Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 638
The most central theme in all of Ngugi' s work is the effect of colonialism and post-colonialism on the African people. ‘‘The Martyr’’ takes place during a time of rebellion among Africans working on plantations against the European plantation owners. Through the characters of Mrs. Hardy, Mrs. Smiles, and Mrs. Hill, the narrator touches on widespread attitudes of the "settlers,'' or colonialists, regarding the African people who work for them. Mrs. Hardy is the most outspoken of the three women regarding her racist attitude toward the Africans. She considers them to be " savage,'' without hope of becoming "civilized.'' In the final lines of the story, both Mrs. Hardy and Mrs. Smiles agree that ‘‘all of them should be whipped.’’ Mrs. Hill, on the other hand, holds "liberal" values in regard to her African employees. She prides herself on her generosity toward them, and adopts a patronizing attitude of patience toward them. Njoroge, an African man who works as Mrs. Hill's "houseboy," provides an African perspective on the European colonists. Njoroge resents Mrs. Hill's ‘‘smug liberalism’’ and her "paternalism" toward him. While he is described as ‘‘nearing middle age,’’ Mrs. Hill still refers to him as "boy.'' Furthermore, the brick huts which she feels she has so generously provided her employees are regarded by Njoroge as so small as to be unfit to house his family. The atmosphere of violent rebellion in which the story is set is justified by the degree of oppression practiced by the European plantation owners against their African employees.
The events of Ngugi's story are in part narrated through gossip, hearsay, and the news media, which collectively constitute the public opinions of the white European colonialist settlers. The alleged murder of Mr. and Mrs. Garstone by their "houseboy'' is the news event with which the story begins, and which sets off the subsequent action of the story. The story begins by reporting a reputedly factual event in the language of newspaper journalism: "When Mr. and Mrs. Garstone were murdered in their home by unknown gangsters. . .’’ However, within the same sentence, the narrator states that "there was a lot of talk about it,'' implying that the "facts'' of the incident, as reported, take on a life of their own within the realm of public opinion and gossip. The narrator continues, ‘‘It was all on the front pages of the daily papers and figured importantly in the Radio Newsreel.’’ The implication is that the supposed murder of the European couple is a media event, regardless of whether or not the incident is accurately reported. The narrator goes on to mention the circulation of this news item through hearsay and rumor: "The violence was said to have political motives. And wherever you went, in the marketplaces, in the Indian bazaars, in a remote African duka, you were bound to hear something about the murder.'' Note that the narrator is careful to distance himself from any statement of fact about the incident; rather, the public opinion itself is reported in a tone of neutrality. This opening passage is important to an interpretation of the media event which occurs toward the end of the story—the killing of Njoroge by Mrs. Hill. The death of Njoroge is reported by the narrator in a similar manner—through a statement of the media reportage and the public opinion expressed by the Europeans: "On the following day, it was all in the papers. That a single woman could fight a gang of fifty strong was bravery unknown. And to think she had killed one too!'' The gross inaccuracy and distorted perception of the incident among the Europeans functions as a commentary on the workings of public opinion, and particularly the demonization of the Africans in the generally held opinion of European colonists.