Tig Notaro, Joel Kim Booster, and Queer Identity Politics in Comedy

What’s so funny about being gay? I’m interested in the intersections of comedy studies and queer studies. For example, questions related to audience permeate both fields. Comedians heavily rely on the reactions of their audiences, and the assumed goal for comedians is to create a large enough fan-base to sustain themselves economically. In the field of queer studies, topics of audience are related to palatability. In order to gain a larger audience, some scholars argue against the goal of making queerness more palatable or “acceptable” by the general population. I’ve looked at the field of media studies, where there are many examples of a changing landscape in television, where an increase in networks and media platforms means that programs are made for niche audiences instead of the mainstream population. Is the introduction of more streaming services and smaller cable networks positive because they give under-represented groups the chance to produce their work, or is it negative because their work only reaches audiences who already understand their experiences or agree with their worldview? Although those two sides are massively generalized, this is one of the major debates I have encountered.

I’m also interested in how intersections of queerness and other forms of identity are used for comedic purposes. Many queer comedians use their sexuality in conversation with gender, race, and immigrant backgrounds to create a more intersectional image of themselves. This also relates to the form of stand-up that the comedians I have studied use. Specifically, I’m interested in comedians who use storytelling as opposed to general observational humor. Storytelling almost seems required for comedians who want to use “charged humor,” as described in Rebecca Krefting’s All Joking Aside. How do comedians use their own personal narratives to create humor from intersectional, queer identities?

Within the field of queer studies, politics of shame play a significant role. Because this has been such a dominating theme throughout the field, I want to try and avoid focusing on shame as a central aspect of the queer identity. Instead, I want to highlight comedians who do not use their shame as the part of their comedy. It is difficult to avoid the subject altogether, but there are several examples of comedians who do not use their difference as a means to highlight (either consciously or subconsciously) their shame.

Notaro’s special Boyish Girl Interrupted (2015) is essentially a series of stories from her life. A thread running through all of these stories is that people are often confused by her, but she enjoys the confusion and awkwardness. For example, the first lengthy story Tig tells (this special is mostly a series of narratives) is about how she bombed “every night for 14 weeks” (Notaro). However, the story isn’t about how she failed and why. She explains that she did two shows a night, and didn’t have enough time between shows to go to her hotel, so she would just sit in the back of the club until her next show. The club owner thought it was bizarre (especially because the audience “hated” her), but instead of confronting her himself, he called her agent and had him tell her that the club owner wanted her to leave. The joke lies not in her failure, but in the bizarre behavior of the owner of the comedy club. She acknowledges that people dislike her, but matter-of-factly, and does not continue the joke to make fun of herself.

That narrative was not directly related to her queer identity, but instead sets a tone for the rest of the set, which is more directly related to her queering of gender and her homosexuality. In a later story she explains that after her double-mastectomy (she had bilateral breast cancer) she had a situation with a pat-down in which the TSA agent repeatedly conferred with another officer because although the other officer stated that Notaro was a woman, the agent giving her a pat-down couldn’t find any breasts. Tig then points out that her facial appearance is (purposefully) not very feminine. However, Tig’s joke is not at her own expense. Her identity is not the butt of the joke, but instead it is those around her. I would even argue that it is in this unpredictability that makes the jokes funny. We expect to laugh at her, but she focuses on the part of the story that audiences would not immediately have focused on. She even directly explains that at any point she could have spoken up, revealing her gender from her voice. But Notaro “did not want to help her out at all,” as she was “enjoying the awkwardness” (Notaro).

This special somewhat depends on the audience’s knowledge of Tig. At one point, she said “my fiancée… he is…” to a burst of laughter from the audience. She feigns offence, and says “okay…” then continues “no, she was raised in New York” and continues the joke. Although assumptions about the outward appearance of lesbian women are being made, it’s always true that specials are typically filled with people who are already fans of the comic. Later, she explains that she was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer, then states “but I have not told anybody yet” (Notaro). This line is met with huge laughter. Notaro waits for the laughter to die down, and says “Wow, that’s a very cold response,” then lets out a long, disappointed sigh. She makes no sign that she’s in on the joke. Notaro is actually famous for performing a stand-up set about being diagnosed with breast cancer (the audio was released but it was not intended to be a full-length stand-up set). Her comedy partially relies on her own fame, and on her audience knowing about her already.

Finally, this text addresses intersectional identities, as she removes her shirt to reveal her mastectomy scars halfway through. She deals with it in a remarkable way: she removes her shirt, then performs a basic, uncomplicated joke about airplanes. Her joke itself is purposefully simple and recognizable (plane jokes are often mocked by comedians as being the most basic and predictable form of stand-up). However, by the end of her story about hating planes, I would argue that the audience has essentially forgotten that she is shirtless. She performs the rest of the set without her shirt, even doing some physical comedy (which would only work if the audience was not distracted by her body). In Notaro’s carefully timed and constructed comedy, often the unsaid is more important than what is directly explained.

The second primary text I’m currently exploring is the stand-up album Model Minority (2017) by Joel Kim Booster. The album is an audio recording of an hour-long special. Most of his jokes are directly centered around identity politics. He often places his identity as an Asian-American in conversation with his identity as a gay man. For example, he argues that he is a terrible driver not because he is Asian, but because he is gay. He says “something about being lied to my entire sexual life about what six inches looks like, now my depth perception is fucked. I can’t parallel park, bumper to bumper traffic is a nightmare” (Booster). He also talks a lot about being adopted by a white Christian family from the midwest. His homosexuality is often described as something that inconveniences others, but to the enjoyment of Booster himself. For example, when explaining that his older brother (the biological son of Booster’s parents) also came out as gay, he says “my older brother, a couple of years ago, he also came out of the closet, which is like muah. You know? What a good prank, you know? It’s so delicious to me. My parents, they really rolled the dice there. They made one themselves, they bought one off the rack, and they both came out gay! I don’t know what the scientific argument is there, but that feels like nurture” (Booster). He frames homosexuality as a prank against his parents, and plays into a homophobic fear that sexuality can be changed by the way one is raised. Like Boyish Girl Interrupted, Model Minority is a series of stories about the performer’s life, but in Booster’s case, the stories are more directly tied to ethnic and sexual identity.

The form of this text (an album recording of a stand-up special) is particularly interesting to me. Although Booster is an experienced comic, he began performing more recently than Notaro, and therefore gained his audience in a different way. Booster’s start in stand-up included performing sets on live-recorded podcasts like 2 Dope Queens and Put Your Hands Together. Much of his fan-base grew from hearing these recorded performances. Although he also worked in clubs (and Notaro eventually had her own podcast), he began stand-up much later than Notaro, right at a time when podcasts were becoming a more celebrated medium for accessing live comedy. I would argue that this has affected the type of comedy he is able to do. By using a comedy album (which is an old-fashioned medium and harkens back to the days of Steve Martin and Richord Pryor) to analyze the stand-up of a relatively new comedian, I can talk about how Booster is able to reach niché audiences in a newer era of stand-up production.

In addition, because Booster is not as famous as Notaro, he cannot rely on audience familiarity in the same way that she can. I would like to study how notoriety affects performance. For example, although he jokes that he is visibly queer and Asian, he still directly explains his own identity and backstory, with no hint that he assumes his audience to already be aware of his work. I question whether this is because he does not have the privilege of assuming the audience already knows him, or whether those explanations are simply necessary to the construction of the joke. In other words, if Booster knew that his audiences were familiar with him, would he still write and perform in the same way?

Although I think both of these texts represent a wide variety of issues within the field, I am concerned about making big claims based on only two texts. My inclination is to use many examples, but then my thesis could sound more like a large list of stand-up specials instead of a concentrated argument. I also worry that in focusing on audience, I might stray away from the performances themselves. If I center my arguments around how queer performers adapt to audiences, I might get bogged down in purely media studies and do as much close-reading of specific texts as I want to. Therefore, I want to work on finding examples of articles that are able to both survey a wide range of texts, while also close-reading individual texts themselves. I don’t want to stretch my arguments too thin, but I feel that in order to make a convincing argument, I’ll need many more examples of primary texts.

I also worry about repeating arguments that have already been made. For example, although I said I would like to stray away from shame as a central theme, it’s difficult not to bring it up in my analyses. Even when I use comedians like Notaro and Booster, I still find myself talking about how they subvert expectations of shame (which in itself is still a discussion of shame). Similarly, I fear that if I focus myself entirely on content or on performance, I’ll only be summarizing what scholars in either queer studies (which tends to focus on content) or comedy studies (which tends to focus on performance) have already covered. I don’t want to repeat what others have already said, so I need to find more unique intersections between the two fields.

 

Works Cited

Notaro, Tig. “Boyish Girl Interrupted.” Boyish Girl Interrupted, HBO, 2015.

Booster, Joel Kim. “Model Minority” Model Minority, Comedy Central Records, 2017.

Questions of Queerness in Comedy

My thesis centers around how humor and issues of queerness interact within the medium of stand-up comedy. Rebecca Krefting’s book All Joking Aside aims to classify a type of stand-up comedy as “charged humor,” and places that type of humor within different concepts of identity (Krefting 3). The first chapter, for example, focuses on “cultural citizenship,” specifically how comedians with an immigrant background use comedy to either question or assert their own position within American culture. Another chapter analyzes how comedy addresses gender politics, while another focuses on a generational identity (that is, comedy after the year 2000). Her arguments center around posing contradictions. Krefting will introduce a concept, then provide two examples, a positive and a negative. She compares, for example, a straight comedian’s joke about “gay ghosts” redecorating a house, with a Mexican comedian’s joke about Mexican field workers taking revenge on white oppressors by inserting e. Coli into crops. She claims that while one comedian takes advantage of someone else’s stereotypes, the other one is a reappropriation of stereotypes for humor. She explains “charged humor” by defining it as more biting than satire, and more focused on carving a spot for disenfranchised people.

The Trouble with Normal Cover Art

The Trouble with Normal by Michael Warner is a study of queer theory as a whole, which questions how the LGBT movement functions. Although a lot has changed since the book’s publishing in 1999, many of the concepts introduced are integral to studying queer stand-up comedy. One of the major arguments of the book is that shame surrounding sex permeates our society, but is especially prevalent within the queer community. He argues that only when we accept shame (instead of trying to push away or pretend we don’t have shame) can the movement more forward. The other key argument of the book is that the attempt to normalize queerness is regressive. Warner specifically uses the fight for “gay marriage” as an example of a harmful attempt for “normalization.” The Trouble with Normal therefore primarily deals with how we as a society (and how queer communities) should talk about queerness. Each chapter begins with many specific examples of queer media (such as certain gay marriage protests and magazines like Hero), and close-reads comments surrounding those examples. The author then consolidates his analysis into critiques about the queer community obsession with normalcy. The book uses close-reading to study the politics of shame and queerness.

Both sources deal directly with how queerness should be discussed. All Joking Aside lays a framework for how stand-up throughout history has covered topics of identity. From satire, to “charged humor,” to bigoted belittling, to personalized storytelling, the book details the various methods by which identity can be covered. The Trouble with Normal argues how queerness specifically should be talked about. He argues that shame should not be ignored, but owned. Shame is often used as a punchline in stand-up comedy. Although All Joking Aside does not directly mentioned shame, politics of normalcy are confronted in many of the comedians exemplified in All Joking Aside (though specifically in a chapter discussing Hari Kondabolu comedy critiquing racial inequality in the United States). From both of these sources, it seems that comedy about shame (whether the jokes are meant to cause shame, hide shame, confront shame, etc) is a key feature in debates about queer comedy.

All Joking Aside argues that humor is a tool for social justice, but I want to focus more on why social justice is a tool for humor. In the same way that The Trouble with Normal criticizes certain topics (i.e. gay marriage) as regressive or unhelpful for queer movements, I want to study more about what aspects of queerness make stand-up funny, or how comedians use their queerness for humor. Instead of talking about how social justice is served by a humorous telling, I want to base my arguments in why my primary texts are funny. While texts such as All Joking Aside provide a history of “charged humor” and give excellent examples of comedians who have used social justice in their work, I want to read more about comedy theory in general. Then I’ll be able to incorporate the close analysis from queer studies texts like The Trouble with Normal, and write more effectively about how one discipline (queer studies) serves another (comedy).

 

Works Cited

Krefting, Rebecca. All Joking Aside : American Humor and Its Discontents. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal : Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 2000., 2000.

Olanna, Miss Adeyebo, and Projected Insecurities

The relationship between Olanna and Miss Adeyebo illuminates Olanna’s trouble balancing different aspects of her own identity. Throughout the novel, descriptions of Olanna indicate her concerns about fitting into Igbo society; she fears seeming uncomfortable, or unnatural around her family in Nigeria. At the same time, she does not feel natural in the University environment among Odenigbo’s friends either. Her insecurities are highlighted specifically in her descriptions of Miss Adebayo, and therefore their relationship is stunted, at least in part by Olanna’s private issues.

https://www.cookinglight.com/cooking-101/techniques/how-to-clean-wine-glasses-decanter

One section of the novel begins with a description of Olanna’s first evening drinking wine and discussing politics with Odenigbo’s friends. Miss Adebayo greets Olanna with the exclamation, “He did not tell us that you were illogically pretty,” then adds “and what a proper English accent” (61). The narrator then explains that (according to Olanna) Miss Adebayo made these statements “with a pitying smile, before turning back to the radiogram” (61). After this specific scene, in which the characters debate philosophy and WWII and the Eichmann trial, Olanna’s narrative shifts into an overview of her developing relationships with Odenigbo’s friends. While she has short comments to make about Dr. Patel and Okeoma, a majority of her thoughts have turned to Miss Adebayo. Olanna explains, “It would have been easier if Miss Adebayo showed jealousy, but it was as if Miss Adebayo thought her to be unworthy of competition, with her unintellectual ways and her too-pretty face and her mimicking-the-oppressor English accent” (64). Olanna believes that Miss Adebayo does not respect her opinions, which makes her doubt the validity of her own opinions: “[Olanna] suspected that there was a glaze of unoriginality to all her ideas” (64). Near the end of the scene, Olanna’s mind races with assumptions: “Perhaps Miss Adebayo could tell, from her face, that she was afraid of things, that she was unsure, that she was not one of those people with no patience for self-doubt” (65). A passage that begins as an explanation of Olanna’s specific relationships with others delves into her own insecurities about herself.

This scene uses an omniscient third-person narrator which gives the readers access solely to Olanna’s thoughts. Olanna’s relationship to Miss Adebayo is defined solely through Olanna’s own perceptions, which hints that their relationship will be strained by Olanna’s insecurities. This illuminates Olanna’s insecurities both through her own direct descriptions of them, and through subtleties in her opinions about Miss Adebayo. For example, the sentence that starts with “It would have been easier if Miss Adebayo showed jealousy” does not explain what exactly would have been easier, but reveals that Olanna does not perceive Miss Adebayo to be jealous. The passage then reveals that “it was as if Miss Adebayo thought her to be unworthy of competition,” then lists three of Olanna’s own insecurities. The “as if” shows that this is Olanna’s assumption about Miss Adebayo, not an actual confirmed opinion.

This section also contains a lot of repetition, which gives a better idea of Olanna’s strained emotional state. For example, the line “her unintellectual ways and her too-pretty face and her mimicking-the-oppressor English accent” is written in a list form, beginning with “her” each time (64). She then repeats “she” when listing “she was afraid of things,” “she was unsure,” and “she was not one of those people” (65). The repetition of “she” and “her” gives a feeling that Olanna’s mind is wandering. She’s flipping through Miss Adebayo’s possible assumptions. This feature works closely with the narrator’s access to Olanna’s mind. The end effect is that Olanna projects her own insecurities onto other people. Although she is speaking about others, the repetition and the third person omniscient narrator (which focuses on Olanna) does not

These characters can therefore not have a real relationship, because Olanna’s opinion of Miss Adebayo is hindered by her own insecurities. Although it could very well be possible that Olanna’s views are correct (Miss Adebayo in all likelihood does leave the room or ignore Olanna’s comments), Olanna’s mind (as revealed through the repetition and the narrator) is concentrated mostly on her own issues, and not on the actual actions of Miss Adebayo. By solely using Olanna’s mindset to illustrate a strained relationship between Miss Adebayo and Olanna, the passage shows how difficult it is to separate another person’s actions from one’s own insecurities.

Works Cited:

Adichie, Chimamanda. Half of a Yellow Sun. Anchor Books, 2006.

Starring in a Movie for an Audience of One

Never have the words “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players” been more true than in the mind of Kweku Sai from Ghana Must Go. Kweku lives his life constantly imagining a cameraman recording his every move. The use of this metaphor appears throughout Kweku’s story, showing how he wishes himself to be viewed. Kweku envisions a “bridge between two worlds,” believing that by returning to his home in Ghana with his American-born son, he would be building that bridge: “He imagined this moment every day in Pennsylvania, how his cameraman would film it, panning up to [his mother’s] face. Cue strings. Tears in mother’s eyes. Wonder, joy, amazement. The awe of the siblings. The jubilation. Cue drums” (Selasi 52-53). Kweku’s cameraman metaphor reveals how his familial relationships are negatively affected because his actions are of a self-centered nature, even when he believes them to be otherwise.

Through the metaphor of Kweku’s inner cameraman, the novel critiques the character’s desire to control his family relationships, and therefore to control his own story with himself as a hero. He has entire scenes envisioned in his mind, complete with “strings” and “drums” (52-3). The cameraman is not just a cameraman, but “his” cameraman. Although many of Kweku’s actions would appear to be out of love, for example his tiptoeing to avoid waking Ama (who is actually very difficult to wake) much of his choices are made because he believes them to be a good story. This self-occupied view affects familial relationships, because his attempts to care for his family are actually based in an idea of living up to an imagined standard. The metaphor shows that he is not reacting to the needs of others, but to what an imagined audience would think of his actions.

The cameraman scene in chapter 9 emphasises the point made by the rest of the chapter: Kweku chooses what he wants to believe about himself, but those ideas are often untrue. His relationships with others are affected by his denial of his true emotions. He thinks he loves Ama for one reason, when in reality he loves her for other reasons. He prefers to be the director of his own story, and therefore denies realities. The cameraman metaphor is presented as if it were real; the novel does not refer to the cameraman as imaginary, but instead purely as “his cameraman” (52). The metaphor is then crushed at the end of the chapter, with the line “This is how he planned it. But this isn’t how it happened” (53). By setting up an elongated scene, then quickly destroying the possibility for scene to actually occur, this small passage shows how Kweku is often disappointed (and disappointing to others) because his cameraman imagery does not line up with reality.

The “cameraman” metaphor shows how people will see what they want to see. Family dynamics are built upon communication, and responding to the thoughts and feelings of others. Through Kweku’s metaphor, it reveals that even when he is helping his family members, it is often to satisfy the need to perform for an audience. This builds a wall (to use another metaphor from the novel) between himself and his family members, not only with the ones who have estranged him, but also between himself and Ama. He defines his behavior by how he would like to be seen, which makes it difficult for the rest of his family to truly get to know him.

 

Works Cited

Selasi, Taiye. Ghana Must Go. Penguin Books, 2014.

Shakespeare, William, and David M. Bevington. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Pearson, 2014.

Image courtesy of: https://www.joe.ie/uncategorized/video-nba-cameraman-tries-to-keep-it-together-after-foot-falls-asleep-378760

Reading List: Frances

Keywords:

Queer identity politics

Stand-up comedy

Joke construction

 

Sources:

Davies, Helen, and Sarah Ilott. Comedy Studies, vol. 9, no. 1, Apr. 2018.

Krefting, Rebecca. All Joking Aside : American Humor and Its Discontents. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

Lotz, Amanda. The Television Will Be Revolutionized. New York University Press, 2014.

Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal : Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 2000., 2000.

 

Academic Journal:

Camera Obscura (Duke University Press)

Reflection:

I started my reading list with a question often posed to lesbian comedians: why are there so many gay stand-up comics? The response is usually related to finding coping mechanisms for trauma and internalized homophobia. However, there are many types of trauma, but not many survivors of car accidents immediately decide to become stand-up comedians. So what specifically about being part of the queer community lends itself to comedy writing?

I began this process by creating a list of as many comedy-related academic sources I could find. Many of the articles I located were published by the journal Comedy Studies. One special issue of the journal was a published record of the proceedings at a conference on comedy in relation to gender and sexuality studies. The issue references a wider variety of topics, from toxic masculinity to classism, and provides a good framework for my research. Another source, The Television Will Be Revolutionized, deals with how the producers of television and media have changed over time. Although it does not directly address stand-up, it focuses on a gradual shift occurring in who controls content production.

I selected All Joking Aside: American Humor and its Discontents because of its focus on word choice, organization, and rhythm. The first four chapters provide a history of the development of stand-up comedy, while the final three chapters are close-readings of the work of three comedians (Robin Tyler, Micia Mosely, and Hari Kondabolu). The focus on form is rare in the scholarship around stand-up, so this source will be uniquely helpful.

Finally, to complete my reading list I wanted sources that focused more on queer literature than on stand-up specifically. Professor Kersh recommended several sources to me, including the first chapter of Michael Warner’s The Trouble with Normal. After reading other chapters of the book, I found it useful because it deals with the idea of addressing shame, which many stand-up comedians discuss. In addition, many jokes work because they question societal norms, and this entire book focuses around questioning assumptions made both in society as a whole and within the queer community itself.

After reading Iyasere’s comments about how many scholars focus on cultural context and ignore the form of Things Fall Apart, I want to see more examples of how film/television media can be analyzed without making the same mistake Iyasare describes. Reading more examples of film criticism will help me learn how to balance cultural contexts with close readings of the text. For this reason, I have chosen to analyze a year’s worth of editions of Camera Obscura, published by Duke University. Each article analyzes television, film, and media from a feminist perspective. The journal will not only inform me about feminist theory and media, but also could provide models of how I balance social contexts with analyzing the text itself.

“Boyish Girl Interrupted.” Performance by Tig Notaro, HBO, 22 Aug. 2015.

In terms of primary sources, I want to compare how comedians handle queerness differently, specifically looking at how the jokes themselves are constructed. Hannah Gadsby’s special Nanette begins with her arguing that she must “quit comedy” because the form is destructive to the queer identity. Wanda Sykes also addresses her queerness, but specifically in conversation with blackness. Tig Notaro often deals with comedy and queerness more indirectly. Her special Boyish Girl Interrupted in particular explores identity questions specifically related to femininity and the body. At one point she removes her shirt to show her double mastectomy scars, performing the rest of the special shirtless. Other examples that interest me are Margaret Cho, Cameron Esposito, and Sam Jay.

Gender Roles and Roaring Flames

Many people are guilty of experiencing the cliché late-night gaze into a fire, and Okonkwo is no exception. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo’s midnight reflection revolves around frustrations with gender, specifically in relation to his son Nwoye. In his piece entitled “Narrative Techniques in Things Fall Apart,” Solomon Iyasere defines Okonkwo’s rigid ideas about gender, explaining that “for Okonkwo, one is either a man or a woman; there can be no compromise, no composite” (Iyasere 380). Furthermore, Iyasere believes that Okonkwo never questions this dichotomy, sticking to his rigid code of gendered behavior without ever doubting his own actions: “Okonkwo becomes inflexible and his action allows no room for reflection” (Iyasere 380). However, I believe Okonkwo’s thought processes are slightly more nuanced. Although few and far between, several moments in the novel hint at Okonkwo’s self-doubt, specifically in regards to how he treats his children. Although Okonkwo frequently enforces strict beliefs based on assumptions about gender, moments of self-reflection (albeit brief) are illuminated in Achebe’s novel.

One such example occurs on the evening that Okonkwo hears of Nwoye’s involvement with the new Christian church. This passage uses metaphors and similes to subtly illustrate Okonkwo’s conflicting feelings surrounding his son’s perceived femininity. His first reaction to his son’s behavior is rage: “Now that he had time to think of it, his son’s crime stood out in its stark enormity. To abandon the gods of one’s father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens was the very depth of abomination” (Achebe 88). Clearly, this reaction is based on gender norms of the society, from the use of the word “effeminate” to the image of “clucking like old hens” (88). Old hens are not only female, but mindless. Okonkwo questions the intelligence of feminine men by comparing them to female animals. He goes on to imagine a posthumous embarrassment: a possible future where he and his forefathers receive no sacrifices because his sons are all “praying to the white man’s god” (88). Okonkwo therefore uses gender as an explanation for his son’s behavior. By failing to act like Okonkwo’s definition of a man, Nwoye has not only failed himself, but all of his ancestors. This passage would support Iyasere’s claim, if it were not for the short paragraph that follows.

Okonkwo’s initial rage is then contrasted with a small segment of self-reflection which also uses a metaphor. As he looks into the fire, Okonkwo reflects on his own nickname: “Roaring Flame” (88). In the last paragraph of the chapter, Okonkwo makes a realization: “He sighed heavily, and as if in sympathy the smouldering log also sighed. And immediately Okonkwo’s eyes were opened and he saw the whole matter clearly. Living fire begets cold, impotent ash. He sighed again, deeply” (Achebe 89). Okonkwo takes pride in his nickname. However, it is through the metaphor of his nickname that he is able to see how his own actions have possibly caused his son’s behavior. By admitting that “fire begets cold, impotent ash,” Okonkwo suddenly doubts his strict adherence to traditional masculinity. He calls his son impotent, but recognizes himself as the cause. This moment is brief, and the narrator does not delve deeply into Okonkwo’s thoughts after this discovery. This could signify Okonkwo’s mental change of subject. Although the moment is brief, in the symbol of a fire Okonkwo sees himself as a possible cause for his son’s “weaknesses” (Achebe 88). The passage signifies how Okonkwo cannot be defined as a one-sided character. Even though he values masculinity, the actions of those around him cause crises within him.

B2

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Francis Abiole Irele, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009. 3-117.

“Camp Fire at Bramble Bield.” Alasdar, Flickr, 31 Oct. 2014.

Ikemefuna’s Death and the Omniscient Narrator

Cover art by Edel Rodriguez for the 50th Anniversary Edition of Things Fall Apart

Preparing for a beloved character’s imminent death is already a stressful enough task for any reader, but having sudden access to that character’s deepest emotions right before his death is nearly unbearable. Things Fall Apart uses an omniscient third-person narrator as a device for enhancing the suspenseful and tragic elements of Chapter 7, specifically the scene when Ikemefuna is minutes away from being murdered by the men of Umuofia. A third-person omniscient narrator is not an active participant in the events of the story, but has access to the thoughts and memories of the characters. Because of the narrative point of view of the story, Ikemefuna’s hopes and fears are juxtaposed with his blind march towards betrayal and death.

Much of the narration in this chapter does not involve the inner thoughts of the characters. Instead, emotions are revealed through actions, such as when Nwoye’s mother hears that Ikemefuna is “going home.” The narrator explains, “she immediately dropped the pestle with which she was grinding pepper, folded her arms across her breast and sighed, ‘Poor child’” (Achebe 36). This is true at the start of Ikemefuna’s journey, when he is lead to the outskirts of town to be killed by the men of Umuofia. He has been told that he is going back to his original family, from whom he was ripped in his youth, and the readers hear some of his inner conversation:

The men of Umuofia pursued their way, armed with sheathed matchets, and Ikemefuna, carrying a pot of palm-wine on his head, walked in their midst. Although he had felt uneasy at first, he was not afraid now. Okonkwo walked behind him. He could hardly imagine that Okonkwo was not his real father. He had never been fond of his real father, and at the end of three years he had become very distant indeed. But his mother and his three-year-old sister… of course she would not be three now, but six. Would he recognize her now? She must have grown quite big. How his mother would weep for joy, and thank Okonkwo for having looked after him so well and for bringing him back (Achebe 37).

This passage uses the position of a third-person omniscient narrator to build the tension and suspense. While characters’ musings are often revealed solely through descriptions of actions, this section slowly eases the reader deeper and deeper into Ikemefuna’s mind. The excerpt begins with factual information (the characters and what they are carrying). A change then occurs, with the information that Ikemefuna is “not afraid now” and that “Okonkwo walked behind him” (37). This observation then triggers a line of increasingly personal thoughts. The narration includes an interrupted thought, which indicates the sudden direct connection to Ikemefuna’s exact thoughts: “But his mother and three year old sister… of course she would not be three now, but six” (Achebe 37). Ikemefuna finally truly reflects on how long his absence has been. He realizes that his home must have changed, and that he might not fit back into it. The next line is a question he asks to himself about his sister: “Would he recognize her now? She must have grown quite big” (37). These are no longer factual observations (“the men of Umuofia pursued their way”) or general claims (“he was not afraid now”) but Ikemefuna’s thoughts, uncommented upon by the narrator.

Step by step, the passage pulls the reader closer and closer to the personal feelings of Ikemefuna. This is paired with the knowledge that each moment, Ikemefuna is closer to his own murder. Suspense is heightened, as well as tragedy. The novel has a structure very based in storytelling, and therefore emotions are often revealed through past actions and events, rather than direct quotes from a person’s mind. This section, however, puts the reader right in the present-tense moment, inside the mind of a child. Violence in this Things Fall Apart is often described in a de-personalized manner, and is even honored (as in the case of wrestling matches and Okonkwo’s many battle victories). However, in the scene of Ikemefuna’s death, although Okonkwo and the other men are trying to act on orders, the readers of this novel are forced to confront the personhood of this child. The contrast between actions and emotions is brought to the forefront, thanks to the third person omniscient narrator.

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Francis Abiole Irele, W.W. Norton & Co., 2009. 3-117.

Rodriguez, Edel. Things Fall Apart. Anchor Books, New York, 2008.