Head: Religion

I must again give a spoiler alert for this blog post. As I missed last week’s class discussion and blog post due to a migraine, I will be discussing the entirety of Bessie Head’s A Question of Power. If you haven’t read the text to the end and would not like the ending and major plot points spoiled for you, please stop reading here!

Reading Assignment: Bessie Head’s A Question of Power (last week: pages 1-100; this week: pages 103-206).

Religion is a very integral part of Bessie Head’s A Question of Power. As Elizabeth struggles through her internal/mental encounters with Sello and Dan, she explores aspects of numerous religious faiths and mythologies. However, many readers may have questions about who the manifestations of Sello and Dan really are as they read through the text. At some point or another, both Sello and Dan are either God or Satan/Lucifer, but who are they representing really?

Through my textual analysis, I believe that Sello is the closest character to being a representation of God, while Dan is Lucifer himself. When Sello first appears to Elizabeth, he is described in a very traditional God-like manner:

“The form of a man totally filled the large horizon in front of her. He was sitting sideways. He had an almighty air of calm and assurance about him. He wore the soft, white, flowing robes of a monk, but in a peculiar fashion, with his shoulders hunched forward, as though it were a prison garment” (Head 22).

In comparison, Dan is first described as being far more sinister in nature:

“He assembled his soul and form in a wide, sweeping arc over heaven and earth. One half of him seemed to come shooting in like a meteor from the furthest end of the universe, the other rose slowly from the depths of the earth in the shape of an atomic bomb of red fire; the fire was not a cohesive flame, but broken up into particles of fine red dust. All put together it took the shape of a man, Dan” (Head 104).

There are numerous places in the text where Dan does things within Elizabeth’s mind that makes her doubt Sello, and all of his actions and “records” are done with great intent to discredit Sello for Elizabeth and lead her away from his teachings. This corruption is very similar to that of the teachings of Christianity, where Satan tempts you away from the teachings of the Lord, luring the sheep away from the flock (if you will). Dan’s malicious intent, while alluded to throughout the novel, is blatantly admitted through a piece of narration of page 129 of the text:

“The next day he was free to turn his attention back to his job, which was, of course, directing the affairs of the universe. The universe couldn’t be set right until Sello was either set right, or dead” (Head 129).

While Sello or his teachings weren’t perfect by any means in this novel, Dan’s mission is for Elizabeth to forsake him, which she does on page 140 by cutting the literal cord that connected them. After she does this, he becomes sickly with green splotches on his face, and Dan tries to further corrupt her. However, when she forsakes Dan by the end of the novel, Sello becomes rejuvinated and even apologizes for what he put her through with his teachings. During this apology, Sello directly names Dan as Satan and takes the blame for his influence on her. As Elizabeth regains some whisper of sanity, she eventually forgives Dan and is almost grateful for what he taught her:

“David’s song arose in her heart once more, but this time infinitely more powerful and secure: ‘I have been through the valley of the shadow of death, but I fear no evil. I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’ She treasured the encounter with Dan. The suffering she had endured had sealed her Achille’s heel; that of the brutal murder for love. . . Dan had blasted her to a height far above Buddha; he had deepened and intensified all her qualities. He was one of the greatest teachers she’d worked with, but he taught by default–he taught iron and steel self-control through sheer, will, abandoned debauchery; he taught the extremes of love and tenderness through the extremes of hate; he taught alertness for falsehoods within, because he had used any means to destroy Sello. And from the degradation and destruction of her life had arisen as still, lofty serenity of soul nothing could shake” (Head 202).

Elizabeth emerges stronger from her encounters with two extremes of faith: a representation of God and Satan. But in the end, she takes the power that they have over her life and soul back from them and turns it inward for herself, declaring that she is a prophet for the god that is Man.

Unfortunately, I do not have the time to go over all of the aspects of religion that are in this book, but I will be covering some of them with my conference presentation later in the semester (particularly the aspects of Greek mythology and how they interact with different ideas and themes throughout the text).

I’d love to hear what you, my readers, think about this theory that Sello is God and Dan is Lucifer/Satan. None of these characters are the most reliable, so do you think the representation is reversed? Or what do you make of the aspects of religion that is found throughout A Question of Power? Please, let me know by leaving me a comment.

Until next time, I’ll leave you with a quote from Sello himself on the question of power that may complicate the reading of his character and any of the religious-themed characters:

“If the things of the soul are really a question of power, then anyone in possession of power of the spirit could be Lucifer” (Head 199; italicized in text).

-Megan Mann

Head, Bessie. A Question of Power. Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1974, Oxford.


One thought on “Head: Religion

  1. Yes, I think it’s a convincing hypothesis. I think it’s also possible to argue that Bessie Head is interested in mixing up these binaries (between God and Satan, good and evil, etc). To a certain extent, Greek mythology helps us to see this more nuanced perspective–so I think you’re onto something here.


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