The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born Summary
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is a 1968 novel by Ayi Kwei Armah about a man who navigates the morally compromised world of postcolonial Ghana.
- The protagonist, known simply as “the man,” works at a railway office, where one day he is offered a bribe from a merchant. He declines, displeasing his wife, Oyo.
- The man and Oyo host Koomson and his wife, Estella, a couple whose wealth is a corrupt byproduct of Koomson’s government post.
- After the current regime is overthrown, Koomson goes into hiding and relies on the man to help him escape persecution.
Last Updated on June 9, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 992
The novel begins on a bus that is traveling through Ghana just before dawn. The conductor looks for extra money from passenger fares. There are detailed and vivid descriptions of smells and sights, such as the overflowing trash can that was once meant to represent Ghana’s efforts to keep its cities clean and orderly. The conductor has a confrontation with a man on the bus, assuming the man is staring at him, but he is only sleeping, drooling on the seat. The conductor orders him off the bus, and the man proceeds to walk down the road past the trash can and is nearly hit by a taxi. The man proceeds to his job at the railway station. He goes about his daily chores, such as checking the overnight log book and sending and receiving messages to and from other stations via Morse code.
During the man’s shift, a timber dealer who is described as wolflike in appearance approaches him and attempts to bribe the man to buy his timber. The man turns down the bribe and tells this merchant to return and speak to the allocation clerk tomorrow. After work, he meets a former classmate, Koomson, and invites him to dinner at his house. When he returns home, he tells his wife, Oyo, about the upcoming dinner, and she reveals that she wishes her life were more like that of Estella, Koomson’s wife. As they continue talking, the man relays the story about the bribe, and Oyo is outraged at her husband’s refusal of the bribe. They are struggling financially, and she mocks his pure principles in the face of the harsh reality of their lives. The man leaves his house, reflecting on the pressure placed on him by his loved ones and the ubiquitous corruption around him.
The man arrives at Teacher’s house, and the two listen to Congo music on the radio before they begin to converse about the widespread abuse of power in Ghana. Teacher tells the man that his wife may be justified in her reaction; after all, it seems that everyone is using any means available to thrive. It seems more “criminal” to go against the tide than to conform in this case. Teacher then relates a long story about his background, revealing his relationships with Maanan and Kofi Billy. The three engaged in wee smoking and deep conversations that gave all of them a more complex perspective of the world and its possibilities. Unable to reconcile what he has seen in these visions with the harsh reality of postcolonial Ghana, Kofi Billy takes his own life. Maanan later introduces Teacher to a potential new leader for independent Ghana, and Teacher admits to being stirred by his passionate speech. However, nothing ever comes of these hopes, and Teacher’s narrative serves as further evidence that Ghana is defined by rot and decay, not by light and promise.
Once he returns to his family, the man and Oyo must prepare for their dinner guests. The man shops for the required items, feeling a sense of power as he wields money in the stores and seems to gain the respect of those around him. However, he is not able to find the expensive liquor Oyo requested and must settle for local beer. Later, he brings his children to his mother-in-law’s house so he and Oyo can clean the home for their guests. Oyo’s mother implies that the man is not properly providing for his family, assumes the children are hungry, and asks where their shoes are.
When Koomson and Estella arrive, the man and Oyo do their best to satisfy their upper-class tastes and mannerisms, but Estella refuses to drink the beer, and the man is thoroughly embarrassed when he has to show Koomson to the community latrine since their house does not have indoor plumbing. The man’s mother-in-law brings up a scheme that she expects will be profitable; she hopes to share ownership of a boat with Koomson, and they form a plan to meet up soon and sign some paperwork.
Oyo and the man travel by taxi to Koomson’s estate, and they are both in awe of the number and quality of material possessions in the home. Koomson presents himself as a king in a castle, and he produces the papers for the boat, which Oyo signs on behalf of her mother. The boat scheme does not work out, though; they do not become rich, as the mother-in-law had hoped, and only occasionally are they given some fish caught from the boat.
When the man is at work one day, he hears that a coup has overthrown the Nkrumah regime, but he does not think much of it because his attitude is that all power structures end up making the same mistakes; they are all corrupt and none will help the country progress. However, Koomson is involved in the administration that has just been toppled, so he shows up at the man’s house to seek refuge. Koomson hides in the man’s bedroom, and the man cannot help but notice the complete reversal of fortunes since the last time they met at Koomson’s home. He understands now how significantly regime changes affect individual lives. When a vehicle arrives near the man’s house, the man has to help Koomson flee. They escape through the public latrine and travel down back streets to get to the harbor. Eventually, Koomson makes his way onto a boat, having offered to share the boat with the boatman. The man jumps from the boat to swim to shore, sleeps on the beach, and then begins to walk home. He sees a bus emblazoned with the phrase “THE BEAUTYFUL ONES ARE NOT YET BORN” and feels some glimmer of hope. Despite this, he proceeds home slowly, knowing that he is returning to the monotony of the life he has been living.