Many stories from cultures the world over feature a hero, typically a large, handsome, physically strong man who defeats his enemies and gains wealth and glory through a combination of physical combat, virtue, and shrewdness. In ‘‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses,’’ on the other hand, the protagonist, Brille, might be better labeled an ‘‘antihero.’’ In literature, the antihero demonstrates qualities opposite of those expected of the hero. Brille, for example, is not large and powerful but rather a small, thin, older man with glasses. He is not particularly virtuous; rather, he is one of the best liars and thieves in the prison who begins his defeat of Hannetjie by breaking a promise. He is not seeking wealth, or even his freedom; he knows he is going to be in prison for a long time, and he only wants the time to be endurable. The only quality he shares with the traditional hero is his shrewdness; he sees that the way to defeat his enemy is with psychology, and he patiently waits for the best moments to torment the warder.
Conflict, or the setting of two people or groups or forces in opposition to each other, is at the heart of ‘‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses.’’ The plot focuses on the conflict between the prisoner Brille and the warder Hannetjie, each struggling to overcome the other in a psychological battle. Hannetjie, of course, has more than psychology among his weapons: as a prison warder, he is also free to use physical violence against Brille. In the prison, all of the warders are in conflict with all of the prisoners, but the prisoners are united, they are ‘‘comrades,’’ they ‘‘moved, thought and acted as one.’’ The prison authorities are not united in this way, and Brille is able to gain an advantage over Hannetjie by exploiting the fact that the warders are hierarchical rather than equals.
The setting of the story is South Africa under apartheid. On a national level, the country is also defined largely by its internal conflict between the whites who hold most of the power and wealth, and the other racial groups (black, Indian, coloured) seeking self-determination. It is the broader conflict established by apartheid that is the reason Brille and the others are in prison, and the reason Span One never has a black warder. Thus, the conflict between Brille and Hannetjie is brought about by the larger racial and political conflict and can be seen as a tiny, hopeful reenactment of how the larger conflict might play out.
About halfway through the story, after Brille has been beaten by Hannetjie, the narrator presents a flashback; that is to say, the narrator disrupts the orderly chronology to tell about events that occurred before the story began. In his cell,thinking about his head wounds, Brille thinks about his home, the sixteen years he spent with his wife, Martha, and their growing family in a small house in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa. His memories are focused on his children and how chaoticandviolenthishomelifewas.Itwashiswish to escape the chaos, more than any strong desire for justice, which drove him to join the anti-apartheid struggle, with itsmeetingsandconferencesfar away from home. The story never again refers to Brille’s family, and Brille does not seem to change in any way after this memory, this flashback. Placed in the center of the story, this flashback serves the characterization, not the plot, and gives the reader a clearer sense of Brille as an ordinary man.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Bessie Head, Published by Gale Group, 2010