This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
The hidden power of the female presence
Christopher Humphrey, CPR-nr.: 260582-4245
Text and Sign Part Two: Camelia Elias
Chris Humphrey Page 1
The majority of women are often portrayed in literature as completely accepting of their subservient position to men within a patriarchal social structure, and most feminist theory casts its focus on women who question this relation of power between the genders and seek to break free from the social casts that enslave them and establish a new order in which power and opportunity is shared equally among men and women.
In Bessie Head’s short story Heaven Is Not Closed a new dimension of the power ratio between sexes is explored on a spiritual level. Is it possible that this new dimension can showcase a blatant, yet sidelined, essence of female power? Could this perspective open the doors to a new dimension from which to study female protagonists from a feminist perspective?
Heaven Is Not Closed is a short story written in the late 1970, by South African author Bessie Head. The story takes its start on the funeral day of the protagonist Galethebege, a healthy, dignified woman in her nineties. A third person narrator recounts the events of the day as well as the story of Galethebege’s life as told by her brother-in-law Modise. After summoning her entire family in her final hours she adopts a mysterious prayer-position before taking her last breath, instead of the customary death position of arms crossed on the chest. This mystifies the family present, as they expected her to adopt a more suitable position as she knew her hour had come. Modise tries to explain the mystery of her final prayer to the grandchildren of the family by telling them the story of Galethebege’s courtship with her husband Ralokae, who died five years earlier, and how it could have perhaps played an important role in
Chris Humphrey Page 2
leading to her final position of rest. In this process the conventional relationship of power is obvious in its presence, but reveals a generally obscured dimension of female power that has been present in literature throughout the ages.
Feminist literary theory as a critical school was established in the 1960’s but existed before this in the cultural political context. Rita Felski defines feminism as “forms and practises of theory that seek, no matter on what grounds and by what means, to end the subordination of women.”( Felski, 1989:13) In the first wave of criticism that was present in the Nineteenth Century focus was mainly on the material conditions of woman in literature and how it compared to those of men. The second wave of feminism in the late 1960’s shifted the focus from this material comparison to a sexual comparison in terms of such things as experience, biology, discourse and social and economic conditions. All though sexual as well as material power have both gained plenty of attention no wave of criticism makes any particular notion of a comparison of spiritual power though, and only feminist theory with a background in Freudian theory where consciousness and unconsciousness are explored or second wave feminism focusing on the sexual difference based on experience even come close.
The female protagonist in our story, Galethebege, is disclosed as a healthy, proud, dignified, faithful character with almost holy and mystical properties. She predicts the hour of her death, which is regarded as a holy moment. Those present are described as “utterly convinced that they had watched a profound
Chris Humphrey Page 3
and holy event.” This is contrasted with the initial introduction of her husband Ralokae as “an unbeliever to the day of his death...” The chief symbols present in the story are those of tribal tradition and old custom which Ralokae represents and those of the new and civilised customs of Western Christianity which Galethebege represents. It is also within these realms of custom in which the story’s conflict occurs. No distinction is made between male and female in any physical sense.
Ralokae is presented as a hero to his tradition, and his tribe reacts in celebration because “Ralokae had honoured the old customs...” . As these old ways are believed too heathenistic though, Ralokae is presented as being unpure. He has also previously been married under traditional law, adding to his impurity. He is determined to get remarried but no mention is made of his love for Galethebege. He simply tells her “I am pleased by all your ways.”
Galethebege on the other hand is portrayed as a young woman greatly dedicated to her faith in the Christian God. This faith in God is her “whole life.” She represents purity. She is pure in her love as well as we are informed that when she was courted by Ralokae “It was the first time love had come her way.”
Chris Humphrey Page 4
Galethebege agrees to marry Ralokae, knowing that she would have to give up her desire to be married in the Christian custom. She is excommunicated from her church for partaking in the traditional wedding ceremony, thus sacrificing her “whole life” in order to pursue her love, and life with Ralokae. In doing this she takes up her traditional subservient role in the patriarchal society in which she lives. “She would do all that Ralokae commanded as a good wife should. But her former life was like a drug.”
The only difference brought into play in the story is that of the spiritual affiliations of Galethebege and Ralokae. They are both “much respected in the community” and now mention is made of any physical difference or separation between them. Galethebege’s inherent good nature and spiritual integrity is what gives her the power to be subservient. When Ralokae passes away she carries on with her former life and resumes her glorification of God.
She is presented in the final line of the story as using her last breaths to pray for heaven to be opened to her non-believer husband, thus emphasising her spiritual strength. She uses her strength and good nature in service of her dead husband. She is the one with the spiritual power to save his soul, and is thus represented as the one with the final power, almost a holy deity as such.
This representation of subservience as due to woman’s great strength in spirit and commitment could lead the way to study women previously regarded as
Chris Humphrey 5 14/11/2008
powerless in their traditional subservient roles in literature as empowered in a new dimension of spirituality and inherent nature. In this dimension women are presented as the heroines of litariture, the good natured modest warriors of dignity that triumph in the end.
Reference list: Head, Bessie (1977) “Heaven Is Not Closed”. MacKenzie, Graig, ed. (1999) Transitions: Half a Cetury of South African Short Stories. Cape Town: Francolin Publishers, pp52-57.
Felski, Rita (1989) Beyond Feminine Aesthetics. Cambridge USA: Harvard University Press.
Elias, Camelia. (2008) Course Slides. Lecture 3