Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

A Method to Her Madness: Bessie Head's A Question of Power as South African National Allegory

Academic journal article Journal of Literary Studies

A Method to Her Madness: Bessie Head's A Question of Power as South African National Allegory

Article excerpt


Bessie Head's A Question of Power (1974), is often thought to be her most personal and least political novel. Read through the lens of Fredric Jameson's concept of "national allegory", though, the novel takes a whole new shape. In Jameson's formulation of "national allegory", he urges readers to think about the equivalences of allegory as shifting through time, not the fixed one-to-one of traditional allegory. He insists that reading "third-world" texts through the concept of "national allegory" allows readers to see the connection of individual to nation. Through the nonlinear narrative of Elizabeth's mental breakdown, Bessie Head takes us on an allegorical tour through South African history. While Elizabeth literally struggles to save herself from the demons of her madness, Head allegorically works through a diagnosis of apartheid era political problems. Through the figures of Dan and Sello, Head explicates oppressive and liberatory political ideologies. Reading A Question of Power as a national allegory interested in linking the struggle of the individual against oppressive political ideology and the struggle of the nation against oppressive political ideology, aligns Head's other political writing with this seemingly private novel.


Bessie Head se A Question of Power(1974) word dikwels beskou as haar persoonlikste en mins politiese roman. Deur die lens van Fredric Jameson se konsep van nasionale allegorie neem die roman 'n nuwe gedaante aan. In Jameson se formulering van nasionale allegorie dwing hy die leser om te dink aan die ekwivalensies van allegorie as veranderend deur tyd--nie die vaste eendimensionele ekwivalensie van tradisionele allegorie nie. Hy hou vol dat die lees van derde w&eld tekste deur die konsep nasionale allegorie die leser in staat stel om die verband tussen individu en nasie te sien. Deur die nie-lineere narratief van Elizabeth se geestelike ineenstorting neem Bessie Head die leser op 'n toer deur die Suid-Afrikaanse geskiedenis. Terwyl Elizabeth letterlik 'n stryd voer om haarself te bevry van die demone van waansin, werk Head deur 'n diagnose van 'n apartheidera politiese probleme. Deur die figure Dan en Sello ontvou Head onderdrukkende en bevrydende ideologiee Die lees van A Question of Power as nasionale allegorie wat gemik is daarop om die stryd van die individu en die van die volk teen onderdrukkende politiese ideologie met mekaar in verband te bring, bring Head se ander politiese tekste in lyn met hierdie oenskynlik persoonlike roman.


In his 1986 essay, "Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism", Fredric Jameson controversially asserts, "Third-world texts, even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic--necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society" (Jameson 1986a: 69). In this essay he emphasises the conflation of the public/private split, a split that is indicative of the Western Freud/Marx debate, in "third-world" (1) literature. Jameson attempts to correct his "first-world" colleagues' readings of "third-world" literature, which render a text either only overtly political or overtly personal. Instead, he suggests that to read "third-world" texts as always both personally invested and as national allegories is to understand their importance in the "third-world" culture from which they emerged. This form of reading "third-world" texts is not a possibility, but rather an "epistemological priority"(p. 86) for Jameson.

While I take seriously the various objections critics have with Jameson's use of the three worlds model and his reductive approach to literature from three quarters of the world, because this is the percentage that fits into his definition of the "third world," I feel his question: "What do these novels tell us about the nation? …

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