Mental Pain in Bessie Head’s novel ‘A Question of Power’


The character Elisabeth in Bessie Head’s novel ‘A Question of Power’ is schizophrenic. For Elisabeth being schizophrenic means that she sees and hears things that don’t exist, is unclear in her thinking, and changes her behaviour very quickly.


Elisabeth is of mixed heritage. This means that her parents are from different racial groups. She battles conflicting black and white perspectives. Elisabeth’s mind is damaged by the pressure to belong to a single racial group. Elisabeth does not understand who she is or how she fits into society. This results in her schizophrenia becoming worse and the book shows the hard struggle of the schizophrenic. However, community and care provide her with the chance to recover and form strong relationships.

Elisabeth’s mind attacks itself. She sees power-hungry people that try to control her. These people do not exist beyond Elisabeth’s mind. They are ‘barking savagely all the time’ and tell her that she ‘wasn’t a genuine African’ – that ‘she was a half-breed’. Strong, hurtful language like this creates a loop of negativity in her mind. These imaginary people construct pain within her mind. Elisabeth’s illness takes hold and her schizophrenic mind bruises her over and over.


Elisabeth’s trauma is partly biological. This means that schizophrenia can be passed on in family from one generation to the next. Elisabeth’s mother was mentally unstable like her daughter. However this alone does not explain her schizophrenia. Her mental state is also partly the result of a sensitive cultural and personal past. Attitudes and behaviour that knocked her down became a part of her own way of thinking. This means that when people tell you that you are bad and of no worth all the time you start to believe it. Bessie Head describes the continuing effect of the past and her mother on Elisabeth as a ‘‘recurring monotonous song’. In the book, the repeated noise becomes louder and louder and turns into ‘a confused roar’. These imaginary people show human evil and a human hunger for power as they abuse and hurt her.


This negative experience makes Elisabeth realise that these monstrous people have no respect for others. These people view others as groups instead of individuals. They believe in long-standing power structures, such as the power men can have over women. This makes Elisabeth unwell. She realises that humanity is holy and important. Elisabeth lives with voices and visions of horror, but she learns from this that goodness can be found in community.

This is important: how can we help to make the pain of people suffering with schizophrenia easier? We can help by extending ‘the warm embrace of the brotherhood of man’ to sufferers like Elisabeth and welcome people who struggle into our communities. While the difficulties of being schizophrenic cannot be taken away, communal love and respect can allow the fragile to be a part of society.



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