The Narrative Technique of Petals of Blood

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1875

Many critics who have offered analyses of Petals of Blood have called attention to the novel's unusual narrative structure. In the work Ngugi uses multiple points of view to weave together the tales of his four main characters and the people around them. Fragmentary bits of information are revealed by two narrators and persons of varying backgrounds, and the reader must fit together characters' confessions, reminiscences, reports, musings, and sometimes dim remembrances to understand the truth of the story. The cumulative effect of the many-sided narration is that the reader must decide what and who to believe, but at the same time is presented with a quite clear social and political message. This narrative technique seems at least to some degree to be Ngugi's nod to the Kenyan oral tradition, in which tellers recount stories—often in the form of an exchange with others—for the moral education of their audience.

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Some commentators, notably Stewart Crehans, have found Ngugi's style in the novel to be aesthetically unsatisfying. Crehans says that the threads in the novel are not well tied together, that the text ‘‘never rests, pinpoints, or focuses attention ... [I]t has a kind of fugitive, alienated, almost neurotically anxious quality...’’ While Crehans seems to be right about the disjointed and sometimes strained tone of the novel, what he seems wrong not to allow is that the tangled web of narration serves important purposes in the work. The disparate viewpoints, interrupted accounts, and shifting sense of time in Petals of Blood produce an effect of confusion and dissonance that underscores the sense of alienation and dislocation of the Kenyan peasantry that is at the heart of the novel. The narrative method is also an effective device in this mystery story where the pieces of a ‘‘jigsaw puzzle’’ must be fit together to solve the crime. And the multiple perspectives that are used to express the ideas in this deeply political novel may be seen as warning against unquestioning acceptance of any one point of view.

The feeling of dislocation is apparent from the beginning of the novel. It opens with the arrests of the four protagonists, in four different places, in quick succession. This back-and-forth movement continues throughout the book. The first voice that is heard is that of a third-person narrator, but others soon chime in. In addition to the voices of the characters that tell their personal stories, there is another unnamed narrator, the collective voice of the villagers of Ilmorog. This "we" voice stands above the characters and judges their actions from the point of view of the community and the values it embodies. The "we" voice expresses bemusement at the new teacher Munira, surprise at the appearance of the first car in Ilmorog carrying Wanja's belongings, and joy at the singing and dancing at the festival before harvest time. The other, omniscient, narrator is more detached and authorial, and offers judgments of a different sort: sometimes factual, sometimes ironic, sometimes damning. It explains, for example, the cycles of rains on the land and comments on Munira's father's ‘‘holy trinity’’ of Bible, Coin, and Gun.

The four protagonists of the novel, the school-teacher Munira, the shopkeeper and ex-freedom fighter Abdullah, the bar-girl Wanja, and the activist Karega, reveal the details of their lives not only in their confessions to others but in their musings to themselves. The confessions in the novel are powerful and again reminiscent of tales told by oral storytellers, drawing listeners in and creating a heightened expectation of a dramatic revelation. Through the confessions readers learn of the remarkable events in the characters' past and also discover how their lives overlap. The characters'...

(The entire section contains 14246 words.)

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Critical Overview