ”Reading Ghostly Desire: Writing the Edges of Bessie Head’s A Question of Power.” in Emerging Perspactives on Bessie Head. Ibrahim, Huma (ed.) Trenton, Eritrea: Africa World Press.


Evasdaughter, Eva (1989) “Bessie Head’s A Question of Power Read as a Mariner’s Guide to Paranoia.” In Research in African Literature, (20)1.


Hogan, Patrick Colm (1994) “”Bessie Head’s A Question of Power: a Lacanian Psychosis” in Mosaic 27 (2), 95-112.


Key Themes:

  • Cultural Psychiatry
  • Diversity and Ethnicity
  • Psychosis
  • Revealing Reads
  • Violence

Significant Quotes / Pages


People only function well when their inner lives are secure and peaceful. She was like a person driven out of her own house while demons rampaged within, turning everything upside down. (QP, 49)


It wasn’t any kind of physical stamina that kept her going, but the vague, instinctive pattern of normal human decencies combined with the work she did, the people she met each day and the unfolding of a project with exciting inventive possibilities. But a person eventually becomes a replica of the inner demons he battles with. Any kind of demon is more powerful than normal human decencies, because such things do not exist for him. (QP, 149-150).


the soul was really open territory easily invaded by devils. They just move in, carry on, mess around, and when a man has cleaned up his house, ten thousand more move in. If I had to take up residence in somebody’s house I’d be polite and enquire after their health. Devils don’t do that. They just walk in and smash everything up and then they grin… (QP, 192)

Reference: Bessie, Head. 1974. A Question of Power. Heinemann, 1974


PhD Saara Jäntti
Date Review Submitted: Monday 14th January 2013