In the House of the Interpreter Characters
The main characters of In the House of the Interpreter are Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ’s mother, Edward Carey Francis, and Good Wallace.
- Ngũgĩ is a thoughtful and studious teenage boy. He excels in school and is passionate about literature and theater.
- Ngũgĩ’s mother is wise and resilient. She loves working her fields and is a source of counsel for Ngũgĩ.
- Edward Carey Francis is the headmaster of Alliance. He represents the sternness of British colonialism but displays compassion as well.
- Good Wallace is Ngũgĩ’s older brother. He is a member of the Mau Mau rebellion and later escapes British captivity.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is the author and narrator of In The House of the Interpreter. When the story begins, he has just entered his freshman year at Alliance, a prestigious British-run boarding school in his native Kenya. His narrative spans the four years he spends there and describes his experiences as a native Kenyan living under harsh British colonial rule.
Though only a young teen when he arrives at boarding school, Ngũgĩ is thoughtful and introspective from the beginning. His experience moving between the disparate worlds of his home village and the British academic environment hones these traits. Over time, he grows a rich appreciation for the nuances and universalities of human experience. As an authority, he is also very fair, and in his time as house prefect, he institutes policies grounded in common sense and community. At times, he is also very playful—throughout the book, he gives unnamed acquaintances novelty nicknames like “Mr. Body Parts” and “Mr. Rifleman.”
Through his exposure to different academic disciplines and extracurricular activities, he becomes a passionate debater, a theater-lover, a service-oriented community volunteer, and, as he enters adulthood, a writer.
Edward Carey Francis
Edward Carey Francis is the headmaster of Alliance High School. In Ngũgĩ’s memory, he is a towering figure—an imposing, khaki-clad Englishman, imported from Cambridge, who rules the school with an iron fist. Though Francis is intimidating, Ngũgĩ also peppers the narrative with anecdotes about his fairness and compassion. The school’s uniforms, for example, are designed to camouflage any economic disparities among the students, and the school is staffed with Africans and Europeans who are treated as peers.
Though Alliance—and by extension, Francis’s livelihood—directly result from and support the British colonial state’s stronghold on Kenya, Francis shows a great capacity for nuance and grace in his treatment of the conflict. At one point, he condemns the Mau Mau guerrillas as an evil organization but also acknowledges the legitimacy of their resistance against an imperialistic oppressor. When Ngũgĩ tells him about his secret connection to a Mau Mau fighter, he’s surprised to find that Francis seems concerned only with how Ngũgĩ was treated. Through this interaction, Ngũgĩ realizes that Francis has probably heard a number of similar stories and he, too, views the school as a sanctuary.
Though he is a serious man, Francis does show occasional glimpses of whimsy. On rare occasions, he even surprises the boys at Alliance by doing magic tricks.
Ngũgĩ's mother is a kind, strong woman who, per his description, exhibits great “warmth and depth of care.” She is deeply supportive of Ngũgĩ’s education and is extremely proud of his accomplishments. Whenever he has good news, he is most excited to tell his mother. Since his childhood, they’ve had a pact: he always tells her news first.
Hardworking and resilient, she is happiest when working in her fields, nursing her crops and harvesting the fruits of her labor. She is a woman of few words and prefers not to discuss the challenges she has experienced. When she is detained for three months of interrogation at the guard post while Ngũgĩ is away, he has to learn about her detainment from the others in the family.
Ngũgĩ values her wisdom a great deal. As his appreciation for writing and storytelling grows, he often reflects back on wise words she told him while they were sitting underneath a mugumo tree one day: “they tell the story and they pass on the story and we add to the story.”
Good Wallace is Ngũgĩ’s older brother. When the story begins, he is in the mountains with the Mau Mau guerrillas, a resistance group fighting British imperialism. Ngũgĩ is proud of his brother but also concerned. If anybody should find out that he has family ties to the resistance, his eligibility for enrollment at Alliance may be questioned.
Eventually, Good Wallace is captured by British forces. He manages to escape but is eventually turned in to the authorities and sent to a concentration camp. It is likely that his escape attempt saved his life, for his fellow guerrillas were executed after capture. His wife, Charity, is also arrested for funneling goods to the resistance, which comes as a surprise to Ngũgĩ.
Charity is later released. Through good behavior, Good Wallace works his way down through the “pipeline”—a system that eventually releases prisoners back into society—and is able to rebuild a relatively normal life for himself. When Ngũgĩ winds up detained at the end of the book, Good Wallace visits him regularly and does his best to free him.
Of all Ngũgĩ’s friends, Kenneth Mbũgua is perhaps his longest-lasting. Friends since primary school, the two have an ongoing debate about writing. Early on, Ngũgĩ insists that one must have a license to write. Kenneth disagrees. The two continue their debate during Ngũgĩ’s Alliance years, and eventually Kenneth sends pages of a manuscript he is working on to Ngũgĩ to prove his point. He asks Ngũgĩ’s opinion on the writing. This friendly opportunity for critical feedback that lets Ngũgĩ delight in applying some of his new education firsthand.
The two remain friends throughout Ngũgĩ’s years at Alliance and end up participating in some scouting events together.
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