Power and Resistance in Conflict and Self-Reflection

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

Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Half a Yellow Sun. New York: Anchor Books, 2006.

An Abundance of Yams: Symbols of Masculinity, Power, and Wealth

Throughout Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, there is much symbolism that is used to discuss various themes. Examples include non-violent folklore representing femininity and the egwugwu symbolizing Igbo culture. Additionally, one vegetable frequently appears in the novel as a symbol to the point where one begins to expect it to be mentioned in every other sentence. This is of course the African yam, a cornerstone of Igbo culture, as well as a symbol of masculinity, power, and wealth in the story.

It is no coincidence that the African yam is constantly mentioned in a cultural story that takes place in Igbo society. The yam is described as being “a staple of the Igbo diet” that “requires sustained effort to cultivate; the various phases of their growth mark the progression of the year among the Igbo, hence their centrality to the culture” (Irele 5). Thus, this description helps give us some information on why yams are often brought up in Things Fall Apart. But aside from providing the Igbo people with food and a sense of time, the yam serves as a sign of a man’s capability as a worker, provider, and proper masculine figure.

African yams in a market

The connection between the yam and masculinity is first seen with Unoka, Okonkwo’s father. Unoka was known as being weak and lazy, with most of these negative personality traits stemming from his inefficiency as a yam farmer. To overcome his crop failures, Unoka approaches Agbala the priestess. But when Unoka lists out all of the necessary steps that he has undertaken, Agbala screams, “You, Unoka, are known in all the clan for the weakness of your matchet and hoe. When your neighbors go out with their axe to cut down virgin forests, you sow your yams on exhausted farms that take no labour to clear. They cross seven rivers to make their farms; you stay at home and offer sacrifices to a reluctant soil. Go home and work like a man” (Achebe 12). This outburst from the priestess clearly indicates that working hard in the fields to plant yams is the “manly” way of life while Unoka’s easy way out is not.

In addition to masculinity, cultivating yams symbolizes wealth and power. Because of Unoka’s failures, Okonkwo is forced to fend for himself and provide for his family. To overcome these issues, Okonkwo decides to approach “a wealthy man…who had three huge barns, nine wives, and thirty children. His name was Nwakibie and he had taken the highest but one title which a man could take in the clan. It was for this man that Okonkwo worked to earn his first yam seeds” (Achebe 13). This passage introduces Nwakibie, a man of wealth and power thanks to his many barns of yams. Nwakibie was able to earn powerful titles and riches because of his success with yams, hence why Okonkwo selects him as the person to earn yam seeds from. In doing so, Okonkwo asserts himself as a person who has access to good fortunes.

Achebe makes it clear that it is not the physical activity of farming that makes someone a wealthy, powerful man but specifically the growing of yams. This is demonstrated when the story mentions how hard Okonkwo’s mother and sisters had to work because of Unoka’s laziness: “His mother and sisters worked hard enough, but they grew women’s crops, like coco-yams, beans and cassava. Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop” (Achebe 15 – 16). We therefore see that there is clear distinction between “feminine” crops and “masculine” crops and how working hard in the yam fields proves how difficult and different it is from growing other crops.

By planting his own yams, Okonkwo proves himself to be a man. This is because growing yams is not easy and that by working hard to plant a “man’s crop” and provide for his family, he is able to show off his masculinity. The acquisition of more yams also symbolizes Okonkwo’s path to wealth and power since he is able to live comfortably unlike his father. All of these factors show how the African yam is a major symbol in Things Fall Apart and how something seemingly simple such as a vegetable can have various layered meanings.

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Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009, pp. 5 – 16.

Image of yam market: https://goo.gl/images/ekmXB2