Being a Butterfly

Selasi’s Ghana Must Go is a brilliant and heartbreaking novel that follows the lives of an immigrant family. The death of Kweku Sai sparks a family reunion that brings the Sais together and unfolds the truths, transformations, and heartbreak. Selasi’s poetic style enhances the emotions the reader experiences throughout the text. Her use of repetition causes the story to slow down and allows the reader to connect with each character and story in this journey. Specifically, the visual repetition of a buttery fly becomes seemingly significant in the first part of the novel. The symbolic butterfly draws attention to important scenes in the story and provides significance to other aspects of Ghana Must Go. I am intrigued by this literary device Selasi uses in order to draw on the importance of death.

A butterfly in many contexts represents the power of transformation and life. In my personal understanding, a butterfly is associated with the soul, life, and transformation. The cycle a butterfly goes through demonstrates different stages of life that may not always be beautiful. This theme is illustrated throughout Ghana Must Go in several forms. One could argue the butterfly primarily represents transformation and change, however, I want to focus on this idea that the butterfly is a visual image Selasi uses to signify death.

The reoccurring image of the butterfly adds depth to the meaning of death in Ghana Must Go. Specifically, the scene in which Kweku sits by his mother in chapter ten displays the visual image and its significance. As Kweku grasps the idea that his mother has passed a butterfly, “black and blue (swordtail), just coming to rest, an almost neon shade of turquoise, black markings, white dots”, appears on her toe (Selasi 59). This scene acknowledges the relationship between the butterfly and death. It is an image that indicates the departure of the soul. The butterfly appears when his mother is gone. The butterfly is a symbol of a life taken. Again in chapter eleven, the image of the butterfly reappears. The beauty of the butterfly distracts Kweku from acknowledging his pain. The image of the butterfly here resembles the escaping of the soul. Kweku is physically feeling shortness of breath and pain in his chest and the butterfly is the image that reminds the reader of death.

In this scene, the butterfly works to also illustrate the difficulty Kweku faces with himself. Kweku desires to be a successful man who is able to provide for his family, however, he feels he cannot always do so. The butterfly thus can represent Kweku and his journey. Kweku is struggling, feeling trapped as to say he is in a cocoon. However, Kweku’s body does not have the strength to spread his metaphorical wings. It is said that a butterfly cannot appreciate its own beauty but brings beauty to those around it and Kweku’s death does that. The beauty of bringing together family and telling stories of migration and transformation through the death of a loved one creates a strong bond.

The butterfly illustrates death and Kweku’s death specifically gives further significance to the repeating image Selasi uses. The butterfly can resemble many underlying ideas within Ghana Must Go including hope, life, change, transformation. I am curious to see the ways in which other readers interpret the butterfly throughout the reading.

2 thoughts on “Being a Butterfly

  1. I’m really glad we both happened to focus on the overarching theme of the butterfly, as I feel your perspective and argument have further developed my understanding of this insect’s influence in the novel. The entire idea of the actual life cycle the butterfly goes through had gone completely past me, but it’s compelling to think about how the stagnancy, painful transformation, and ensuing beauty that is inherent in butterflies finds itself repurposed in Kweku’s own life cycle. And while we both agree on the butterfly representing death, I think, framing it in the idea of the life cycle, maybe it is actually the butterfly finally flying away that represents death? In reality, people don’t really see butterflies dying- but we do see them flying away. And I think this flying away has a Final-ness that can be paralleled in the departure of the lives of Kweku’s mother and himself.

  2. Something I had not thought of until reading your post is the moment where Kweku notes that the butterfly appears on her toe. The passage you quoted goes on to read: “It fluttered around his mother’s foot, a lazy lap, then lifted off, flapping blithely toward the triangular dome and out the little window. Gone” (Selasi, 59). I think the connection between the butterfly and his mother’s foot is potentially important. The text gives a significant amount of attention to Kweku’s feet, both their appearance and the way he continually kept them covered following childhood. Exposed feet appear to be a symbol of vulnerability. In this instance there is a parallel between the night that Taiwo finds her father’s feet uncovered following his dismissal from the hospital, and his mother’s death.

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