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