‘‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses’’ is set in South Africa during the years of apartheid, the statesponsored system of laws that officially divided all residents into four racial classifications and reserved power and wealth for the white minority. The ten black men in Span One are all political prisoners, arrested for being part of the internal resistance that organized violent and nonviolent protests and demonstrations against apartheid. The narrator observes that these prisoners ‘‘felt no guilt nor were they outcasts of society,’’ because they have not been charged with crimes like robbery or murder; instead, they seem to feel that their imprisonment is part of a noble journey as well as a marker of an obviously unjust judicial system, so they are bolder and less shamed than most prisoners. Under apartheid, members of the black and ‘‘coloured’’ racial groups could obtain certain lowor middle-level jobs, and so there are black warders in the prison. However, the whites in charge worry that a black warder of Span One might be persuaded by the prisoners to join their revolution, so only whites like Jacobus Stephanus Hannetjie are allowed to guard Span One.
Naturally, in any prison, the guards have power over the prisoners. In this instance, however, the warder’s power is enhanced simply by his being white and the prisoners’ being black. Hannetjie expects the prisoners to call him ‘‘Baas,’’ a word used mainly by nonwhite South Africans to speak of whites who have authority, and he confidently uses the racist term ‘‘kaffir,’’ knowing that he cannot be challenged. Under apartheid, a younger white man would expect deference from an older black man, whether in a prison or not. In ‘‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses,’’ apartheid is the driving force behind everything: it is the reason for the balance of power between Brille and Hannetjie, and the reason the warder, afraid to be seen as aiding or sympathizing with the black men under his control, is willing to make a secret deal with them. It is the reason the previous warders had no experience dealing with ‘‘assertive black men.’’ And it is the reason a schoolteacher has become a prisoner, and the reason he has further become a liar and a thief.
The broad arc of the plot of ‘‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses’’ is a movement from conflict to cooperation. Although it is set in a divided society, everything good that happens in the story is the result of cooperation. The prisoners of Span One have become masters of ‘‘group concealment,’’ and the narrator reports that they ‘‘moved, thought and acted as one.’’ By banding together instead of competing for scarce resources like cabbages and tobacco, they have made the imprisonment endurable. This is why they do not resent Brille when his theft of a cabbage leads to them all being punished—why they say, ‘‘What happens to one of us, happens to all.’’
Brille wishes he could be home to teach his unruly children the lessons he has learned; he wishes he could tell them, ‘‘Be good comrades, my children. Co-operate, then life will run smoothly.’’ Instead, he teaches the lesson to Hannetjie the warder. At first, he and Hannetjie are at odds, each punishing and betraying the other. Brille punishes and betrays Hannetjie intentionally and with purpose, but the warder behaves out of instinctive brutality: he simply does not know any other way to treat black prisoners. By the end of the story, however, he has learned the value of cooperation. Brille stops tormenting him, and the prisoners work hard on the prison farm while stealing supplies for the warder’s private farm; Hannetjie sometimes helps with the labor and provides ‘‘unheard of luxuries like boiled eggs’’ for the men. Through cooperation, it is possible that both warder and prisoners will ‘‘be able to manage the long stretch ahead.’’
In the world of ‘‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses’’—a prison under apartheid—the threat of brute force is always just under the surface. A theme explored in the story, however, is the power of psychological strength and its ability to determine a person’s fate even if he is not physically strong. Brille, the glasses-wearing prisoner, is unusually small, he is nearsighted, and he is older than the others. After years in prison, he is still capable of tender thoughts about his children. Yet, he overpowers Hannetjie, the younger white warder who carries a club, by using psychology. Hannetjie is not the first warder to be treated this way; the narrator reports that previous warders have lasted only a week or less with Span One, and that ‘‘the battle was entirely psychological.’’
Hannetjie tries physical violence first, hitting Brille on the head with his knobkerrie, or club— something no previous warder has ever done. Brille does not respond to the beating, but later, when Hannetjie simply removes privileges and contraband (a psychological rather than a physical punishment), the men live in ‘‘acute misery.’’
Now the battle is on. Brille refuses to follow orders or to show respect, and he betrays Hannetjie’s trust; gradually, he gets to the point where the warder’s ‘‘nerve broke completely.’’ Without being able to use physical force, Brille has driven the warder to the brink of suicide, to ‘‘desperation,’’ through the power of psychology.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Bessie Head, Published by Gale Group, 2010