Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, published in 2006, is a story that emulates a historic African moment. Adichie creates five characters to demonstrate the intensity of independence and allow the reader to connect with the text. Each character contributes to the many conflicts and tensions within the novel thus far. An overarching tension that Adichie continuously references is the sexual dynamic between man and woman. The relationship between Richard and Kainene specifically illustrates a sexual tension that ultimately challenges traditional definitions of femininity and masculinity.
After meeting at a party, Richard is immediately intrigued by Kainene’s “androgynous” body (Adichie 75). The two characters quickly form a relationship and, subsequently, a sexual one. However, sex does not go so smoothly for Richard and Kainene. Through several reoccurring sexual images, the reader can define the sexual displeasure that causes tension between the characters. Richard is unable to perform properly in bed and becomes ashamed of his body. This embarrassment holds strength over Richard and ultimately gives power to Kainene in the relationship.
It is unclear if Kainene realizes the power she has over Richard, yet the reader can analyze this power through different point of views including Richard’s. The couple’s first sexual encounter caught Richard off guard leaving him with anxiety and an inability to perform. This anxiety follows Richard in his next interaction as he becomes “so terrified of failing her again that seeing himself erect made him deliriously grateful, so grateful that he was only just inside her before he felt that involuntary tremble that he could not stop (Adichie 80). The “involuntary tremble” illustrates the lack of control Richard has when he connects with Kainene. His fear of “failing her” limits his ability to perform and demonstrates the constant anxiety Richard has to please Kainene. Richard’s perspective allows the reader to understand the pressure he experiences to pleasure Kainene as though it is more important than pleasing himself.
Adichie also uses tone to display the consequences of the sexual tension between Richard and Kainene. After Richard fails Kainene again, she suggests there are other ways to make their sexual relationship work. Kainene is unable to look Richard in the eyes as she looks “away as she exhale[s]” (Adichie 85). Her body language becomes distant by looking away as she is unable to connect with Richard in this moment. This angers Richard and causes a “swift surge of irritation, toward himself for being uselessly limp, toward her for that half-mocking smile and for saying there were other ways, as if he was permanently incapable of doing things the traditional way” (Adichie 85). Richard expresses a tone of frustration for both his actions and acknowledging the building tension it is causing between him and Kainene. His frustration stems from his idea of “traditional”. This relationship challenges tradition and redefines the roles of men and women. The tone in which Richard addresses his failure is both anger and confusion about “other ways”.
Together Richard’s point of view and tone work to illustrate the tension between the two characters. The sexual conflict shows Richard’s desire for tradition and Kainene’s acceptance of alternatives. This expands to show Richard’s place in the text as he examines the “traditional” lives of Nigerian people and hopes Africa will inspire his writing. Kainene, on the other hand, accepts the post-colonial Africa as her mother and father raise her in “other ways” outside of the “traditional” culture. This culture holds a high value on the “traditional” roles of women and Kainene’s sexual interaction is just one way in which she defies the norm. Kainene is raised in “other ways” by also is having an education which is a threat the “traditional” patriarchal society. Richard and Kainene’s relationship blurs the line of traditional definitions of femininity and masculinity within African tribes.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.