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This study examines nature and nurture (environment) as they shape personalities of Bessie Head’s characters and even herself (the author). Nature and nurture are important in understanding the mental state of Head’s characters.

Nature according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary refers to the essential qualities of a thing; the inherent and inseparable combination of properties essentially pertaining to anything and giving it, its fundamental character. It is also defined as the inherent power or force by which the physical and mental activities of man are sustained. It is the sum of qualities and attributes which make a person what he is. In other words, nature shapes the personalities of individual, the natural or real aspects of a person, place, or thing; the qualities with which people are born (including genetic make-up, stable personality traits, animal instincts, etc).The aforementioned attributes contribute a lot in making us what we are.

Mcclearn (1993) echoes the same thought when he refers to nature as our genetic gift, which gives us physical traits such as hair colour, and form of the body (33). Nature is those genetic inbuilt traits that we are born with. It is all the physical qualities that are being passed to us by our parents or relations; even the dead ones. It is that indestructible matrix upon which character is built and whose shape it must take and keep throughout life. This is what is called person’s nature.

The importance of nurture in human behaviour involves the ways in which it is shaped by society and environment. It focuses on Watson’s theory of behaviourism, which is the theory that human behaviour is acquired, rather than being innate. Human beings learn behaviour from observation and emulation of those around them, as well as through language. It is from this social interaction that people develop their distinct personalities and behavioural patterns. Without social interaction, personality rarely, if at all, develops, and distinct behaviour is infinitesimal. Social interactions and experiences combine over time to influence people’s thinking, feeling, and acting out in particular ways. For example, research shows that children who have parents that are smokers are much more likely to smoke. Such children observe and copy the act of smoking from their parents, and possibly with input from peers, etc. They come to understand that such a behaviour is right for them.

The importance of nature in human behaviour involves the genetic or inborn traits that make people to act the way they do. For years, people believe that human behaviour, is genetic; that a violent person is born violent. The thinking that behaviour is genetic is becoming less and less popular. Nature does not seem to determine human behaviour directly. However, it is not to say that genetics have known influence on human behaviour. Nature determines the maximum IQ a person can have, the maximum height he can achieve, his hair colour, etc. When it comes to say, height, it is nurture that determines when a person stops growing, but it is nature that provides the maximum of height; the right nurture may determine where they fall in the range, but not matter what, nature will not let that person grow beyond that maximum height. For instance let’s say, a person’s maximum height at adulthood is only four feet; the chances of such a person pursuing professional basketball will be very low. In other words, a person who, by nature, is allowed to grow to a maximum height of seven feet may be more likely to consider such profession; so nature certainly serves as a guide for human behaviour. One basic element of nature is that it plays a role in determining personality. People are born with certain personality trait, such as the way they deal with frustration, openness etc. These personality traits help to determine the ways or paths people take in their environment (nurture), which in turn, influence their specific behaviours.

Nurture is stronger in determining specific behaviour, such as whether to smoke, go to school, etc. However, nature seems to provide the framework for behaviour; it provides limits for physical growth as well as personality traits, which effect the environment a person may choose, and then nurture takes over from there to determine their ultimate behaviours. Throughout many people’s lives, nurture determines their behaviours.

Regarding social problems, such as poverty and crime, the belief that nurture is a determinant factor in human behaviour, suggests that crime is learned behaviour through environment and social interaction and that poverty also occurs due to environment. Perhaps a criminal who is born to criminal parents does not view crime as wrong until he/she has habitualized criminal tendencies. Those born into poverty learn actions and behaviours which lead them to be destitute as adults; they are brought up in an environment which leads to continuous poverty. Perhaps children born into poverty have to quit school to get jobs just to help the family make ends meet, and with the dearth of education, they are unable to get better jobs as adults. This means that changing person’s environment would change their behaviour. For example, if a child brought up by criminal parents were to be adopted by non-criminal parents, their behaviour would gradually change, and conform to that of the new parents. This is evident in Charles Dickens Great Expectations in the character of Estella whose parents were ex-convicts; but she succeeded not being a criminal or a convict.

However, if a child brought up in poverty were to be adopted by a family that is better off financially, chances are that he/she may become rich in future. However, environment is not only at home. A person can have law abiding parents and yet, still become a criminal due to peer influences, television, idols, cult influences, etc.

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines nurture as the care and protection someone or something especially young children or plants need to help them to develop. The same dictionary defines it as the way in which children are treated as they are growing up.

            Eze (2010) sharpened the term nurture to mean how environment relates to anything within the environment that may influence the course of human development. For example, nurture relates to the fact that a child is born into and grows in a close knit family unit comprising both parents and other siblings, nurture has to do with the feeding habit of the family; it has to do with the communication code and the code and the level of interaction in the family; it has to do with societal values, attitudes and beliefs, educational system and the cultural artefacts (44).

Nurture is not just limited to parenting but it includes the prenatal environment, peer influence, experience and brain development, culture or child rearing practices and the cohort. Nurture begins in the womb in the prenatal environment that differs from one child to another. He also refers to

nature as concern all the human child is by virtue of biological inheritance. The fact that the human child can stand erect and walk on two limbs, the fact that the human person has the power of speech, the fact that some children will grow up to have a bald head, all these are manifestation of heredity (43).

Genes are not everything; there are other factors that determine one’s personality, such factor is geographical. Different geographical regions have different expectations of how their children look like. For example an Eskimo who is born in Nigeria probably may have an advantage to grow more than their counterpart in their country. Plato (qtd in Daku 2005) argues that all knowledge is inherited through your parents and when you are told something you do not learn it; you are just reminded. This type of knowledge can be ascribed to how Mouse learnt how to read and write from the Old Man (The Cardinals 6).

            Oyono-Mbia (qtd in Nichols 1984) buttresses this point by explaining how he was nurtured thus:

My Mother was and is still a very good story teller. Every evening or so she use to gather around herself all of the small children. We would listen

to stories told in rather humorous fashion, stories usually meant to criticize our way-mainly educational. We got into the habit then of using story telling as a means of educating people and showing them what we thought they ought to be doing (42-43, AWATM).

Nurture has a larger effect on us than nature does.  Nurture is the characteristic builder that we gain as we grow up. It defines our nature and makes us who we are. Nurture cultivates our nature, and it is the main regulator of our being. Our upbringings have greater influence on what we are today. By contrast Obasanjo in This Animal Called Man claims that:

The human infant at birth is a helpless piece of raw material for socialization, but   he is not a total blank page on which anything at all can be written. He had been  programmed in his nature even at birth for a sequence of developmental changes   (125).

Human being is born with language acquisition device (LAD) which makes it easier for him to learn language and writing effortlessly. A human being is like a computer that is programmed and as a computer it is easier for him to acquire knowledge because he has been programmed by nature. As Daku puts it,

Nurture has historically been referred to as the care given by the parents, with  the mother playing a role of particular importance; this term is now regarded by   some as any environmental (not genetic) factor in the contemporary nature versus  nurture debates; thus the definition of nurture has been expanded to include influences on development arising from pre-natal, parental, extended family, peer experiences and influences from media, marketing, and socio-economic status  (Daku 2005:17).

From the aforementioned definition, we can see how the author depicts the life of Mouse as a character that all these influences shape her personality. Even the author (Bessie Head) is influence in this way. Nurture is a more comprehensive term to describe the character of Bessie Head apart from inherent aspects (Nature). Nurture is the sum of the environmental factors influencing the behaviour and traits expressed by an individual. Nurture is what drives Head’s characters to behave in one way or the other. For example, the “feral children” in (Nature versus Nurture debate in Child Education quoted in Adejo 1997) Amala and Kamala, were raised by a she-wolf.

In 1920 the Reverend J.A.L. Singh saw a mother wolf and cubs, two of which had long, malted hair and looked human. After considerable preparation and difficulties, the two human creatures were captured. They turned out to be two girls whose ages were assessed by Singh to be about eight years and seven and half a year respectively.

The creatures were taken to an orphanage in Mindpore, India, where the reverend gentleman lived. Singh described them as “Wolfish” in appearance and behaviour. They walked on all fours and had calluses on their knees and palms from doing so. They were fond of raw-meat and stole it when the occasion presented itself. They licked all liquid with their tongues and ate their food in a crouched position. All these were what nurture had taught the girls.

In nurture, man endeavours to carry out the biblical injunction that says:”Train the child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). In view of the above, The Book of Mormon a comparable holy book to that of the Holy Bible agree that the training one receives in his or her life contributes greatly to human development. It points out that: … “Lawyers were learned in all the arts and cunning of the people; and this was to enable them that they might be skilful in their profession”. (Alma 10:15).

The learning we receive in life is crucial in the development of personality; it is important for our growth and development into normal, prospering adults. Without proper nurturance, guidance, and support, no child will learn life skills or grow up with a strong sense of right and wrong and respect for other people. The famous French Philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, posits a natural development of the child. In fact, he wants the child to be protected from the influence of society so that he could grow up as nature intends him to be.

The topic of investigation therefore seeks to outline, buttress and emphasize this global truth by dwelling on the issue properly using the characters in Bessie Head’s novels, A Woman Alone and The Cardinals as examples. This research adopts an unbiased approach in the study of nature and nurture as they shape personalities.

These novels explore particular problems faced by the characters: their mental states, their behaviours as individuals, and how they finally achieve their goals.

Some South African writers like Alex La Guma in their works recognize the power of nature and nurture in building individual characters. These writers’ contributions have really helped to influence their society by re-channelling and redirecting people’s focus in life by creating awareness among their fellow citizen and sensitizing them to stand up for their rights.

Nature versus nurture is one of the oldest issues in psychology. The debate centres on the relative contributions of genetic inheritance and environmental factors to human development. Some philosophers such as Plato and Descartes suggest that certain things are inborn or that they simply occur naturally regardless of environmental influences. Well-known thinkers such as John Lock believe in what is known as tabula rasa; that the mind begins as a blank slate. According to this notion, everything that we are and all of our knowledge are determined by our experience.

For example, when persons achieve tremendous academic successes, do they do so because they are genetically predisposed to be successful or is it as a result of their enriched environment? Today, majority of experts believe that behaviour and development are influenced by both nature and nurture. However, the issue still rages on many areas like the debate on the origin of homosexuality and influences on intelligence.

The behaviourist perspective in psychology, suggests that behaviour is learned and reinforced by various stimuli in the environment (nurture) (Adejo 2007). Nature and nurture shape the personality of individual characters. The writers studied in this work focus on nature and nurture (environment) as they influence individuals.

1.1 Theoretical Framework

The theory that we are going to use is Naturalism because of its relevant to the study.

            Naturalism was a literary movement or tendency from the 1880s to 1940s that used detailed realism to suggest that social conditions, heredity and environment had inescapable force in shaping human character. The first literary theorist on naturalism was Emile Zola, who said in his E4ssay Le Roman Experimental (1880), that novelist should be like the scientist examining dispassionately various phenomena in life and drawing indisputable conclusion. Notable naturalists include the Goncourt brothers, J.K. Huysmans, Maupassand, the English authors George Moore and George Gissing and the American writers Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Stephen Grane, James T. Farrell, and James Jones.

It was mainly unorganised literary movement that sought to depict believable everyday reality. It was an outgrowth of literary realism, a prominent literary movement in mid-nineteenth century France and elsewhere. Naturalists were influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. They often believed that one’s heredity and social environment largely determine one’s character. Naturalism also attempts to determine scientifically the underlying forces (example, the environment or heredity) influencing the actions of its subjects.

Naturalism exposed the dark harshness of life, including poverty, racism, violence, prejudice, disease, corruption, prostitution, and filth. However, the naturalist tries to maintain tone that will be experienced as objective. The idea that individual characters have a direct influence on the course of their lives is supplanted by a focus of nature or fate.


1.2 Background of the Author

            Bessie Head was born on 6th July, 1937 in Pietermaritzsburg. She was born in a mental hospital as Bessie Amelia Emery, the daughter of a white woman named Bessie Amelia Birch and an unnamed father who was black. She was then adopted and brought up by a foster mother called Nellie Heathcote from 1937-1950. In 1950, Bessie Head was transferred to a mission orphanage called St. Monica’s Home in Durban, South Africa. This was an Anglican Home renowned for its quality education. She was by then thirteen.

In 1955, Bessie Head sat for her physical training exams but failed as she was poor in History, Geography and Biology. At the end of 1956, Bessie took her supplementary examinations at the M L. Sultan Teaching College, and her Natal Teacher’s Senior Certificate came on the first of January, 1957. From 1956 to 1958, she taught at Clairwood Coloured School in Durban where she was faced with difficulties because she was unable to cope with other school children. From 1958 to 1960, she got involved in the world of journalism as a journalist for the Golden City Post and for Drum Magazine, positions she left and joined a political movement (Pan-Africanist Congress) in 1960. On the first of September 1961, she married Harold Head and began writing her first manuscript published thirty years later as The Cardinals. On the 15th May, 1962, Bessie Head’s son Howard Head was born.

In March 1964 she left South Africa on an exit permit to Botswana. She held various jobs, and in 1968 her first novel entitled When Rain Clouds Gather was published. The novel reflects her involvement in Agriculture at the Bamangwato Development Farm and her life in the refugee camp in Francis town. In 1971 her novel Maru was published and it deals with racial prejudices. In 1973, her other novel A Question of Power was published, as it reflects the psychological effects of her mental breakdown and other issues such as race. From 1975 to 1985, Bessie Head’s life took a turn for the better. She received several invitations to give talks at meetings, schools and seminars and was invited to join the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Botswana in 1976. In 1977, The Collector of Treasures was published consisting of different issues reflected in short stories.

Between 1977 and 1978, Bessie Head participated in an International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, USA. In 1979, she was invited to participate in Berlin International Literature Day the same year she also obtained Botswana citizenship. In 1981 Serowe: Village of the Rain was published. In 1982 she was invited by the University of Calabar, Nigeria, in the Department of English and Literary Studies, to participate in the Macmillan Writers Workshops. In 1984 she was invited to the Adelaide Festival of Arts, Australia. Her novel on the History of Botswana, A Bewitched Crossroad was also published in 1984.

In February 1986 Bessie Head became ill and her skin turned yellow. A Doctor diagnosed her with hepatitis and she died on the 7th of April 1986. She was buried on the 20th of April, 1986 at Botalaote graveyard in Serowe because she had become a part of the community due to her love and co-operation with the people.


1.3  Statement of the Problem

The nature versus nurture debate is one of the oldest issues in psychology. The debate focuses on the relative contributions of genetic inheritance and environmental factors to human development. It seems that this battle between nature and nurture will go on forever because both sides can be easily backed up with supporting information as to which is more important. Some psychologists agree that nature and nurture are both major influences in development of behaviour. Joseph (2001) believes that:

Genes were fully responsible for criminal behaviour and that criminals could be identified by their physiological features. Along with this information and the idea of a eugenics movement during the same time period, it was not surprising to learn that acts of sterilization took place to rid society of criminals, idiots, imbeciles, and rapists (184).

This period is therefore marked with inhuman treatment and Joseph believes that the genes are the sole reason behind criminal behaviour:

Not long after the practices of controlled breeding there was evidence to support the idea that the environment also played an important role in crime. Early family studies were conducted that depicted a predisposition for criminal behaviour as a result of inherited characteristics, but that an individual’s characteristics and personality could still be modified by the environment (Joseph, 2001).

Although these studies are void of high validity and reliability, they still raise the question of whether the environment can also influences individual behaviour. The debate is unlikely ever to be settled, but it continues to exercise the minds of educationalists, linguistics, psychologists and geneticists. Because no researcher so far has come out with reliable answers to these lacunae by exploring these oldest issues in psychology to find out whether it is nature or nurture that shapes characters especially in Bessie Head’s works, this research intends to fill these yawning gaps in academics as a means of updating the qualities of Bessie Head’s works in world literature.


1.4  Aims of the Study

The nature/nurture issues have been around for ages, and scholars have still not concluded which of the two has a greater influence on a person. Nature, referring to heredity, and nurture, referring to the environment, are two very reasonable explanations as to why we are the people we are today. The aim of this research is to investigate and discover which of the two (nature or nurture) has a greater influence on characters or individuals in a society. The major concern of this research is, therefore, to outline and demonstrate how nature and nurture influence personalities in Bessie Head’s A Woman Alone and The Cardinals.


1.5  Significance of the Study

            Since the earliest human civilization, philosophers and psychologists have been pondering on what makes man behave in one way or the other. It is as a result of the growing question to unravel the factors that determine human behaviour that this debate (nature verses nurture) emanated. And this study serves as one of the academic contributions to this effort.

This research is unique in that it approaches the debate from comparative point of view in which the definitive influences of these factors in literary works are investigated. Surely, it is different from what psychologists and philosophers could do regarding the same subject matter. Here, the underlying literary exemplification of the debate from diverse works is rather studied. Of course, this study will help readers to learn to appreciate better characters of different casts in a literary work.


1.6  Scope and the Limitation of the Study

            This study is limited to the two novels written by Bessie Head: A Woman Alone and The Cardinals as primary texts. References from time to time will dwell on secondary and critical works on Bessie Head’s writings and on issues or writings on nature and nurture, in addition to deductions arrived at in the course of this research.

1.7  Methodology

The method used in this work is purely analytical and practical; that is, to analyse individual characters and to bring out whether it is nature or nurture that is responsible for shaping individual characters in Bessie Head’s A Woman Alone and The Cardinals. Since nature and nurture involve certain issues that are psychological, some identified texts on the two operative words (nature and nurture) would be of immense advantage, in addition to other library/critical texts.

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