Old vs New

In Chimamanda Ngozi’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, there is a lot of critique of high-class people, both native to Nigera and Britain. Throughout most of chapter 2, it would seem as though Olanna has a bit of a tense relationship with almost every character that is well-off or has some form of high status. Not only does she make it known that the people who serve them should be treated with basic human decency, but she also finds the people her family interact with to be insincere or selfish.

However, in chapter 4 this changes a bit, as she is the one on the other side of the tension when it comes to disliking the upper class. When Odenigbo’s mother—who they refer to as “Mama”— comes to visit, she makes her apprehension quite known once Olanna steps up to hug her. But before this even occurs, the audience is given a bit of an indication as to how she feels about the idea of being upper-class at all. Ugwu notices how she wears her dress like “she did not believe she was no longer poor” (94), and how she mentions that her and Amala are just “village people who only use firewood” (95). She even comments on how her son “wastes money” when she sees all the things laid out in the kitchen to use. Her constant reaffirmation that she is still a humble village woman contests with her view of Olanna. Not only does she not return Olanna hug as she comes in to greet them, but she also has her back turned to her during most of their exchange of words. Olanna still tries to get Odenigbo’s mother to warm up to her, and offers some type of assistance in the kitchen. However, Mama immediately brings up the fact that Olanna did not nurse from her mother—thus referring to her as a witch. This clearly upsets and confuses Olanna because she does not respond right away, leaving Mama to continue on about her not being able to trick her son, and how she should tell her other witch friends to leave him alone. Olanna ends up leaving to her own flat, which satisfies Mama as she reveals the reason of her coming, claiming that “they said she is controlling my son” (97).

The scene where they interact leans a bit on the archetype and characterization of both Mama and Olanna, and serves to highlight the tension between the two. For instance, when Mama is described by Ugwu as a woman who dressed as if she wasn’t sure of her status, it is the first hint we get that she is clearly not used to having things done for her, and her characterization is that of a strong, independent village woman, setting her apart from Olanna, who is then made to be the “insecure house wife” when the mother comes to visit and takes over the kitchen fairly quickly. The tension between the two becomes greater when Mama’s character makes comments on Olanna being a witch, and singing church songs in spite. She does not want Olanna to call her Mama, and instead wants her to “just leave [her] son alone”, going on to yell to the neighbors saying “there is a witch in my son’s house” (97). Again, with her archetype and characterization making her out to be this village woman who is still stuck in the past, she is a clear foil from Olanna, who’s character is educated and modern.




Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006

One thought on “Old vs New

  1. Although the interaction between Olanna and Mama is brief it demonstrates the different cultural lives in the novel. I would counter your argument made about Mama being a “strong, independent village woman”. I think Mama is rather made out to be a villager who practices traditional feminine roles such as breastfeeding. She also claims that “boys have no business in the kitchen” which places women in the traditional domestic role. Furthermore, I think Olanna is a threat to Mama as she is an educated woman. Being educated places Olanna outside the traditional feminine characterization and challenges your point about her being an “insecure housewife”.

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