Maru by Bessie Head

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I have so struggled to put Maru (by Bessie Head, published 1971) into context that I even reread the short novel (130 pages) before I attempted to write my thoughts.

My second read solidified my perception that Maru is a type of warped fairy tale, one especially with no happily ever after. Although the prince-like Maru marries the despised and hated woman of the town of Dilepe, Margaret is no Cinderella, especially since she loves someone else and considers Maru her equal, not her superior. The two of them have become outcasts in their small African society, and we know from the first pages that both suffer from their fates.

Maru is the son of a chieftain, destined to become the next village chief, and is able to wield the power of his opinion in the town. Beyond that, he has the remarkable ability to see into people’s hearts, to view their dreams, and to give people the same dreams he has. When the orphaned Masawra woman Margaret enters the town, proud of her upbringing and training from a white missionary, Maru immediately sees his opportunity to teach the community the wrongness of prejudice.

“If I have a place,” he says to his sister. “it is to pull down the old structures and create the new” (page 68). His hope is that the rest of the town will learn from him:

They’d not know where to look because they spend their lives judging each other by things of no consequence. (page 70)

Maru is at the outset about prejudice and the need to overcome it. The Masawra, or bushmen, were the lowest class of people, literally listed next to the zebras as inhabitants of the bush.

Africans in Southern Africa could still smile—at least, they were not Bushmen.…There is no one [the Bushmen] can still turn round to and say “At least I am not a ____”(page 11)

Margaret’s Masawra mother had died on the outskirts of a town. The missionary’s wife adopted the infant girl and trained her to be a teacher and a leader, giving the orphan her own name and hoping to prove to the society that heredity is nothing, environment everything. Yet, maybe a little like the orphaned Cinderella, Margaret learns by experience that her place in society is quite different from the white woman’s hopes, since the world only sees her as an “it”: a Masawra.

Margaret is a complicated woman, and I felt that Ms Head’s writing fails to completely explain her, although maybe it is as it should be. Margaret is proud to be a Masawra and declines to hide behind a different label. (She has the same skin coloring as a “coloured” person, who has one African and one white parent, and could easily have “passed” as “coloured”.) Sometimes, we learn that Margaret believes “she was more than [Maru’s] equal” (page 64), but other times she seems paralyzed by the ridicule of the town, unable to avoid hiding in her lonely room.

Maru is likewise complicated, but I despised him, so I have a hard time believing his motives to be pure. He pursues and marries Margaret supposedly because he wanted to give the rest of the world a message, that prejudice is ridiculous, that Masawra are people too. In the first pages novel, which reveal the outcome of the rest of the novel as the bulk of the novel is a flashback, Ms Head writes the opinions of Maru’s servants, and their impressions seem full of scorn:

Every new and unacceptable idea had to be put abruptly into practice, making no allowance for prejudice. … The man [Maru] who slowly walked away from them was a king in their society. A day had come when he had decided that he did not need any kingship other than the kind of wife everybody would loathe from the bottom of their hearts. (page 6)

To the servants and to the rest of Dilepe, Maru is as good as dead. They no longer care for him. I too didn’t like Maru, not because he’s trying to overcome the traditional prejudice but because he does so in a manipulative way. Did Maru really love Margaret? This question seems to be the crux of the novel. In fact, I think Ms Head attempts to redeem Maru. (If that was her purpose, I don’t think she succeeded. I still dislike him.)

Another important aspect of the novel, then, is the question of love. What is sincere love? I have not even mentioned Moleka, the local man who had a reputation for sleeping around but who finally finds a magical, non-lustful love in the woman Margaret. This novel is a novel because of his presence. To me, it seemed that Moleka is the one who truly loves Margaret, and whom she too loves. Maru, on the other hand, attempts to influence society by his actions; he tricks Moleka and Margaret so that he gets the girl he wants in the end, so he can be the high moral individual who ignores prejudice. He seems to act not out of love but out of desire for his place in society, ironically being cast out from society even as he makes that choice.

The end (which is the beginning, since we know how it will end from page one), seems like a failed fairy tale. Yes, the “prince” married the lower class “Cinderella” figure. But the community still rejected them. This is a more realistic fairy tale, though. In what society is the Cinderella completely accepted?

Of course, the fairy tale analogy fails in many ways. Ms Head was not trying to write a realistic fairy tale; she was simply trying to show the complications of modern prejudice in an insular Botswana or South African community. Maru, who tries to overcome prejudice, still comes across as prejudiced, since he noticed Margaret simply because she was a Masawra. Maru wanted the challenge of conquering a person who doesn’t consider him important, and Margaret fit the description.

In the end, my favorite character in the novel was Dikeledi. She still had to learn to control her prejudice. Although she loved Margaret and was a true friend, even she sometimes found herself considering the difference between Margaret as a Masawra and the rest of the community. The prejudice was so deeply ingrained in her upbringing that she too had to overcome her prejudice. She was the one who said a line that seemed to be ironic in its import to the novel. The author Bessie Head must have wanted this to be true in the fictional village of Dilepe:

There’s no such thing as Masawra…There are only people. (page 65)

Reviewed on November 9, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Very interesting review! The book may be short but there is certainly a lot to think on. I felt the same way about Maru. I did not like him at all. I felt he only did what he did for two reasons. One is the reason you mention about changing people’s prejudices. The other reason was because Moleka liked her so she must be worth pursuing. He wanted to keep Moleka from “winning”.

  • This is the only book by Bessie Head that I’ve not read. Head’s books pack quite a punch. And are relentless in their questioning of assumptions and traditions that African hold dear. Nothing was off limits. I have to find this book. Your review has me hooked!

    • Kinna, which is your favorite book by Bessie Head? I think I may find When Rain Clouds Gather because some seem to indicate it’s better than Maru. I did “like” this but it was definitely not a favorite. I think she does a great job describing scenes though. Beautiful writing.

  • Im currently in school and we are reading Maru as part of the curriculum. Unfortunatly my english teacher doesnt explain the happenings in the story in detail (as a matter of fact she doesnt explain much at all.) Im having trouble fully understanding the story. Im writing a literature test on Part 1 of the book. Can anyone help me??????

  • I LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVVVVEEEE MARU! 🙁 Too Bad Bessie Is No longer Alive . That’s The Bestes BoOK Ever!

  • Hi!
    I know your review has already been posted a while ago. I was reading it for an exam I have on Maru. I do not quite agree with you in everything. for example, while I agree that Maru´s character is very difficult and unlikeable, I do believe that he loves Margaret. The similarity of Maru´s and Margaret´s character is mentioned often enough; that they both have a whole kingdom inside them unlike the inner world of anybody else; plus, it becomes clear in the beginning of the novel that Maru is still jealous of Margaret´s love to Moleka – why would he care about that if he only married her to start a revolution?
    However, I just wanted to correct a tinsy mistake you made with the names. It´s not really super important, but Margaret is a MasaRWa, rather than a MasaWRa……it´s funny though, because I made the same sort of mistake with Dikeledi. In the beginning I always read her name Dikedeli, and it kind of stuck 😉

  • maru is definitely not likeable but then again most real life leaders are not. leaders portrayed in literature, movies tend to be likeable because the writer wants to champion some idea using that character. in this case, i don’t think bessie head necessarily wanted us to like maru or feel warm fuzzies about margaret finally ending up with maru( and not moleka). she was driving the point home that the reality of overcoming prejudice takes more than inviting one’s servants to the dinner table and eating from the same fork. maru has to literally create a new society and he hand-picks those that he deems to be worthy of being citizens of such a society and also those who have characters that would make a good foundation for such a society.
    those that thrive in the existing society – such as moleka, dikeledi – are left in the old society. he even connives to get moleka and dikeledi together because they are some of the best at what they do in that society. all the unsavory characters such as all the women who were after maru’s position, all the bigots who looked down upon margaret, the nurses who refused to wash the body of the dead “masarwa” women – all of them are left behind in the old society. the missionary margaret cadmore eventually leaves; the goat and her kid leave the village of abuse and go and live with margaret; the bus driver that transports margaret into the prejudiced society places margaret in the “good hands” of mistress dikeledi and then he leaves with the bus; maru is the next in line to be king but he can’t rule such a society – his dreams are bigger than their prejudices so he also leaves and he takes with him the few candidates that would be good seed for cultivating a new just society. that is also why he is constantly plagued by the fact that he can never know if his decision to take margaret away from moleka was the right decision. he can only let time tell which seeds will grow and which ones will not. he loves margaret but he is never sure if his love was the greater one – the better one – the one that does not lead to the destruction of the one character that is untainted by the warped society. as sure as he is of himself and his vision, he still cannot see the picture from the point of view of universe… why are there men like moleka, why are there men like maru, why do even the purest of women still get attracted to men like moleka. remember margaret’s first encounter with moleka is not exactly a rosy walk in the park…why are there women who scheme for social position, why is it that men such as maru have to trick women into marrying them. why are people like dikeledi quite happy to accept the way things are even though they see the prejudices as clearly as maru, et cetera – hence his recurring nightmare.
    when we are introduced to moleka, it is clear that he thrives in that society. when we are introduced to dikeledi, it is also clear that she embraces her positions in that society – and the only men that is good enough for her is moleka. when we are introduced to maru, he is not liked by his servants. margaret has troubled introduction to the world. moleka and dikeledi belong and thrive in the current system. maru and margaret do not thrive in that system. so do maru and margaret stick around and accept the death plots and prejudice?

    so, i like maru as a character because in the end, he actually makes a stand against the whole village, he challenges moleka to come after him if his love is really superior – alas, moleka chooses the here and now. so, maru is not by any means perfect but then again moleka is not exactly a saint either. maru choses the future without prejudice in a new society. moleka choses the current society with all its flaws. i think it is a misconception to think that bessie head meant this to be a fairy tale. this story is very close to reality. there are no happy solutions to fighting injustice, prejudice and other such vices. the overcoming of such only be attained by those who are strong enough to make tough decisions even when those decisions are unpopular.

    would moleka really have left his womanizing ways and settled for a woman who didn’t care about social status?……if bessie head had ended the story with moleka and margaret together then it would have been a fairy tale

  • Although this discussion ended a long time ago, I just felt I should also point some things out.

    THE NAMING OF CHARACTERS how they are linked with their behaviours

    Maru – Clouds. He was above the rest, he was a paramount chief.

    Moleka- The one who’s trying. Moleka never stopped pursuing after Margaret, he kept on trying despite being distracted by Maru & Dikeledi.

    Dikeledi- Tears. She was constantly in tears, seeing Moleka galavanting with other women.

    Ranko-(Nko = Nose) Nosey one- He was spying for Maru

  • ii too had to re-read this book to get my head around what is truely being said, and ii found that this book has alot of emotive language in it. However ii do not quite understand why you failed to mention the impregnation of Dikaledi, ii think this has to do with the fact that she is your favourite character. ii found it tredgic that Moleka had to eventually go with Dikaledi when His love clearly belonged with Margeret. Oh and the correct spelling is Masarwa*

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