The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses


Bessie Head

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The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Bessie Head's The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Bessie Head

Considered today one of Botswana’s most accomplished authors, Bessie Head was actually born in South Africa (just south of Botswana), where she lived until 1964 when she immigrated to Botswana. Her parents were of different races during a time when all South Africans were officially classified by race and interracial marriage was illegal. Initially herself thought to be white, Head was placed with white foster parents since her mother was mentally ill and unable to keep her. Discovered to be mixed-race, Head was later placed with a mixed-race family who she thought was her biological family. She was later separated from them by government authorities, causing her great emotional pain. She trained and worked for a time as a teacher but left that profession to work as a writer for various publications in Cape Town and Johannesburg. In the early 1960s, she became involved with the Pan-Africanist Congress and embroiled in political protests and controversy that harmed her emotional health, leading to depression, drinking, and attempted suicide. She met and married Harold Head in 1961. They had one child, but later separated. In 1964, Head took a job in nearby Bechuanaland Protectorate (which became Botswana after independence from Britain) where she lived for the rest of her life, doing most of the writing for which she is known. Her status as expatriate led her to explore themes of community, alienation, and exile. She died at 48 from hepatitis. In 2007, a trust was established in her name, and the library in her birthplace was renamed in her honor.
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Historical Context of The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses

“The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses” describes what life was like for a group of incarcerated political prisoners and narrates their small-scale subversion of the prison system. Beginning after the institution of apartheid in South Africa, the system encountered so much political resistance that the government instituted repressive laws to curb it, leading to incarceration of political dissidents as portrayed in the story. The Suppression of Communism Act empowered the Minister of Justice to imprison suspect individuals without trial or right of appeal, and even without being informed of their alleged crime. Dissident groups could also be banned by being labeled Communist. Black South African leader and advocate of passive resistance Albert Luthuli won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960 but was kept under house arrest until his death in 1966. Political dissident Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison and served 27 years of this sentence before his release and election as the nation’s first post-apartheid president.

Other Books Related to The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses

Head wrote a number of other novels and shorts stories dealing with life in Africa and racial issues. Her novel Maru (1971) describes what it is like to be deemed racially inferior, and the novel When Rain Clouds Gather (1968) describing the lives of political refugees is based on her own experience as a refugee living on a farm in Botswana. Other literary works portraying South Africa during the time of apartheid include Gordimer’s The Conservationist, Coetzee’s Disgrace, Fugard’s "Master Harold" … and the Boys, and Courtenay’s The Power of One.
Key Facts about The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses
  • Full Title: “The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses”
  • When Written: Late 1960s
  • Where Written: Serowe, Botswana
  • When Published: 1973
  • Literary Period: Postcolonial
  • Genre: Short Story
  • Setting: A prison camp in South Africa in the 1960s
  • Climax: Brille blackmails Hannetjie, forcing him to treat the prisoners better.
  • Antagonist: Warder Hannetjie
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses

Setting. Head lived the second half of her life in her adopted country of Botswana, where she set almost all her novels and short stories. “The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses” is unusual for its South African setting. She also set one novel, The Cardinals, in South Africa.

Inspiration. “The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses” is based on actual events and people. Head knew a political refugee who told her that while he was in prison, he and other political detainees had humanized one of their guards. Head admitted to embellishing his story, adding tenderness.