The ideal female is meant to be quiet, unassuming, but pretty to look at. The ideal female does not ask questions, will not demand attention, and most importantly succumbs to the will of men. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun, the idea of the content, unquestioning female is demonstrated to be a completely unreal concept through the character of Olanna who initially embodies the entire notion of the 1960’s ideal female. Indeed, to characters of a lesser social status like Ugwu, Olanna is powerful through status, beauty, and articulate eloquence. However, to characters of equal or higher status, even despite her extensive education, Olanna is simply just “illogically pretty” (Adichie 65). This is particularly evident in her relationship with Odenigbo—an outspoken professor who often talks of the necessity for revolution and change in Nigeria. Their relationship appears to be one of the stereotypical dominant male and complacently dependent female, but this dynamic changes in circumstances of conflict, which allow Olanna to find her voice and question power dynamics within their relationship.
Whereas we never really get Odenigbo’s perspective, the dependence Olanna has on Odenigbo and the control he has over her is plain. It is not until another woman, however, enters into their ‘bliss’ that Olanna gains a little independence and sees the reality of her situation. When Odenigbo’s mother enters the couple’s home and proceeds to taunt Olanna by calling her a ‘witch’, this prompts Olanna to take action and leave. Yet, it is the betrayal caused by Odenigbo because he chooses to go home instead of searching for Olanna, that ignites Olanna’s self-assertion that was otherwise lacking. In this conflict, Olanna admits to her inferiority by thinking to herself that Odenigbo made her “feel small and absurdly petulant … She wished … she could love him without needing him. Need gave him power without his trying; need was the choicelessness she often felt around him” (Adichie 128). Thus, it is only through conflict that Olanna is able to admit that despite Odenigbo’s unquestioningly formidable character, she gives him more power by succumbing to him and his every wish.
Her interior voice grows stronger and more demanding, however, as the conflict between the couple continues. She gains confidence through her anger in the betrayal until she is finally able to exert power both over herself, and over Odenigbo. For when she very flatly rejects Odenigbo’s attempts to gloss over their problems, Odenigbo is shocked. Olanna continues though, and thinks to herself that
“she would not let him make her feel that something was wrong with her. It was her right to be upset, her right to choose not to brush her humiliation aside in the name of an overexulted intellectualism, and she would claim that right. ‘Go.’ She gestured toward the door. ‘Go and play your tennis and don’t come back here’” (Adichie 129).
In this moment, Olanna is suddenly no longer just “illogically pretty” but has evolved into a self-assertive, and demanding character—she is no longer the ideal female. The very end—her demand “go”—which comes from her intense, interior thought—destroys Odenigbo’s authority over her, while simultaneously giving power to Olanna.
Through intense self-reflection that come about from conflict, Adichie destroys notions of gender and power dynamics. Through the conflict between Odenigbo and Olanna, the inferior—Olanna—becomes the superior as she reflects on the relationship. This is reiterated in the way we do not see the perspective of Odenigbo, for it gives the entirety of the authority of the conflict to Olanna. The focus on Olanna allows for Adiche to demonstrate how the complacent female is not and cannot be complacent for very long—that complacency is not realistic. This theme of questioning and ultimately resisting power dynamics is thus relatable to the undercurrent of political and social unrest in Nigeria being discussed throughout the novel. Ultimately in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half a Yellow Sun, conflict amongst seemingly inferior and superior characters allows for social constructions to be both revealed and questioned, and for power amongst character to change and balance.
Blog Post #4
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half a Yellow Sun. New York: Anchor Books, 2006.