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Pleasure, Autonomy and the Myth of the Untouchable Body in Bessie Head’s Maru


By Natasha Lloyd-Owen

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 73 (December 2011), pp. 46-52]

My message always seemed larger than Botswana so that I seem to have ended up with a Botswana of my own making.[1]

Maru is the novel which Head develops her idea of soul power. Her central characters are depicted as ‘larger than Botswana’, transcending the nation itself, and therefore evaporating bodily into mythologised elements. Maru ‘prefer[s] to be the moon’ (45), cool and mild against Moleka, who is ‘a radiant sun’ (44). For Head, they are ‘kings of opposing kingdoms’, not just future leaders of their tribe (25). Here, the ‘immense humanity’ beyond national and even physical boundaries offers a universalist reading of racial prejudice and alienation but in doing so undermines the potential for bodily redemption.[2]

This article will consider sexual pleasure at the margins of Head’s discourse of elemental compatibility; how the erotic is expressed through the distinctly physical sexualities of Dikeledi and Moleka, the shifting ownership of Margaret’s bed and body, and the precarious freedom offered by art.

In Maru ‘the bed’ is specifically negotiated as a potentially erotic site (46). Moleka’s offer of a bed is the first word spoken after ‘something inside [Margaret’s] chest went bang!’ (21) This momentary confession of deep intimacy is written into Moleka’s humble statement: ‘I’ll fetch you a bed’ (22). The bed from this point on acts as a symbol of Moleka’s intimate confession. It is Maru’s sense of such intimacy that leads him to insist that the bed is returned, asserting his own ‘final authority’ over this potential consummative space (49).

Later, under the guise of arranging a loan for Margaret to buy her own bed, Moleka attempts to approach Margaret once more. The bed becomes almost its own discourse. One through which the two men can physically express their feelings for Margaret and each other. At the novel’s close the bed provides a lasting image of male territorial assertion as Ranko, on Maru’s behalf, makes ‘a last-minute check to see if any item, other than the bed, had been left behind’ (100). At this final point, abandoning Margaret’s bed demonstrates a symbolic conquest and Maru’s denial of the intimacy between Moleka and Margaret.

Head allows the bed, as symbol and physical space, to occupy a great deal of the text but predominately as an absent-presence. We see a similar absent-presence in Head’s rendering of Margaret.  She stands distinct from the soul structures of Maru and Moleka, as a universal symbol of the racially oppressed. She is a character on the margin of the village community, exiled from her own Masarwa tribe by her colonial education, and an outsider to village life because of her tribal origins. Head’s depiction of Margaret as a ‘goddess’ deconstructs societal hierarchies (52). Unlike Moleka and Maru, who are elevated from their everyday positions of power into elemental kingdoms, Margaret’s position is one of reversal, as her Masarwa body disintegrates, leaving only her deep, creative soul.

Head subverts the Botswana hierarchy of Masarwa/Batswana, in terms of slave/master races, by describing Margaret as a goddess. However, what is crucial here is that Margaret’s godly credentials are based on her ‘creative imagination’ and not in her physical presence (45). Whilst Head’s depiction of Margaret as an artistic spirit enables her to transcend her status as a ‘Bushman’, it inadvertently requires that she abandon her body (11). Margaret is Masarwa, teacher, artist, even lover, but never a female lover – never a woman within a body. Her sex is repressed in order to achieve a potentially ‘higher’ network of relationships based in the elemental.

Head’s attempt to convey the magnitude of Margaret’s soul causes her body and its sexual potential to fall by the wayside. Even at the moment of attraction between Moleka and Margaret Head narrates their intimacy at the level of the soul, refusing to acknowledge any bodily longing.  Head does describe Margaret’s heart as it goes ‘bang!’ (21), but Moleka later asks, ‘what were her legs like?’ re-emphasising her invisible body (23). Moleka has both seen ‘straight to her heart’ and yet apparently not seen her at all (61). In raising these ‘almost insurmountable barriers over the physical’ Head inadvertently conforms to the oppressive position her text condemns (61). Margaret, who exists within the text but without a tangible body, becomes literally an “untouchable”. She is not just an outcast who ‘belong[s] nowhere’ but faces further alienation because Head has exiled her from her own female body (75).[3]

Against Margaret’s absent limbs the text juxtaposes the voluptuous figure of Dikeledi. Head introduces Dikeledi through ‘one elegant leg’, immediately constructing her around her physical body and in terms of Margaret’s lack thereof (15). Dikeledi in her ‘too bold’ clothes and ‘too tight’ skirt represents a tangible womanliness (15). Her physical presence leads Moleka to demand ‘why do you advertise your thighs?’ (65) His question is loaded with resentment and an understanding of women as commodities. Moleka’s rhetorical question quickly develops into a statement of culpability:

Women like you are the cause of all the trouble in the world. (65)

Moleka’s exaggerated location of blame expresses a seething misogynist criticism of openly sexualised femininity. Such conscious sexuality is conceived by Moleka as a performance of ‘advertising’ and ‘pretend[ing]’ (65). However, more subtly, Moleka’s statement of potential loathing suggests the power of ‘women like’ Dikeledi, who express an obvious sexual desire and confidence. Moleka’s statement rings with the concealed threat to patriarchal authority in such a sexualised female presence. Women are condemned, seemingly by both Moleka and Maru, for what Maru terms their ‘greed’ and ‘flesh’; the insinuation is that there is something repulsive in women’s sexual longing (54). In an interview with Mineke Schipper, the South African writer Miriam Tlali comments that:

If she’s had other men before her marriage a woman is never allowed to talk about it. The reverse is true for men.[4]

Tlali echoes the hypocrisy present in Maru. Moleka’s vast physical presence renders him not only grossly visible but so tangible that his voice can be felt to ‘vibrate’ each room that contains it (19). Yet, whilst Moleka’s physical confidence makes him powerful, in Dikeledi such confidence renders her culpable for ‘all the trouble in the world’. There is a clear gender disparity in Moleka’s accusation, which discounts his own physicality and sexual experience.

Head highlights such exploitation as Moleka is seen to treat Dikeledi as though she were his ‘concubine’ (66). This abuse is most starkly presented when Moleka enters Dikeledi’s house with the intention to ‘throttle her’ (63). This passage explicitly blends the sexual with the violent as Moleka’s desire for vicarious revenge, against his sudden-enemy Maru, turns into a resolve to sleep with Dikeledi. Sex becomes a location for violent catharsis and Dikeledi is hastily reduced to a hollow vessel through which Moleka can facilitate his battle against Maru.

More problematically, Maru’s ultimate ‘rescue’ of Margaret simulates the movements of Moleka in his violent surge towards Dikeledi. Just as Moleka enters Dikeledi’s house without her consent and moves immediately to her bed, so Maru enters Margaret’s school-house without her knowledge and makes his way uninvited to her bed. Maru mirrors Moleka as both Dikeledi and Margaret become vessels for revenge and victory in a male rivalry akin to war.

Head positions intimacy as a case of female submission, as Dikeledi’s plea for respect is met by Moleka’s jeer that she ‘run to the home of [her] brother and report that [he is] molesting [her]’ (64), and Maru carries Margaret’s broken body off to ‘a home, a thousand miles away’ (102). Female agency, desire and pleasure are absent in both episodes and Maru’s apparent love for Margaret is subtly written in terms of manipulation and abuse.

Margaret, as a woman, occupies a position of utter passivity but, given her divine ‘creative imagination’, it is as an artist that she resists and speaks. Her painting initially erupts in a ‘tremendous pressure’ of artwork (81). Head seems to construct Margaret’s paintings as the equivalent of Moleka and Dikeledi’s ‘high blood pressure’, as painting becomes her erotic outlet (57). The inspiration for Margaret’s paintings comes from that which she sees ‘each time [she] close[s] [her] eyes’ (83). Her inspiration is therefore located at the level of the subconscious. As Margaret describes to Dikeledi the dream from which she paints, it is cast in terms of intimacy and guilt.

I looked up…and a little way ahead I saw two people embrace each other…I felt so ashamed, thinking I had come upon a secret which ought not to be disclosed, that I turned and tried to run away. (83)

Margaret’s desire to run away initially suggests her sexual suppression. Margaret attempts to escape from the intimate. However, her subconscious desire to run away articulates a more complex yearning to escape Maru’s imposed intimacies.

After all, the imagined images that lie behind Margaret’s eyes are not offered as self-expression. Instead Margaret is once again denied agency and considered as just the ‘living being…on the receiving end of [Maru’s] dream’ (84). This dream is a device through which Maru penetrates Margaret’s imaginings in order to lay the foundations of their future intimacy. Dikeledi recognises Maru as one of the two people embracing in Margaret’s painting and the ‘pitch black clouds [that] envelop the sky’ emblematically evoke Maru, whose name means cloud in the Setswana language (83).[5]

The innate compatibility that Maru implies when he tells Margaret that they ‘used to dream the same dreams’ is undermined by his former manipulation (101). Margaret and Maru’s inter-racial marriage ambiguously wavers between a fairy tale solution to racial prejudice and the sinister connotations of mental colonisation.

Yet, as Zoe Wicomb has convincingly argued, Maru’s colonisation of Margaret – as a Masarwa and a future wife – is subtly undermined by the manner in which Margaret paints his dream.[6] She translates his dream onto three separate canvases, transforming it into distinct images and thereby splitting Maru’s consciousness, and subtly asserting her own. Against the dream that Maru has composed, her paintings voice rebellion by their denial of its unified vision.

She had separated the scenes into three. The house stood alone with its glowing windows; the field of daisies and the lowering sky made their own statement; and on their own, two dark forms embraced in a blaze of light. (84)

Here, Head presents Margaret’s art through a language of possession and detachment. Margaret’s discrete canvases deconstruct and translate Maru’s dream into her ‘own statement’ (84). This is perhaps the ‘Botswana of [her] own making’ that Head writes of in ‘Some notes on Novel Writing’.[7] Margaret is subtly re-making Maru’s dream and thereby asserting art’s power to reconfigure the world.

Head juxtaposes these three compositions to which Maru lays claim with the painting Margaret creates for Moleka. This final painting is a gesture of gratitude intended ‘to thank [Moleka] for removing the loneliness from her heart’ (91). Unlike Margaret’s fractured disassembling of Maru’s dream, her tribute to Moleka is intimately whole and its unity speaks of her desire for him. It is in this artistic rendering that Margaret confesses her love for Moleka and with it achieves a precarious female agency.

Colette Guldimann argues that Margaret’s artwork suggests a liberating solution in providing black women with a ‘space to express, and create, their desires’.[8] However, Guldimann overlooks Margaret’s specific spatial ambiguity. She is, as I have already argued, denied a bodily location and, therefore, whilst her desire is communicated it cannot be physically expressed, remaining abstract and intangible. Her voice – dislocated from its human body – can never reverberate with the room-shaking authority of Moleka.

Yet, art, as Margaret’s erotic outlet, does offer her a space in which to be ‘the creator’; and this reproductive aspect of art once again suggests a simulation of sex.[9] Her position as creator, melded with Maru’s dream telepathy, sculpts a future world. Her separation of Maru’s dream into three distinct paintings, anticipates the three figures who will lurk within their future marriage, Maru, Margaret and, significantly, Moleka. Against Margaret’s creative divinity, Dikeledi is constructed by Head as a kind of earth-bound goddess, and her creation is constituted bodily by the implied fertility of her ‘thickening waistline’ (94).

However, despite the liberating potential in creation, birth frequently signals death in Maru. Moleka’s marriage to a pregnant Dikeledi nearly kills Margaret and the birth of love between Moleka and Margaret leads to the death of Moleka and Maru’s friendship. Sex is presented as a threat by association. It is the ‘soiled’ corpse of Margaret’s mother that marks the founding body from which Margaret’s life begins (8). Head skilfully emphasises Margaret’s corpse-birth by means of a narrative beginning which is actually the text’s chronological ending.

Head’s prolepsis offers a post-‘happily-ever-after’ scenario in which Maru and Margaret experience a marriage where suffering is ‘far over-balanced by…days of torrential expressions of love’ (3). Importantly, ‘torrential’ implies a deluge of rain, and with it, clouds. Clouds, as one of the two elemental symbols for Maru, are positioned as that from which the torrential expressions must come.[10] Given this logic of the elemental, Margaret is once again denied agency, passively drenched in Maru’s torrents of emotion.

Margaret does, however, express her own localised storm through the ‘deep, heart-rending sobs’ she cries in her sleep. Head maps their home in terms of symbolic space, describing ‘two rooms…in one his wife totally loved him, in another she totally loved Moleka’ (4). This second room is a subconscious space in which Margaret ‘always [has] the same dream’ (4). This dream articulates her trauma at the severed love between Moleka and herself; a love which is now represented by the subconscious spectre of Moleka whose blood ‘stream[s] from a wound in his mouth and his heart.’ (4) As Margaret’s ‘hot tears’ stream onto Maru’s arm he is forced to know her grief. However, Margaret is denied knowledge of her own anguish, as she has ‘no mental impression of her dreams’ (4). Margaret’s trauma is an articulation of desire that, painfully, she cannot remember.

When Dikeledi comments that Margaret looks as though she has never had raised blood pressure, she suggests Margaret’s inexperience in love and insinuates her virginity. However, once Margaret is married to Maru and sharing his bed, Head narrates a change in her. From the quiet peace of her previous year Margaret has ‘become another Dikeledi’ (93). Head, it seems, cannot help but see sex as perverse, as Margaret’s transformation insists on a sexual inevitability. Head seems to imply that, with the complication of sex, love cannot remain transcendent and godly.

In Head’s novel of mythic soul recognition there is an important split between Moleka and Dikeledi who produce children, have sex and will rule the material world and the elemental connection between Margaret and Maru, whose relationship seems to elide sexuality. The novel raises an important question as to who can have children and symptomatically who is allowed access to sexual pleasure. Critics have frequently seen the deep-seated misogyny within Maru as ‘problematic’.[11] However, Head’s exposition in fact undermines such behavioural norms. What remains problematic is the disparity between Head’s treatment of race and sex. The narrative voice so frequently moralises on the racism faced by the Masarwa that it seems comparatively silent in light of blatant patriarchal abuse.

Head’s priority in Maru is to liberate Margaret as a Masarwa and prove the equal worth of ‘Bushmen’ (6). Margaret’s absent body demonstrates Head’s desire to assert her soul. However, we are left wondering what it would mean to liberate Margaret as a woman. What would happen if Head foregrounded sexuality and offered Margaret a greater rebellion than her painterly dissent and the ‘hot tears streaming on to [Maru’s] arm’ (4). Despite Head’s mythic rendering of liberation, her novel acknowledges the compromises of reality. Reproduction is cast as a bodily threat and Margaret’s marriage to Maru offers a compromised freedom, in which she may dream of, but never touch, the desired Moleka.

Natasha Lloyd-Owen graduated last year from the University of Leeds (English Language and Literature), having won the Sir Richard Graham Prize and the Ripon Prize. She spent one year of her undergraduate English degree at Penn State University, during which she worked for the Africana Research Centre. She is currently studying for her Graduate Diploma in Law and intends to become a human rights barrister. The article published here is an extract from her undergraduate dissertation: 'Sexual Pleasure in Southern African Literature', which considered novels by Doris Lessing, Bessie Head and Yvonne Vera.


Eilerson, Gillian Stead, Bessie Head: Thunder Behind Her Ears (London: James Currey, 1995)

Guldimann, Colette, ‘Bessie Head’s Maru: Writing after the End of Romance’ in Maxine Sample (ed.) Critical Essays on Bessie Head, (London: Praeger, 2003), pp.47-69

Head, Bessie, Maru (London: Heinemann, 1971)

Head, Bessie, ‘Some Notes on Novel Writing’ in Craig MacKenzie (ed.) A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, (Oxford: Heinemann, 1990), pp.61-64

Head, Bessie, ‘Village People’ in Craig MacKenzie (ed.) A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, (Oxford: Heinemann, 1990), pp.39-41

Katrak, Ketu H., ‘“This Englishness Will Kill You”: Colonial[ist] Education and Female Socialization in Merle Hodge's “Crick Crack, Monkey,” and Bessie Head's “Maru”’ in College Literature, Vol. 22, No. 1, (1995), pp.62-77

Tlali, Miriam & Mineke Schipper, ‘An Interview with Miriam Tlali’ in Mineke Schipper (ed.) Unheard Words: Women and Literature in Africa, the Arab World, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America, (London: Allison & Busby, 1985), pp.65-66

Wicomb, Zoe, ‘To Hear the Variety of Discourses,’ in Current Writing 2, No. 1 (1990), pp.35-44

[1] Head, “Some Notes on Novel Writing”, p62

[2] Head, “Village People”, p40

[3] Ketu H. Katrak, ‘This Englishness Will Kill You’, p72

[4] Miriam Tlali, ‘Interview with Miriam Tlali’, p66

[5] Gillian Stead Eilerson, Thunder Behind Her Ears, p112

[6] Zoë Wicomb, “To Hear the Variety of Discourses”, p43

[7] Head, “Some Notes on Novel Writing”, p62

[8] Colette Guldimann, “Bessie Head’s Maru”, p67

[9] Guldimann, p64

[10] Maru is linked, throughout Maru, to both clouds and the moon.

[11] Katrak, p73

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