Negative Capability in The Hairdresser of Harare, Red Scarf Girl, and Other Writings

Negative Capability is the ability to stay certain while feelings of uncertainty and doubt are persistent. It exists to guide those who are faced with troubling circumstances. In the novel The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu, a woman falls in love with a man who is hiding his true sexuality. In the short story “An Open House” by James Hughes, a guitar player severs his finger and his family struggles to accept his impairment. In the novel Red Scarf Girl by Ji-li Jiang, a young girl struggles to conform to the developing Communist China because of her family background. All of the characters are faced with different challenges and are able to find and apply negative capability. In order to preserve individuality and endure bleak incidents, some people are able to utilize negative capability.

By withstanding commonly posed ideals with the use of negative capability, one is able to overcome social pressures. In Huchu’s novel, Dumisani is beaten and tortured because of the animosity his society holds for homosexuality. Once Dumisani arrives at the hospital, surgery is performed on his brain, leaving him unconscious for a week. When he regains his consciousness and ability to speak, Vimbai, the main character, is by his side and he thanks her for being there for him. Vimbai takes responsibility for the situation Dumisani is in and she apologizes to him for revealing his personal identity. He says to Vimbai:You see, for a long time I used to think of my gayness as a cancer for which I needed treatment. Then I met Colin and he told me just how wrong I was. Now, I realise it is just something I was born with and as long as Zimbabwe can’t accept it I’d better live somewhere else. (Huchu 208)Dumisani explains that he thought of his sexuality as wrong in the past. Now, with the help of Colin, he realizes that his way of thinking was incorrect. As he gains certainty in himself, he takes action and moves out of Zimbabwe where he can be true to himself. By the use of negative capability, he is able to accept himself and be confident that his choices will benefit him. This assurance and sense of security is a result of negative capability.

Negative capability encourages people to tolerate drastic happenings. In Hughes’s short story, the narrator explains the way his brother Fig handles the accident. Since Fig is a talented guitarist, this misfortune leaves a large impact on him and his family. As his family questions his future with great uncertainty, Fig takes a more optimistic approach to his situation:Of course he was a bit moodier than usual, and he did spend those long periods locked in the bathroom, as I have said, but I new already that what he told me the week after the accident, when we were sitting in the red bar, was true: he understood that he had to embrace this thing himself. (Hughes 353)Instead of questioning his future, he decides it is best to learn to accept what happened. He realizes that embracing his new imperfection is better than dwelling in uncertainty and grief. Although this tragedy may affect his future as a guitarist, he will learn to live with a missing finger. His ability to cooperate with the circumstances he finds himself in comes from the use of negative capability. By persevering rather than residing in worry, one is able to benefit more.

The lack of negative capability leads to the manipulation of one’s mind. In Jiang’s novel, Ji-Li is exposed to many forms of communist propaganda. As she thinks about her life before the many challenging events she faces, she remembers what she was always told: “I never doubted what I was told, ‘Heaven and earth are great, but greater still is the kindness of the Communist Party; father and mother are dear, but dearer still is Chairman Mao’” (Jiang 15). This form of disinformation is present throughout Ji-Li’s childhood. This leaves her uncertain because of the way it contradicts her family’s beliefs. She is classified as an enemy of the people of Communism. As her family suffers in the hands of society, she is unable to realize the true damage caused by Communism. When one lacks the ability to stay confident in his or herself, one is easily persuaded for the worse.

The ability to use negative capability is very helpful during difficult times. In The Hairdresser of Harare and “An Open House”, the use of negative capability aids in the acceptance of self-identity and harsh outcomes of tragic events. In Red Scarf Girl, the absence of negative capability leads to Ji-Li’s mind being more vulnerable to manipulation. The ability to stay certain through troubling times is an important skill to have as it motivates and encourages one to endure severe occurrences.