27 pages 54 minutes read

Bessie Head

The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1963

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses”

“The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses” by Bessie Head is a short story about political activists incarcerated during the South African apartheid. Inspired by her childhood in South Africa as a biracial child when interracial union was illegal, Head’s work deals primarily with racism and its psychological and emotional impact. “The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses” discusses themes of The Duality of Indoctrination and Dehumanization, Community Versus Individualism, and The Tension of Apartheid and Racial Discrimination. The short story was originally published in 1973 after Head escaped to Botswana during the height of South African apartheid. Unlike Head’s largely autobiographical novels, such as When Rain Clouds Gather, Maru, and A Question of Power, this fictional story focuses on a male protagonist.

This study guide refers to the free online text that is available on the Xpress English website.

Content Warning: The source material contains hate speech, racial discrimination, racist violence, and suicidal ideation. This study guide obscures the use of the k-word, a South African ethnic slur that appears in the original source material.

“The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses” uses third-person limited point of view, told from the perspective of a prisoner named Brille. The story begins in a cabbage field where a group of prisoners is forced to work. Brille, a weaker prisoner with fanciful ideas, watches the clouds drifting toward his home and wonders if he should interpret this as a sign to send a message home to his children. Jacobus Stephanus Hannetjie, the new prison guard, or “warder,” singles Brille out for his contemplation.

Hannetjie is a white warder who is appointed to oversee Span One, a prison unit made up of Black political prisoners. The prisoners are wary of Hannetjie because of his cold eyes and brutality. The prison regulation dictates that Span One must be overseen by a white warder because officials fear a Black warder would become sympathetic to the Black political prisoners’ point of view. Since they have been imprisoned for protesting the injustice of apartheid, Span One prisoners do not feel guilty; therefore, they are much harder to break down. The righteous innocence that Span One projects intimidates the other warders, although Hannetjie does not appear to be affected in the same way.

Brille is nearsighted and has difficulty seeing when a guard is approaching, so he is sometimes caught eating cabbages, which the prisoners are not allowed to do. However, the previous warders gave him some leeway and did not punish him because of his disability. One day, while he is eating a cabbage that he is supposed to be harvesting, he drops the cabbage head at Warder Hannetjie’s feet. When Hannetjie questions Span One about who dropped the cabbage, Brille confesses. Despite Brille’s honesty, Hannetjie punishes all the prisoners by taking away their next three meals. Brille argues with Hannetjie, calling out his unfairness in punishing everyone for his actions. This causes Hannetjie to publicly degrade Brille, as he calls him an ethnic slur and demands that Brille refer to him as “Baas.” Brille refuses, commenting that he is 20 years older than Hannetjie, which makes the rest of Span One laugh. Hannetjie responds to Brille’s defiance by beating him over the head with a knobkerrie, a wooden club. Span One is shocked by how quickly Brille takes off his glasses before the first blow hits him so that his glasses will not break.

After his beating, Brille apologizes to Span One and promises to steal food so that they do not go hungry. Brille contemplates the violence enacted against him while he reflects on his life before prison. He thinks about his 12 children, who are home with his wife, Martha, and how she must provide and take care of the children alone. Brille thinks about his home in the Eastern Cape and how he and Martha continued to have children because they had difficulty using contraceptives properly. As a teacher, Brille’s salary never felt like enough. To keep food on the table, he had to take exams that would help him improve his salary, but he was never able to keep up with providing for his family. Since the children were always hungry, they were aggressive and fought with each other constantly. This was so distressing for Martha that Brille made a deal with her: She let the fighting go on all day, but when he came home at night, he enforced discipline. The chaotic nature of his home life drove him to pursue politics, where he was always in pursuit of order and structure. This realization saddens Brille because he is suddenly aware of how he used political pursuits to avoid life at home. As he thinks about his family, Brille contemplates what he would have written to his children before Hannetjie beat him. He thinks that it would have been “Be good comrades, my children. Cooperate, then life will run smoothly” (Paragraph 28).

The next day, Hannetjie catches a prisoner stealing grapes, so he sends the man to an isolation cell and keeps a tight rein on Span One. Span One becomes frustrated because Hannetjie is aware of the prisoners’ tricks to steal food and tobacco and send messages to each other. Hannetjie’s strict surveillance is difficult for Span One. However, one day, Brille brings Span One a large amount of tobacco to smoke, claiming that Hannetjie gave it to him. They are shocked until Brille reveals that he caught Hannetjie stealing fertilizer and that he agreed to keep quiet about it for a price. Brille tells them that the next day he will expose Hannetjie for his crime. He tells Span One that he no longer fears Hannetjie because “Hannetjie is just a child and stupidly truthful” (Paragraph 41).

Hannetjie confesses to stealing the fertilizer and is fined. This gives Span One more freedom because Hannetjie knows they are aware of his theft. One day, when the prisoners are finished working, Hannetjie tries to reassert his power by telling Brille to pick up his jacket and carry it to camp. Brille pushes the bounds of this new freedom and refuses, telling Hannetjie that he is not his servant. Hannetjie reminds Brille that he cannot call him “Hannetjie” and must address him as “Baas.” Brille confronts Hannetjie, telling him that the country is changing and that one day, Black people will run the country and Hannetjie will be the one cleaning Brille’s car. Brille also says he could not face his 15-year-old son again if he called his warder Baas. This interaction silences Hannetjie, and he picks up his coat.

After their exchange, Brille is free to do whatever he pleases. When someone sees him smoking tobacco, he is called in to the prison commander’s office. Brille tells the commander that Hannetjie gave it to him. Hannetjie does not deny this but takes Brille aside and begs him to stop harassing him. He tells Brille that he has a wife and children, and Brille’s actions are making him contemplate suicide. Brille points out that his actions are no different than how Hannetjie treated him a few weeks before. Hannetjie promises to give Brille anything he wants if he stops. Brille considers Hannetjie’s childish behavior and pities him. He says Span One wants Hannetjie on their side, a warder who will be compliant with their needs for the remainder of their time in prison.

Hannetjie accepts these terms, yet Span One is shocked and pleased with how he interprets them. Hannetjie joins them and digs up cabbages so that the work will go faster. He brings them cigarettes and eggs, and he helps them so much that Span One is recognized as the most efficient work force in the prison. Span One helps Hannetjie in return by stealing fertilizer for his farm. 

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