Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 747
Ngugi wa Thiong’o is among the most prominent East African writers, and A Grain of Wheat is generally considered the masterpiece of the first half of his career. In the second half of his career, he dropped his Christian name (James), and his novels became more overtly political. Petals of Blood (1977) is considered the high point of this second period. In 1977, he decided to write no longer in English but in Gikuyu, the principal language of Kenya, or in Swahili. He thereafter become one of the preeminent spokespersons not only for Kenyan culture but also for the anticolonial voices throughout Africa and, indeed, throughout the world.
Within Kenya, however, he would remain a controversial figure. His fiction attacks not only the European colonizers but also the native Kenyans who took up the reins of power from the British. In Ngugi’s view, the latter rulers continue, as “neocolonials,” to oppress their own people. His eloquent and internationally recognized condemnation of corruption led, in 1977, to his imprisonment in Kenya without a trial and to the loss of his teaching position at the University of Nairobi. In 1982, he went into self-imposed exile in London and the United States.
A Grain of Wheat displays the themes to which Ngugi returns in much of his writing: betrayal, the difficulties of self-definition after years of colonization, and marital tensions. He frequently casts his novels with four to six principal figures who together embody prevalent reactions to the problems of the emerging nation. Much of his international appeal depends not only on his courageous denunciation of political oppression of various sorts but also on these complex characters. They share the ambiguities and mixed motivations of real human beings and are not simply flat characters used to give voice to a particular political philosophy.
Another aspect of Ngugi’s writing has garnered praise: his technique of gradually revealing, through the use of flashbacks, the past experiences that have shaped his characters. His narration is seldom simplistically chronological. In A Grain of Wheat, for example, the story begins near the end of the novel’s events (preparations for the freedom celebrations and the revelation to the crowds of the betrayer of Kihika) and then moves backward in time to reveal how the major characters reached this point in the story. By the time Ngugi returns to the present in his narration, the reader knows the characters completely. This device allows the author to surprise his reader when a character takes a step that, given his or her previously revealed personality, is courageous. In this way Ngugi suggests that, despite one’s past failings, there may still be hope for the future.
Ngugi’s talent for balancing complex characters stands out in A Grain of Wheat. When, for example, one eventually learns that Mugo has betrayed Kihika, the knowledge comes long after one has been led to believe (along with the villagers) that the culprit is Karanja. Ngugi portrays Karanja in such a negative light that the reader instinctively feels a greater sense of sympathy for Mugo when he finally confesses. Conversely, despite his many other horrible crimes, Karanja’s innocence of this especially notorious one encourages the reader to empathize with this collaborator’s ultimate alienation from his people.
Some critics have charted Ngugi’s developing sense of female characterization. Mumbi’s lapse in fidelity may surprise the reader, and her explanation for it may not be especially convincing. Nevertheless, Gikonyo’s harsh and self-pitying response raises Mumbi’s comparative nobility in the reader’s eyes. In later novels, Ngugi’s women characters assume roles of greater importance in the revolutionary struggle (roles foreseen in A Grain of Wheat in Njeri’s fleeting heroism and Wambui’s long-suffering dedication to the cause).
Though reared as a Christian, Ngugi gradually concluded that the colonizers had used the missionaries to undermine whatever sense of rebellion the Kenyans might have felt. Kihika, educated in a missionary school, becomes imbued with the spirit of biblical prophecy but finds in Mau Mau a more immediately satisfying expression of that call for justice. Mugo, too, is greatly influenced by missionaries, but his understanding of the Bible seems to enable him to rationalize his betrayal of his people as a messianic act on their behalf. The book is filled with biblical references, and each of the four sections is preceded by a biblical quotation. The title refers to St. John’s injunction to self-sacrifice. Kihika reads it in strictly political terms.