‘‘Brille’’ is the nickname given to the story’s protagonist by his fellow prisoners; his real name is never stated. Brille is a black political prisoner being held in South Africa because of his activities in resistance to apartheid. He is a small man, described as ‘‘a thin little fellow with a hollowed-out chest and comic knobbly knees.’’ He is also ‘‘short-sighted,’’ or what would be called ‘‘nearsighted’’ in the United States, and his nickname comes from the Afrikaans-language word for a person who wears glasses. He seems to be the informal leader of the group of political prisoners in his work unit, called Span One, in part because he is older than the rest of them.
When the new prison warder, Hannetjie, comes to the prison, it is Brille who first challenges his authority. Pausing one day in his work on the prison cabbage farm, he gazes at the passing clouds and thinks about his children back home; when Hannetjie reprimands him for being idle, he meets the warder’s eyes and instantly judges him to be ‘‘not human.’’ He and his fellow prisoners have engaged in psychological battles with their previous guards, but Brille can tell that this one will be more difficult to handle. Still, his initial acts of rebellion are innocent enough: he looks at the clouds for a moment, and he steals a cabbage to eat—a crime to which he confesses as soon as Hannetjie discovers the half-eaten head. When the warder decides to punish the entire group for Brille’s theft, Brille refuses to exhibit the deference he is expected to show. Instead, he protests directly and calmly, confusing and infuriating Hannetjie, who hits Brille in the head with his club. Even the physical injuries do not make Brille humble and subjective, Hannetjie finds. From that point on, the two men are determined to overpower each other psychologically.
Although he is a prisoner, Brille is remarkably dignified and detached. He will not call the warder ‘‘Baas,’’ as he is expected to, because he is older than the warder; he rejects outright the notion that his position in the prison is a reason to show respect for the other man. Brille’s passivity, it turns out, has more to do with his former home life than his political and social situation as an oppressed black South African living under apartheid. For sixteen years, he lived with his wife in a small house in the Eastern Cape region, and their family grew to include twelve children whom he tried to support on a teacher’s wages. Home life was very chaotic; the children were uncontrollable and violent. Brille became active in politics in large part because he was looking for reasons to be away from home. Now, after years in prison, he has a structured life that he has made more endurable by lying and stealing and by forcing or persuading the warders to overlook his and the other political prisoners’ transgressions. Brille waits for his chance, and when he catches Hannetjie stealing fertilizer for his own farm, he knows he can cow this warder as he has all the others. With care and patience he toys with Hannetjie as a cat with a mouse, reporting him for small offenses, refusing to call him ‘‘Baas,’’ and encouraging Hannetjie to trust him, only to betray him again.
When he has finally broken Hannetjie’s spirit, he reveals all that he wants from the warder: ‘‘We want you on our side.’’ Brille knows that no matter what else he might accomplish, he will not gain his freedom. He is not greedy or ambitious, and in the end he does know his place; he is only trying to make what will surely be a long imprisonment a little easier.
Jacobus Stephanus Hannetjie
Hannetjie is the new warder, or prison guard, for Span One, a group of ten black political prisoners in a large prison complex that also holds ordinary criminals. His name identifies him as an Afrikaner, one of the white Afrikaans-speaking people of South Africa whose ancestors were Dutch or German. He has eyes ‘‘the colour of the sky,’’ and from their first encounter Brille can see that he has a ‘‘simple, primitive, brutal soul.’’ Hannetjie is smarter and more observant than the previous warders for Span One. It takes him only days to discover how the prisoners are stealing cabbages and hiding tobacco, and he manages to stop their secret conversations and plotting. He demands the respect that goes along with his authority over the prisoners, insisting they call him ‘‘Baas’’ while freely calling Brille a ‘‘kaffir,’’ an offensive term used against black people in South Africa. But demanding respect is not the same thing as receiving it, and Brille, who is twenty years older than Hannetjie, refuses to submit.
Hannetjie does what he can to force Brille and the other prisoners to obey him. He capriciously punishes the entire group for Brille’s minor theft of a cabbage; he strikes Brille on the head with a club, becoming the first warder of Span One to hit a prisoner; he sends Brille to a week of solitary confinement for stealing grapes. But when Brille catches him stealing fertilizer for his own farm and then reports him to the authorities, Hannetjie’s confidence is shaken. He bribes Brille with tobacco, but Brille tells the authorities who has given him the forbidden treat. For all his bluster, the warder is not as strong willed as the older prisoner, and gradually Brille breaks down his nerve. Hannetjie asks for a truce, and Brille agrees to stop tormenting him if he will leave the men alone. Hannetjie begins to treat the men more humanely, occasionally helping them with their farm work and smuggling extra food to them. In return, the men work especially hard, and they help Hannetjie steal supplies for his farm.
Martha is Brille’s wife. Before her husband was imprisoned, she gave birth to twelve children in sixteen years, and she was continually overwhelmed by her responsibilities as a mother. Eventually, she gave up disciplining the children entirely, and they became rowdy and violent, ceasing their chaotic behavior only when Brille would come home from work.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Bessie Head, Published by Gale Group, 2010