Texas Journal of Women and the Law, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Fall 1995), pp. 83-99


In A Question of Power, South African exile Bessie Head graphically illustrates the relevance of gender difference to religion, political philosophy, and human rights. At first glance, the novel is a startling interior view of the psychosis that can result from constant alienation. The madness so painfully described, however, is portrayed as specific to women. And the road from madness -- the rejection of idealism, the rejection of universalism, and the rejection of power -- carries an important message to those seeking to understand the various feminist perspectives on human rights and spirituality. In Head's view, the recognition of the role of power in sexual relationships and in politics leads inevitably to the rejection of any sort of idealism. If we believe her, our dialogue concerning human rights, spirituality, or law should presuppose the destructiveness of ideology and universalism. This leaves out most familiar religious and philosophical perspectives and is clearly the product of Head's feminist vision.

Interpreting Head's vision is a complex task. The novel not only is about madness but also depicts madness in a fragmented, hallucinogenic narrative style that careens wildly from scene to scene. The reader's sense of the heroine's mental state is conveyed as much by the form of the novel as by its content. Although many writers have discussed the themes present in A Question of Power, no commentator has undertaken the necessary effort to unpack the structure of the novel. In order to convey the fullness of Head's vision of spirituality, gender, and race, we must read closely, lest we agree with Lewis Nkosi's conclusion that “Bessie Head's third novel, A Question of Power, with its unassimilated use of religious mysticism and classical symbols” is a “disastrous failure.” To the contrary, Head's extensive use of symbolism and mysticism is neither random nor careless. The foregoing analysis of the narrative structure of the work uncovers a complex form and reveals one of the most insightful critiques of human spirituality and human relationships in modern fiction.