After reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s enthralling novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun” is not a conventional war story. It is a story whose characters live in a changing wartime atmosphere, doing their best to keep that environment at bay. And while the ravages of the Biafran war are well known, they do not manifest themselves in predictable or one-note ways here. From reading the reviews, I learned that this is the author’s second novel. It is written with astounding empathy and the natural grace of a normal storyteller, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie weaves together the lives of three characters swept up in the turbulence of the decade. In this literary analysis, I plan on examining aspects of the literary elements that Adichie incorporates as far as her writing style and her reasons for depicting certain elements in certain light. I also plan to break down some characterizations and cultural elements of her novel that I relate to in trying to understand inter-racial/class conflict. Finally, I look at how Adichie transforms her characters throughout the novel. Although this analysis may not follow a clearly defined stream, much like the novel does, rest assured that I cover all my bases.
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The characters and landscape are vividly painted -thirteen year old Ugwu is employed as a houseboy for a university professor full of revolutionary zeal. Olanna is the professor’s beautiful mistress, who has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos for a grimy university town and the charisma of her new lover. And Richard is a shy young Englishman courting Olanna’s twin sister, an enigmatic figure who refuses to belong to anyone. As Nigerian troops advance and the three must run for their lives, their ideals are severely tested and so are their loyalties to one another.
In my opinion, the central theme revolves around moral responsibility, about the end of colonialism, about ethnic allegiances, and about class and race. Adichie indicts the outside world for its unconcern and probes the arrogance and ignorance that perpetuated the conflict. Based loosely on political events in nineteen-sixties Nigeria, this novel focuses on Olanna who falls for the imperious academic whose political convictions mask his personal weaknesses; meanwhile, Kainene becomes involved with a shy, studious British white man who struggles to find his place within this conflict though he identifies with the Biafrans. After a series of massacres targeting the Igbo people, the proper world of the two couples breaks down. Half of a Yellow Sun is concerned with class and race and ethnicity which seem to play the biggest role in the relationships of characters to one another.
Ugwu is only thirteen when he begins working as a houseboy for Odenigbo, but he is one of the most intelligent and observant characters in the novel. His presence throughout affects the reader’s experience of the story because he is initially a naive outsider looking in but by the end of the novel he comes into his own. Good or bad, life and the war situation change him into a veteran and he chronicles his experiences during the war.
The ways in which Adichie reveals the differences in social class among her characters is also culturally relevant. There are the different cultural assumptions made by educated Africans like Odenigbo, “nouveau riche” Africans like Olanna’s parents, uneducated Africans like Odenigbo’s mother, and British expatriates like Richard’s ex-girlfriend Susan. Adichie seems to poke fun at certain aspects of her characters, take Odenigbo for instance; the war changes him from educated political debater to a squalid drunk and really displays the power shift in roles. Once he was the stolid figure in the novel, Olanna seems to take that place while he degenerates due to the war scenario.
In reading the novel, I couldn’t help but express a connection between the Holocaust and the Biafran situation. I found myself questioning why are the Igbo being massacred by the Hausa? I could only attribute their conflict to tribal resentments and rivalries. The novel makes clear that these rivalries have been intensified by British interference supplying the Hausa with money, weapons and ammunitions. Also conveyed by some excerpts throughout the book, the British had to preserve Nigeria as they saw fit a spite of France and to perpetuate their large market. They also rewrote the constitution to give the north control over the central government and even fixed the elections in their favor. Given the history of Nigeria and Britain’s support during the war, the defeat of Biafra seems a foregone conclusion but I can understand why a people oppressed would revolt.
Adichie breaks the chronological sequence of her story so that she can delay the revelation that Baby is not Olanna’s child and that Olanna had a brief liaison with Richard. The effects of these revelations tell of a cultural dilemma. The baby’s mother rejects her, Odenigbo’s mother rejects her for not being a son, yet Olanna shows her true courage in accepting the baby as her own. Adichie makes a point of displaying Olanna’s middle-class frame of mind. She is disgusted at the cockroach eggs in her cousins’ house and is reluctant to let Baby mix with village children because they have lice, but by the end of the novel her privileged outlook changed by the war.
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It is remarkable that a woman so young could write a novel of this scope. There is a human face on these struggles, and being Nigerian-Igbo I can relate to them. Bearing witness to violence and death changes people in the story. Adichie handles descriptions of scenes of violence, death, and famine in an almost brutal and nonchalant way. I can only image what goes through Ugwu’s mind being that he participates in the rape of the bar girl then finds out that his sister was also gang-raped. Richard, on the other hand, seems like he wants to be African, learns to speak Igbo, and says “we” when he speaks of Biafra. Although the Biafran soldiers are not impressed, it seems a noble gesture to want to be an Igbo man.
Reading this book has deepened my understanding of Biafra in particular and war in general each character make difficult moral judgments. I find myself being least sympathetic to Olanna when she cheats in retaliation, to Ugwu when he rapes the bar-girl, to Eberechi for exchanging favors for security from the soldier, even to Odenigbo’s mother when she chases Olanna out of the house. Each of the major characters also deal with the question of identity – who they are, how they want to be? It is evident that the circumstance in any culture dictates how people act and react and justify their behavior. In this case, survival between two tribes was the catalyst in a previously stable country, language reinforce the novelâ€²s themes of racial and social division. For example, Ugwuâ€²s love of the English language, or the mixing of dialects and words throughout the novel. Even in Richardâ€²s character, he seems like an outsider. I feel sympathy for him and although his character adds extra insight into the Nigeria/Biafra war, I think that he is much like a ghost roaming the entire novel looking for a place to fit in. That is why it is particularly sad at the end of the novel when Kainene doesn’t return as she would have been the only person to allow Richard to assimilate into the culture.
In conclusion, the story is one of survival and remembrance from an Igbo perspective; it is important story to retell. The story begins as Ugwu’s aunty describes to Ugwu his new employer: “Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas, talked to himself in his office, did not always return greetings, and had too much hair”. It ends with Ugwu’s dedication of his book: “For Master, my good man”. I can only consider how Ugwu’s relation to his master has changed throughout the course of the story, it fitting that Ugwu, and not Richard, should be the one who writes the story of the war and his people. It was a surprise to discover that Ugwu was the author of The World was Silent When We Died? I found this a great twist and I didn’t see it coming. Since loyalty and betrayal is one of the dominant themes throughout the novel, the key characters betray each other, or themselves repeatedly but the greater threat from an “outside” enemy helps to put things in perspective and enable them to forgive and move on and provides for unification. I found the end of the story sad but settling since the Igbos returned to their homes, I cannot image having to flee from my home due to racial or tribal persecution.
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