Language as Beautiful as Magic

Sometimes meeting a new person is so unexpected that you don’t know how to react. You may be at a loss of words or find it extremely difficult to stop staring at your new acquaintance due to surprise, infatuation, or some other intense emotion. It’s as if your body is temporarily unable to function properly. Ugwu’s first meeting with Olanna in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is one that yields such a result: he is spellbound by her manner of speaking because he has never heard such beautiful English before.

Prior to moving in with Odenigbo, an eccentric university professor, Ugwu has limited experiences with the English language as he had to drop out of school to work on his family’s farm in a small rural village. But once he moves to the town of Nsukka as a houseboy, Ugwu rapidly improves his English, observing Odenigbo and his frequent party guests, who all converse in English. This habit of making mental notes about a person’s skill in speaking English becomes a prominent trait of Ugwu’s character, so it is no surprise that this action is exhibited when he meets Olanna, Odenigbo’s lover. And when Ugwu hears her voice for the first time, his view of the English language is changed forever: “He stood still. He had always thought that Master’s English could not be compared to anybody’s…Master’s English was music, but what Ugwu was hearing now, from this woman, was magic. Here was a superior tongue, a luminous language…it reminded him of slicing a yam with a newly sharpened knife, the easy perfection in every slice” (Adichie 27 – 28).

This first interaction between these two characters is the beginning of a friendship full of affection, learning, and trust. Ugwu’s initial impression of Olanna is one of admiration and fascination, as he finds her voice and command of language to be so lovely that he calls it “magic.” This is an example of metaphor since Ugwu compares Olanna’s style of speaking to magic, a concept that is not related to English, but shares the characteristic of being captivating. By labeling her voice as “magic,” Ugwu is emphasizing how charmed he is by Olanna’s voice and speaking abilities. Furthermore, there is the comparison of Olanna to Odenigbo: while Odenigbo’s voice is “music,” it cannot be compared to something as fantastical, otherworldly, and intriguing as “magic.” Ugwu even states that she has “a superior tongue” and speaks “a luminous language,” highlighting the amount of distance there is between the qualities of their voices.

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The other literary device that is present in this passage is analogy. This is shown when Ugwu compares the smooth flow of Olanna’s voice to the ease of slicing a yam with a new knife. Instead of simply stating how pleasant Olanna’s voice is, Ugwu goes into great detail by transforming the experience of listening to something completely different: food preparation. However, this is a familiar activity to Ugwu, which is why he made such a comparison. By doing so, it is easier for us readers to fully understand the level of satisfaction Ugwu feels when he hears Olanna speak English. Thus, these two literary devices work well together because of their similarities. Metaphor is closely related to analogy since both devices create comparisons to highlight a concept, such as Olanna’s English being compared to magic and easy yam slicing to show how enticing and pleasant her voice is.

These descriptions of Olanna by Ugwu are significant because they provide insight on the relationship between the two characters. The metaphoric and analogical language used to describe Olanna’s English shows how much Ugwu respects and admires her because his observations are full of praise. As the story progresses, we see Olanna noticing his affection and the shyness that he feels when around her. She also realizes how much he wants to speak English to her: “He always responded in English to her Igbo, as if he saw speaking Igbo to him as an insult that he had to defend himself against by insistently speaking English” (Adichie 59). Though it seems as if Ugwu is jealous of Olanna, this is just proof of how highly he regards her English abilities and how much he wants to improve and sound like her, demonstrating the power of language as a way for these two characters to learn how to appreciate and respect one another.

B4

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half of a Yellow Sun. Anchor Books, 2007.

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.

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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.