The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born Themes

The main themes in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born are corruption, the aftereffects of colonialism, and enlightenment versus ignorance.

  • Corruption: The novel depicts the political and social landscape of postcolonial Ghana, where corruption is the norm.
  • The aftereffects of colonialism: The legacy of colonial rule continues to shape the culture and politics of Ghana in the early years of its independence.
  • Enlightenment versus ignorance: Armah’s novel traces a distinction between the pain of awareness and the balm of obliviousness.

Themes

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Last Updated on June 9, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1096

Corruption

In The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, corruption is both concrete and abstract. Indeed, Armah’s chief metaphor for political and social corruption in Ghana is physical corruption. The novel opens with vivid descriptions of decay, including an overflowing trash can intended—ironically—to help the citizens clean up their country. Further, Armah incorporates graphic scatalogical scenes, such as the one where the man visits the latrine at work and notices “the wall is thickly streaked with an organic brown, each smear seeking to avoid older smears, until the dabs have gone all round the wall.” Here, the narrator highlights the sights and smells of accumulated excrement in a way that makes readers feel sick and appalled. Later, when Koomson comes to the man’s house for dinner, he must be escorted by his host to a community latrine, much to the man’s chagrin. There, as they wait outside for the man inside to finish, they hear his “agony” and “struggle,” and when he leaves the latrine, the two men outside are hit with “a stench [that] came up behind him like a sea wave and hit the men directly in the face. Koomson let a small gasp escape him.” The rotten smell of the latrine is enough to leave Koomson shocked and breathless with disdain. 

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Armah metaphorically connects these descriptions of physical rot and excrement to the corruption in Ghana after independence. When the man is approached early in the novel by the timber merchant hoping to bribe him into entering a contract for lumber, it becomes clear how widespread corruption is in postcolonial Ghana. Oyo, the man’s wife, is upset that he doesn’t take the bribe and even mocks what she sees as his absurd need to stick to his principles. Although Teacher thinks the man is courageous for refusing and trying to make an honest life for himself, he recognizes that “you have not done what everybody is doing . . . and in this world that is one of the crimes.” Teacher even suggests that the man should have been “a priest.” These combined comments indicate that the man is exceptional in his resistance to corruption; most people will do whatever it takes to get ahead, become wealthy, or gain status. Even after the Nkrumah regime falls and Party men are being rounded up and punished, the man witnesses the watchman at the harbor and an officer of the new regime being bribed. The physical corruption of buildings, food, and even people, reflect the social corruption that seems to define life in postcolonial Ghana. 

The Aftereffects of Colonialism

In the newly independent Ghana depicted in the novel, the specter of colonial rule continues to loom over the country. This is most evident in the Ghanian ruling class, who are seen as mere imitators of the white men who once ruled the region when it was a colony. Armah’s novel suggests that it is this dependence on European influence and the internalized feeling of European superiority that contributes to so much of the failure in Ghanian government and society. Teacher tells the man, 

And they who would be our leaders, they also had the white men for their masters, and they also feared the masters, but after the fear what was at the bottom of their beings was not the hate and the anger we knew in our despair. What they felt was love. What they felt for their white masters and our white masters was gratitude and faith. 

Instead of resenting the ways in which white colonizers exploited Ghanian society and culture, these men who would lead the new Ghana idolized those white men. Therefore, they aim to be like the white men and mimic their mannerisms and their practices, resulting in a Ghana that is plagued by the same problems that existed before independence. Teacher understands, conversely, that those who value their own homeland and culture rather than pretending to be European will be at the forefront of true change in Ghana. 

Enlightenment versus Ignorance

In the novel, Teacher represents enlightenment and awareness. Through his interactions with Kofi Billy and Maanan, his use of wee, and his political involvement, Teacher became awakened to truths in the world around him. However, he soon found that these truths precipitate a darker, less hopeful worldview. As Teacher relates, 

The destructive thing wee does is to lift the blindness and to let you see the whole of your life laid out in front of you. . . . Its truth is the deep, dangerous kind of truth that can certainly frighten you into a desarate, gloomy act. 

Teacher and Kofi Billy’s awakening was a kind of double-edged sword: they came to know more, but that knowledge made them lose hope that their lives—or their country as a whole—might improve. The man acts as a disciple of Teacher and sees the world as he does. This sets him apart, making him often feel alone, as he does when his co-workers are excited about the coup to replace Nkrumah. He “felt completely apart from all that was taking place,” despite a brief moment where his hope is potentially sparked. He soon realizes, though, that hope is ephemeral, “leaving only the sense of something forever gone, an aloneness which not even death might end.”

Teacher and the man have lost hope for the future because they have seen their hopes repeatedly dashed. Others in Ghana, though, can continue to think conditions might improve in the nation, because they are merely “sleepwalkers.” From the first chapter, when the man is sleeping so deeply that he is drooling on his bus seat, Armah emphasizes the mechanical, automatic ways in which most people proceed through their lives. The narrator refers to “the suffering sleepers [who] came and worked and went dumbly back afterward to homes they had earlier fled.” These people are also called “the walking dead.” Because their perceptions are deadened by the monotony and desperation of their existence, many citizens cannot and will not fathom the complexities of the political landscape around them. 

Therefore, instead of becoming actively involved in local and national movements for progress, these sleepwalkers wake up only to talk about the newest development, such as Nkrumah’s fall, as though it were a spectator sport, something to distract them from the dull reality of their daily lives. Armah’s novel poses the question of whether it is a greater burden to maintain a foolish hope that will never be fulfilled—or to lose hope and confront the futility of one’s existence.

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