In this story, as in many of his other works, Ngugi wa Thiong’o explores the conflict of cultures brought about by British colonial rule in Kenya. John struggles because he does not feel comfortable in either the traditional Kenyan lifestyle or the educated, colonial lifestyle. With a strict Protestant preacher for a father and a Calvinistic headmaster at school, John feels restricted. He envies both the uneducated youth of the village, who he believes have more freedom than he, and the elder tribal folk, who seem to have a clear focus.
John’s sense of alienation is reflected when he attempts to pray: He does not know which god to address in his prayers. He does not feel worthy of either the British god or the tribal gods. The tribal gods might be angry that he has not been initiated into the tribe. This makes him feel that he is not yet a man. His final action in the story, killing Wamuhu and their unborn child, contributes to his emasculation, for siring children is an important male trait. Instead of contributing to life, he has taken it.
Stanley represents a colonial paternalism: Just as Stanley has been convinced to blindly reject the traditions of his people, he tries to convince John to blindly reject those same traditions and espouse the new culture. Already, John has adopted his father’s attitude toward his premarital sex, not merely the guilt, but the shifting of all blame to the female partner. John’s attempt to pay Wamuhu off rather than marry her continues this refusal to take responsibility for his actions.
On the other hand, Wamuhu’s family has remained tribal and apparently happy. Significantly, their hut is right in the middle of the village, suggesting that their lifestyle is central to the spirit of the village. However, following the old ways is not enough, for it does not prevent their daughter from being killed.