The River Between Characters
by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

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The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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Ngugi’s characterization in The River Between works well in two principal ways: He gives the land equal importance, in detail and development, to the characters, and he shifts the narrator’s point of view so that, while omniscient, it reflects primarily the sensibility of the most important character in any given scene. His descriptions of the ridges, the river, the sacred grove, the sacred tree, and the riverbank on which the circumcision rituals are held all serve to remind the reader again and again that Kikuyu identity is bound inseparably to the landscape in which the novel is set. When Waiyaki learns the ancient prophecy from Chege, he also acquires the lore of particular herbs necessary to traditional healing. His very absence, however, from the land while he is away at school deprives him of making traditional use of that knowledge and hence denies him an intimate understanding of what it means to be Kikuyu. Consequently, when blood from Waiyaki’s circumcision mingles with the symbolic unity of the river’s earth, he experiences a unified tribal identity but only momentarily. He has been changed by an education that prevents him from comprehending the Kiama’s legitimate concern for the loss of power over their own lands until it is too late. In a sense, Waiyaki’s failure to belong to the land is his failure to achieve the leadership of his people: As the prophecy’s mythic power originates from the land, so must its fulfillment speak to the land’s sanctity.

By shifting the point of view in his narration to permit his characters’ sensibilities to dominate from scene to scene, Ngugi allows the reader to perceive more fully the motives and moral choices of his characters than he could achieve with neutral, evenly sustained omniscience. When Joshua, for example, dominates a scene, the reader senses the fidelity with which he approaches his converted followers. From his point of view, he is no less a savior than Waiyaki or Kabonyi. As rigidly antitraditional as he is, Joshua still draws upon parallels to the Kikuyu religion, especially in matters of patriarchal authority. Kabonyi, on the other hand, reveals his own motives of jealousy and revenge. He leaves Joshua as much because he is not as good a preacher as he does because of his commitment to saving Kikuyu lands. In his envy of Waiyaki’s natural abilities and blood ties to the seer Mugo, Kabonyi develops a hatred of Waiyaki that stems from more individualistic rivalry than from what he perceives as divergent values. Muthoni, too, informs not only the sacrificial motive for unity but also the novel’s theme. When she died, as Nyambura (reflecting her own point of view—her own love—toward Waiyaki) reports, Muthoni had a vision of a black messiah in whom Christian values of love and reconciliation were embodied, precisely because of her moral choice to submit to the circumcision ritual. In the reference to Waiyaki’s role, obvious to Nyambura, Muthoni foreshadows, by her death, Waiyaki’s own failure to achieve salvation for the Kikuyu. In summary, Ngugi’s manipulation of the point of view creates an empathetic exploration toward almost all the characters, thereby forcing the reader to reflect beyond a superficial reaction based on stereotypical roles of conflict among a colonized people. That reflection, in turn, reveals the depths of psychological damage inflicted by colonialism itself.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Waiyaki (way-YAH -kee), a dedicated teacher. His father, Chege, rears him to appreciate his African heritage so that when he is sent to the missionaries to learn the white man’s magic, he acquires knowledge without repudiating his inheritance. Waiyaki urgently seeks to educate his people through schools that, being locally sponsored, will increase literacy but not undermine tradition. His determination to maintain a balance between old and new beliefs is suspect to those who prefer the extremes of total rejection and eager acceptance of colonial ways. Waiyaki...

(The entire section is 2,864 words.)