As ‘‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses’’ opens, the narrator describes rows of cabbages, white clouds, and a blue sky on a still day. Not until the third sentence does the reader learn that this is not an idyllic farm but a prison; the cabbages are grown by prisoners who work long days and are not allowed to eat what they grow. One of the prisoners is a thin man with glasses—the title character, whose real name is never given. He is called ‘‘Brille’’ by the others, because in Afrikaans, a language spoken in the western part of South Africa, that is the word forsomeonewhowearsglasses.Brilleisstandingup to look at the clouds passing overhead, and imagining that they might carry a message to his children, when he is reprimanded by the new prison warder, Jacobus Stephanus Hannetjie.
Hannetjie, the prisoners understand, is going to treat them more harshly than the warders they have had in the past. These prisoners are part of a unit known as Span One, a group of ten black political prisoners imprisoned for their resistance to South Africa’s legal segregation system known as apartheid. Because they are imprisoned together and kept apart from the more ordinary criminals, and because they always have a white warder guarding them, the prisoners of Span One have managed over the years to outsmart and manipulate their warders. Because they believe they have committed no crimes, they feel no guilt, but feel instead that they are entitled to whatever they can manage to obtain. For years, they have lied, cheated, stolen cabbages, smoked forbidden tobacco, and covered up for each other while they quietly disobeyed the prison’s rules. Clearly, life with Hannetjie will be different.
One day, Brille is caught with a stolen cabbage that he has been eating. Although Hannetjie knows that Brille is the thief, he punishes the entire group by ordering that they will go without the next three meals. He orders Brille to call him ‘‘Baas,’’ but Brille refuses, and Hannetjie beats him with a knobkerrie, an African club with a large knob on one end. Brille promises the others he will steal something for them to eat. Thinking about his injuries that night, Brille thinks back to his former life as a schoolteacher with a wife and twelve children. His children, he remembers, were a violent lot, always fighting among themselves. It was their violence as much as anything, he remembers, that led him to become involved with the resistance movement—a well-organized movement that frequently called him away from his chaotic home—and the work that led to his arrest.
The day after his beating, Brille is caught by Hannetjie stealing grapes from a shed, and Brille is given a week in isolation. Hannetjie, it appears, is more observant than previous warders have been, and the men are no longer able to obtain stolen cabbages or tobacco, or to have private conversations. But after two weeks of this suffering, Brille appears with a packet of tobacco and tells his fellow prisoners an amazing story: he has gotten the tobacco from Hannetjie himself. The warder was caught by Brille stealing bags of fertilizer for use on his own farm, and Brille accepted the tobacco as a bribe for his silence. However, although he has promised to keep quiet, Brille reports Hannetjie’s theft to the authorities, and the warder is publicly reprimanded and fined. From that day on, Brille has the upper hand, and the prisoners resume their former habits.
For a while, Hannetjie tests the new relationship. He orders Brille to pick up his jacket and carry it for him, but Brille refuses. He orders the prisoner to call him ‘‘Baas,’’ but Brille refuses, declaring that one day the blacks will rule South Africa and the whites will be the servants. Ultimately, Brille tells a commander that the tobacco he is smoking came from Hannetjie, and the warder is again reprimanded by his superiors. Finally, Hannetjie asks Brille what he can do to stop the psychological abuse. ‘‘We want you on our side,’’ Brille says. Accepting his fate, Hannetjie makes life easier for the prisoners, helping them with their physical labor and bringing them better food and cigarettes. For their part, Span One becomes the hardest-working span in the entire prison, and the prisoners help Hannetjie steal fertilizer and other goods for his own farm.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Bessie Head, Published by Gale Group, 2010