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"Half Of A Yellow Sun": Gender Norms versus Instability


“Half of a Yellow Sun” written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie follows a band of characters through the establishment of independence in southeastern Nigeria during the late 1960s. While the characters can be analyzed from several points of view, it is Kainene and Richard’s relationship that seems to have the greatest of hardships throughout the course of the novel. Both passionate and dedicated to their work, Richard’s fragility and Kainene’s workaholic mentality shatter the 1960s standards of men and women, particularly in this part of the world. Kainene, Olanna’s twin sister, who is less beautiful than Olanna with a particularly sarcastic personality, is always the less popular of the two with built up emotional defenses against the world. Richard falls deeply in love with her when they meet, and to his joy she returns his love even though she rarely displays open affection.

The popular interpretation of Kainene involves acknowledging her dominant, passionate, and rebellious qualities. While she was never explicitly close with her sister, Olana, Kainene abided by her parents rules and was never ashamed of her relationship with Richard. However, once Richard cheated on Kainene with her twin sister, Olana, Richard himself was the one to tell Kainene of the act, unable to assuage the situation in any way. However, the general analysis of Kainene and her actions should be broadened to a figurative interpretation for the instability that is relationships and thus the instability of Nigeria itself.

When Richard admits he cannot lose Kainene after his confession of the affair, Kainene’s response, is to tell him that she burned his manuscript. While her mysterious and headstrong attitude lead to consequences such as the burning of Richard’s book, this event was Kainene’s way of “getting back” at Richard, releasing a moment of rage. The internal struggle of Richard is his love for Kainene versus his love for writing with Richard admitting to never being able to forgive himself. This hyperbole is obviously drastic, however, it is possible that he will not in his lifetime forgive himself if he were to lose Kainene. Similarly, the “unbridled energy that had come with the words” is a metaphor for Richard’s work ethic for this particular novel, since it was the hardest and most concentrated Richard has been for any of his novels. Finally, embedded in the statement, “What mattered was that by burning his manuscript she had shown him that she would not end the relationship” (Ngozi Adichie 324) is rather significant; obviously it was not physically nor literally shown to Richard that once Kainene burned his manuscript, she would stay. However, the figurative and emotional context behind the action is how Richard comes to the conclusion that “she would not bother to cause him pain if she was not going to stay” (Ngozi Adichie 329). By burning the manuscript, Kainene figuratively burned their “past”, thus, Richard was able to theorize that if she was trying to cause him pain it was only because she planned on sticking around to see his reaction and/or help him move on. The internal struggle that Richard is experiencing between his love for Kainene and his passion for writing seem to be colliding in this passage as well, when Richard notes “perhaps he was not a true writer after all” (Ngozi Adichie 126) because of the fact that he felt at the least relieved that Kainene was staying; regardless of sacrificing his novel and hard work.

Similarly, the fact that he “felt a soar in his chest of emotions he could not name” as a response to Kainene burning his manuscript is evidence that he would much rather endure whatever pain she was throwing at him as payback for his awful act than lose her. The “unbridled energy that had come with the words” is indeed a metaphor for Richard’s work ethic but the phrasing Ngozi Adichie chose is saying that the book in which Kainene burned could never be duplicated in capacity nor in energy on Richard’s part; Richard’s writing career was at it’s end and Kainene just burned the last successful piece of his. Yet Richard even says “but it did not matter”, to him, nothing mattered more than Kainene. Although that is also arguable based on the fact that he cheated on her with Olana. However, even the final statement of the passage has to do with Richard contemplating if he was ever even a “true writer” due to the fact that the only emotion he has when Kainene burns his manuscript is unconditional love for her.

Richard professes he cannot lose Kainene, otherwise he will never be able to forgive himself. While this is a bit of a selfish statement on Richard’s part, what follows shows that he means it in the most visceral of ways. The count-argument on Kainene’s part is managing to physically unleash her rage on a prized possession of his, all the while remaining “emotionless”. It is likely that she sought for a reaction out of him, however, the only reaction he felt was joy. This action proved, in Richard’s eyes, that Kainene was willing to stay with him. The very structure of the situation is a representation of Richard and Kainene’s relationship in itself. Richard professes some sort of emotion to Kainene and her response has nothing to do with his statement nor his reaction to her is unconditional love. On page 146, with Richard’s internal monologue saying he “sometimes thought he loved her too much”, it is as if the event of his confession and her destruction contributes to a circular aspect and previous dynamic of Richard and Kainene.

The dialogue exchanged between Richard and Kainene is very forward, and they are both able to literally understand what the other is saying and has done. While his thoughts are seemingly direct, there is figurative language that seeps into his words, creating a poetic ambiance. The “soar his chest”, the “collection of pages that he was finally confident could become a book”, the “unbridled energy that had come with the words”, and “for true writers, nothing was more important than their art, not even love” are all examples of the beautiful language Ngozi Adichie embeds within the passage, creating a softer tone to the passage in juxtaposition to Kainene’s harsh actions of burning the manuscript as a rageful response. Meanwhile, the common phrases are those of “cannot”, “would not”, “have not”, or “never”, which also emphasizes Richard’s statement “I will never forgive myself”.

The irony is that Kainene uses destruction of Richard’s work as a form of punishment for hurting her, the work-addict in the relationship. One of the broken stereotypes that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie uses within this novel is having Kainene be the workaholic, constantly noting that her career comes before all else, to include Richard. Yet when he hurts her by cheating with Olana, her reaction is to destroy (what she believes to be) his most prized possession, his novel. It is as if Kainene figured that if it would hurt her if her work was destroyed, it must be similar for Richard. Hence, it is through Kainene burning his novel that Richard truly accepts that his most prized “possession” is not his writing, but Kainene. Throughout the novel, Richard repeatedly feels that he was always out of place; thus, his passion for writing is what he clung on to because it seemed to be the only consistency he could experience since Kainene’s love for him fell second in his eyes. Richard’s novel itself is a prominent character throughout the storyline as well and it’s destruction is almost brushed off to the side, overpowered by Richard’s emotions and hopes for Kainene to stay with him. Within the context of the novel, the insecurities and helplessness that Richard is feeling is accentuated with the circular dynamic to previous conversations and situations that Richard and Kainene have experienced is an addition to the intricate relationship they share. Similarly, “6. The Book: The World Was Silent When We Died” follows the passage about the fear of an “independent Biafra would trigger other secessions and so supported Nigera”, relating to the fear Richard is feeling within the stability of his relationship with Kainene.

The typical interpretation of Kainene and her reaction to Richard’s affair is merely a way of “getting back” at him. However, the reality is much more centered around Richard’s struggle for his passion and his love with the common factors of Richard feeling out of place within the novel as well as between his work and his love. The instability of Nigeria within the novel is also reflective through Richard and Kainene’s relationship: the fear and pain that the country of Nigeria and it’s people experienced is one very similar to the instability that Richard and Kainene experience on and off through the novel. From the beginning, Richard felt that he loved Kainene “too much” and struggled with opening up to her due to the fact that her reactions to him opening up were not exactly ideal. Thus, once he cheated on her and caused her an enormous amount of pain, she attempted to reciprocate the pain she felt unto him in the only way it seems she knew how: destroy the work that he put his entire will into, his manuscript, his prized possession.

However this action only made Richard realize that while he did have his passion for writing, nothing compared to his passion for Kainene; in fact, he reveled in the fact that she burned his manuscript because he figured she would not go through the effort in hurting him back if she were planning on leaving him. Thus, the discovery through the events after this point, that Richard and Kainene do in fact stay together even though there are some very rocky and bumpy patches between them. The tension between Kainene and her sister, Olana, also drastically develop since she also partook in the pain that was bestowed upon Kainene. The final and greatest bit of instability that is foiled into Richard and Kainene’s relationship by Nigeria’s suffering is the fact that Kainene goes missing during this time of horror in Nigeria’s history. Richard goes through a tremendous mental breakdown when she vanishes and the readers never know if she is found. Kainene is the lost one within “Half of a Yellow Sun” which deeply impacts the instability that is Richard and the lack of placement he has within the novel. This passage is one of the segways into relating Richard and Kainene’s relationship to the instability that is Nigeria during the time of this novel.

Works Cited

Ngozi Adichie, Chimamanda. Half of A Yellow Sun. Anchor Books. 2006.

#bookreview