Discuss the following passage in detail, paying particular attention to ways in which Adichie presents the characters and the change in their relationship.
In this extract Adichie presents a huge shift in the relationship between Olanna and Odenigbo, which results in a seismic shift in Olanna’s attitude and personality. The helpless nature of Baby, abandoned by her mother and grandmother, forces Olanna to stand up and take charge and leaves the previously over confident and certain Odenigbo deferential to her and shows his weakness.
Adichie has Odenigbo apologising for the first time at the opening of this extract. His ‘sorry’ here stands in conflict with his stout refusal to really accept blame for his affair, instead citing his mother and alcohol as mitigating factors. However, this is not a straight forward apology to Olanna for his actions, but is instead an expression of regret for the situation they find themselves in. It is clear that the power balance between the couple has radically shifted though, as Adichie presents his uncertainty and fear of revealing the truth about his abandoned baby through his continued silence as they drive home, only daring to tell Olanna ‘an hour later’. This clearly implies he is nervous about Olanna’s reaction, even calculating that it would be an unadvisable idea to reveal this news while driving for fear she could cause an incident. His lack of confidence is further evidenced in the writer’s decision to make his initial responses to Olanna’s questions short and to the point (‘No’ and ‘Yes’), demonstrating her upper hand in the conversation.
This weakness and deference in Odenigbo stands in complete contrast to Olanna’s sudden confidence and authority. Olanna is presented as knowing the reason why the baby had been rejected and the certainty of her expression and decision making. Within moments of being told of the rejection she states, ‘we’ll keep her’, which is a decisive decision made without discussion, consideration or exploration of how possible or impossible this would be. Again, Adichie is presenting a huge contrast from the character she painted in the opening of the novel, who was deeply dependent on Odenigbo’s purpose and thrust with his ‘aggressive confidence’ standing in contrast to her lack of direction and feeble self confidence. This is also expressed by Adichie physically as Odenigbo seems to shrink as a man when he is described as ‘tired’ and his words are delivered ‘quietly’. This shift in personality is so dramatic that Adichie describes even Olanna as being ‘startled’ by it, thus demonstrating how unlike Olanna this behaviour was.
Their roles in the relationship have been completely switched and Odenigbo is now shown to be demonstrating ‘humility’ that has never previously been displayed in his academic arguing, response to being caught having slept with Amala or simply in his attitude towards Olanna. It is his guilt, not at the affair but, at having created a living problem for their relationship to handle that has caused this shift and likewise Adichie demonstrates that it is Olanna’s bitterness and anger about the affair that allows her to shift her personality and find ‘a guilty pleasure’ in the deference of her partner. The fact that this confidence stems from anger towards Odenigbo is also suggested by her reaction to his claim to just want the best decision for ‘us’ – their relationship. She questions the sincerity of his commitment to her by snapping, full of ‘malice’, that he did not hold this view before when cheating on her. She raises the past and renews the hurt between them purely to establish her dominance over Odenigbo and Adichie positions her as almost being unwilling to listen to his opinions and ideas any longer and thus makes Olanna take charge. This is further illustrated when she repeats her certain statement of ‘we’ll keep her’ to squash Odenigbo’s counter suggestion or idea.
Although Adichie presents this change as initially based on anger, she also reveals that Olanna is also motivated by the complete and utter dependency of the child. Suddenly from being a lost soul without a clear direction and career, having abandoned her expensive education and extensive family business opportunities for a relatively low key position in Nsukka to follow Odenigbo, she has a clear sense of purpose and direction. The definitive nature of the description of her ideas, ‘she would’, shows that having another depend on her gives her drive and direction. Her ‘conscious serendipity’ illustrates how happy she is to have been thrust into a position where someone needs her and she has to take decisions. Later in the novel this is clearly demonstrated by Olanna’s determination to fight, haggle and use connections to secure food or medicine for her daughter during the turmoil of the Biafran War.
The end of the extract shows how this change was not yet complete and Olanna still demonstrates traces of the dependency and weakness that characterised her initially. She is deferential to her mother and after hearing her views no longer maintains her certain statement that she would take the child, but instead says ‘I’ll give this more thought.’ Adichie is indicating that her strength is found from her adversity and struggle with Odenigbo, but Olanna continues to have the same doubts and need for reassurance. This is further evidenced by her immediately resorting to calling Kainene for additional advice and guidance; she is not yet fully independent and self-confident. However, the impact of the Biafran War is that she is again faced with adversity and struggle and uses that to give her strength and resolve to look after her family and community and thus the transformation of character is complete and permanent.
The transformation of Odenigbo also continues throughout the novel. Once we are presented with the cracks in his confidence and sense of righteousness, he begins to tumble. He is never presented as the dominant force in their relationship again and is, rather, bashed and abused by Olanna as he descends into alcoholism and depression following the loss of his mother. Adichie uses these transformations to make a wider point about the different perceptions of men and women in Nigeria – men are seen to have the tough and confident exterior, but women are shown to be strong and righteous in their actions and in the face of adversity.
Thus this extract from the novel is a key part in the transformation of character in Odenigbo and Olanna. Once faced with adversity and struggle Olanna is shown to develop strength and confidence, while Odenigbo begins to submit and crumble. Adichie uses this extract to make the reader explore their understanding of each character on the basis of not who they present themselves to be, but who they really are in the face of difficulty.